09/29/2001 12:00AM

Churchill plans unveiled


LOUISVILLE, Ky. - Details of the $127 million renovation at Churchill Downs were made public Friday, heralding a new era for the historic track in the the 21st century.

The three-year project will retain traditional landmarks such as the famed Twin Spires but dramatically reconfigure Churchill, parts of which are more than 100 years old.

Phase 1 of the project, focused primarily on what currently is known as the grandstand, will begin late this year, although major demolition will not begin until after the 128th Kentucky Derby next May. The main features of Phase 1, scheduled for completion by the start of the fall meet in November 2003, include the addition of 66 skyboxes and a massive renovation of the existing seating and service facilities.

Phase 2, scheduled to begin in the summer of 2003 and conclude by the 2005 Kentucky Derby, is an even more ambitious undertaking, focusing primarily on what is now the clubhouse area. Upon completion, Churchill will have 12 luxury sky suites; a year-round simulcasting facility with seating for 1,700; installation of lights around the dirt and turf courses; a new Turf Club and other restaurant facilities, including sports bars; premium box seats on the third floor, which traditionally has been a staging area for Derby owners and trainers; a new press box; and other major improvements.

Although reconstruction clearly will disrupt everyday activities at the plant, the only running of the Kentucky Derby that is expected to be greatly affected is the 2004 running, which track officials already are calling The Demolition Derby. Churchill has launched a new marketing campaign, "Building on Traditions," which addresses the impending inconveniences with humor.

Churchill Downs Inc. is financing most of the project but is asking the City of Louisville and Commonwealth of Kentucky to assist with about $30 million in financing for Phase 2, primarily through tax rebates and credits and tax-increment financing from a special local tax district.

Churchill Downs Inc. president Tom Meeker called the project - designed by the architects Luckett & Farley - "a major, major rebuilding of Churchill Downs," which he called the "flagship" and "heart and soul" of the company. While Churchill has acquired tracks throughout the country, "it is vital that we protect this franchise in particular, host to one of the greatest events in all of sports," said Meeker. "With this move, we are insuring its strength and vitality for generations to come."