11/21/2001 1:00AM

An ambitious plan for any time

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JAMAICA, N.Y. - The plan to modernize and rebuild historic Churchill Downs at a cost of about $127 million would be considered audacious at almost any time. But coming as it has, at a time of national crisis, the focus of the industry on the proposal is keener than usual.

"Over the last 50 years, Churchill Downs has spent some $25 million in a band-aid effort to refurbish what is essentially an old plant," said Carl Pollard, Churchill Downs chairman of the board. "If we're going to be in the racing business, we need facilities that will prove popular with the public. At the time these plans were drawn up, there was no crisis, but the economy had slowed. We felt the new concept was desirable and doable, and although the situation has changed, we still feel that way."

The master plan calls for the rebuilding effort to be tackled in two phases. The first phase, which could cost $27 million, will principally concern construction of 66 sky boxes on the fourth, fifth, and sixth floors of the grandstand, in the area from the westernmost of the twin spires up the track. The sky boxes would be similar in appearance to those now being offered at Arlington Park and Keeneland.

The sky boxes will be offered to corporations and companies for the Kentucky Derby-Kentucky Oaks weekend and to the public on a daily basis the rest of the time.

"We think there is a market for these upscale facilities," Pollard said, "and we feel we will be able to recover our investment in a reasonable period of time. At the present time we have no sky boxes. We have the VIP table areas on the fourth, fifth, and sixth floors of the clubhouse."

Phase one is expected to get under way next month, with the heavy lifting scheduled after the 2002 meeting next spring. Phase two, likely to get under way in 2003, will cost about $100 million, with Churchill Downs footing $75 million and $25 million coming from other sources. The track has received encouraging response from city of Louisville and state of Kentucky officials on the matter of tax relief to make up the difference.

In addition to the sky boxes, other construction in the grandstand area will include VIP table areas, similar to those now in the clubhouse, a turf club, and a 1,700-seat simulcast wagering facility. The new configuration will necessitate the rebuilding of much of the seating, but the number of seats is expected to remain about the same. Site lines are expected to improve with a rise in elevation.

"The concept behind phase two is the creation of a large area that can be sealed off during the season and will be available for such maximum attendance occasions as the Kentucky Derby and Kentucky Oaks and the Breeders' Cup," Pollard said. "A typical weekend crowd of 25,000 doesn't need the space required when Churchill has 100,000 or more in the stands."

Pollard was elected chairman of Churchill's board of directors when Will Farish resigned in July to become U.S. ambassador to England. Pollard has served on the board since 1985, when he was invited to join by the late chairman, Warner Jones, a close friend. Before his service on the Churchill board, Pollard was chief executive officer of Humana Inc., a prominent health care company. He is an owner and breeder of Thoroughbreds at his Hermitage Farm in Goshen, Ky.