Updated on 06/26/2011 11:51AM

Churchill Downs: Clean-up underway following tornado hit; racing to resume Friday

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Reed Palmer Photography
A piece of lumber pierces a roof following Wednesday night's tornado at Churchill Downs.

LOUISVILLE, Ky. – Through the day on Thursday, Churchill Downs horsemen and track workers cleared the debris left behind by a tornado that ripped through the track’s stable area Wednesday evening.

Although racing and training was canceled Thursday, Churchill officials, after talking matters over with horsemen, plan to hold their scheduled Friday night card.

The storm, which hit Churchill Downs at approximately 8 p.m. Wednesday, was one of two tornadoes confirmed in the Louisville area by the National Weather Service. No injuries to horses or people were reported at Churchill.

The tornado’s path of destruction was evident throughout a portion of the Churchill Downs backstretch. Roofs were collapsed or simply blown off some barns, and there was a gaping hole in the rooftop of the backstretch chapel. Yet other barns in close proximity missed the brunt of the tornado’s path and were relatively free of significant damage.

Horsemen arriving at Churchill Downs soon after the storm Wednesday night said they feared the worst for their horses and workers, seeing the extent of the destruction to some of the barns.

Sue Margolis, wife of trainer Steve Margolis, whose barn was among the most badly damaged in the Wednesday night storm, said when she arrived at the scene, “I thought we were going to find bodies.”

Instead, she found a backstretch community that was quickly rounding up trapped horses from damaged barns, and moving them to available stalls found among undamaged barns.

Approximately 75 to 100 horses were evacuated to other barns, Churchill Downs stall superintendent Steve Hargrave said.

Roughly 50 were taken to the track’s two receiving barns Wednesday night, but with those stalls needed for ship-in horses during live racing, they will be moved again.

Many of the displaced horses were in the process of being relocated Thursday. Trainers Rusty Arnold and Carl Bowman have shipped horses to Keeneland; trainers Mike Lauer and Bret Calhoun will house some at Churchill Downs Trackside, an off-side training center owned by Churchill; Margolis was working out details to move some to either Trackside or Keeneland; and trainers Dale Romans and Ian Wilkes are taking some horses to training centers they have just outside the Louisville area.

Romans also said he plans to send horses to New York.

In some cases the supports of the barns seemed to protect the horses when the roofs of the barns collapsed. Above the stalls of the horses is a structure where horsemen store bails of hay and straw, and in several damaged stables, collapsed roofs were resting on these interior support structures.

Among the most badly damaged barns was that of veteran trainer William “Jinks” Fires. “It looks like something took a bite out of it,” he said.

He said he arrived to the track shortly after the storm and saw a hectic scene, with his help leading horses out of their stalls, while his shed row flooded from rain and an emergency sprinkler system. He said some of his horses needed to be tranquilized after the frightening experience.

There was no damage to the main frontside facility at Churchill Downs, including the historic Twin Spires.

The track reopen for training Friday. Track superintendent Butch Lehr confirmed it ready for training and free of debris after running metal detectors and magnets over the surface.

State steward Jon Veitch said some logistical issues remain for track officials heading into racing on Friday, largely due to horses being shifted around the facility. Officials need to know the exact locations of horses scheduled to race so pre-race veterinary examinations can be performed, he said.

Any horseman that wishes to scratch their horse as a result of being displaced is free to do so without penalty, he said.

Steve Margolis, who has three in Friday, plans to run them all. Two were stabled in his ravaged barn, while another was being housed in another barn that was undamaged.

“It’s trying times, but the horsemen are absolutely with us in getting this together so we can race Friday,” Churchill racing secretary Ben Huffman said.

Meanwhile, the track continues to work to accommodate backstretch workers that lived in tack rooms in the damaged barns. Seventeen backstretch workers were housed temporarily in the jockeys’ quarters Wednesday night, and others double bunked with colleagues in rooms on the backstretch, track spokesman John Asher said.