06/24/2011 3:40PM

Churchill backstretch workers pulled together in the dangerous moments following Wednesday's tornado

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Reed Palmer Photography
Trainer Steve Margolis surveys the damage at his Churchill Downs barn Thursday.

LOUISVILLE, Ky. – When veterinarian Dr.  Rick Fischer drove to Churchill Downs after hearing of a tornado hitting the barn area Wednesday night, he feared the worst, wondering if he had enough suture supplies and local anesthetic to treat what he worried would be a large number of horses.

As it turned out, he didn’t need those supplies at all. He said he examined approximately 40 horses, and didn’t need to treat a single one. “Not a scratch,” he said.

Plain good luck obviously played a role in no horses or people being injured in the storm, as did the smarts of the animals themselves, whom mostly remained composed, as roofs collapsed and wind whipped debris around the backstretch area.

But also vital were the recovery efforts of the first responders to the scene, whom in many cases were the backstretch employees that work and live at Churchill Downs.

Groom Jerry Brown and his wife, Ramona – whom live in the small room above the stable of his employer, trainer Jimmy Baker – were among the group of backside employees that scrambled to help in the aftermath of the storm.

He described a chaotic scene, one in which he emerged from his room to find a portion of roof from another barn lying next to their stable, and power lines sparking with fire after they were downed by the storm.

He said he ran down the stairs to immediately check on their horses, and seeing they were okay, looked elsewhere and saw the roof of the Steve Margolis barn next to theirs partially collapsed.

“I just ran over there, and was like, ‘give me a shank, what can I do?’ ” he said.

He began to lead out horses, and find empty stalls to house them temporarily.

He and others that helped at the scene said they were merely caring for the horses. “I could lay brick and block and make more money,” he said. “But this is my passion.”

Another Baker-employed groom, Michael “Homey” Wise, echoed those sentiments as to why he also helped move horses to a safer environment. “That’s what horsemen are supposed to do for each other,” he said.

Others rescuers arrived on the scene shortly following the storm, driving to the track upon hearing the news of the tornado.

Mary Jo Robke, an equine therapist, said the concern at the Margolis barn was the smell of gas, as well as downed electrical wires that were visible around the racetrack. This had them worried, particularly with sprinkler systems in the barn leaving the shed row under about two feet of water.

Robke said Bill Vest, a backstretch security coordinator at Churchill, played an important role, providing a level head, and putting himself at risk. “If someone was going to die, it was going to be him,” she said.

Vest laughed off that comment Friday morning, saying “I didn’t do anything; I was just part of a group of people helping.”

Vest, a former member of the Churchill gate crew, said the key was keeping the rescuers calm. He also credited the horses and how they behaved in the frenzy of the moment. “I was amazed at their demeanor,” he said.