06/24/2011 3:35PM

Churchill Downs: Some normalcy returns after tornado

Churchill Downs/Reed Palmer Photography
Trainer Steve Margolis surveys the damage to his Churchill Downs barn on Thursday morning.

LOUISVILLE, Ky. – Some degree of normalcy returned to the Churchill Downs backstretch Friday morning after a Wednesday evening tornado ripped through portions of the backside, forcing the cancellation of training and racing Thursday.

The main track, having been cleared of debris from the storm, reopened, and the morning scene for training appeared as it would on most any day, with a few notable exceptions.

Six barns deemed uninhabitable from roof damage caused by the tornado were surrounded by tape, and deputies stood on call at the barns to ensure that no one endangered themselves by entering and that there was no theft of supplies remaining in the barns.

Backstretch employees, meanwhile, continued clearing the backside of waste and structural materials scattered by the storm.

Some recovery work has already been done, with tarps covering sections of the backstretch chapel, which suffered roof damage, and some barns already receiving new roofing shingles to replace those that flew off in the tornado.

Insurance adjusters and structural engineers also were on the scene, assessing damage.

Track spokesman John Asher said Churchill officials had not yet had time to ponder the long-term needs as a result of the storm. They were focusing on the more immediate goal of resuming racing Friday night. But he said, “I would guess that we would have at least two barns that would be in complete need of being rebuilt, and our goal would be to have that done by the Breeders’ Cup.”

The Breeders’ Cup will be held Nov. 4-5 at Churchill Downs, during the track’s fall meet. The current meet runs through July 4.
Track officials said they would not make up Thursday’s lost racing day, but that extra races would be added to the cards of the remaining racing days of the meet.

No estimate of damage has been announced by Churchill Downs officials, who are still meeting with insurance adjusters. The frontside and main facility had no damage.

Most horsemen were in good spirits Friday morning, with many expressing relief that no horses or people were hurt.

An estimated 75 to 100 horses were displaced as a result of storm damage, with some horses moved to Keeneland Race Course and other training facilities, and others shuffled around the track. Some backstretch workers that reside in the barns at the track also had their possessions and sleeping quarters damaged.

Trainer Jinks Fires, whose barn was destroyed, said all his horses were able to train Friday morning, though it was challenging for him and his staff, with his animals temporarily stabled in 11 different barns on the backstretch that had a few empty stalls.

Fires was just thankful that they were alive.

“It beats looking for them up in the sky,” he said.

According to the National Weather Service, the Wednesday evening tornado was only the second tornado to hit the track in its lengthy history that dates back to 1875. An unusual winter tornado also hit Churchill Downs and the surrounding area on Jan. 19, 1928.

The storm that hit Churchill on Wednesday was one of one of five confirmed tornadoes that touched down in the Louisville area, up from the two initially announced by the National Weather Service. The tornado that touched down at Churchill Downs had estimated winds of approximately 105 mph.