02/14/2005 12:00AM

Churchill renovation on schedule

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Churchill Downs
Churchill's $121 million renovation project is set to be completed in April. A newly remodeled entrance at Gate 17 (above) is one of the project's most distinctive additions.

LOUISVILLE, Ky. - Racing fans are just now starting to awaken from their winter slumber, having heard the first siren call for the 131st Kentucky Derby. Pool 1 in the annual Derby future wager closed Sunday, giving many horseplayers their first reason to think about what will unfold at Churchill Downs on May 7.

For fans planning to attend the Derby, there is an added bonus to this building anticipation. This will be the first Derby since Churchill finished its massive renovation, one that track officials say will be finished in plenty of time for Derby weekend. The renovation has taken nearly 3 1/2 years and $121 million to complete.

"We set a really ambitious schedule by putting a ring around April 2005," said John Asher, vice president for racing communications at Churchill. "We've been very fortunate through the whole process. We're very close to budget, and the timetable has never wavered - we're still looking at having virtually everything ready by early to mid-April."

Since soon after it began in December 2001, the project has been unveiled in bits and pieces. The primary feature of the first of two phases was the construction of the luxury sky boxes atop the grandstand; the second phase was far more complex, and although some elements were already in place when Smarty Jones won the Derby last May, the most striking features of the new clubhouse area were still being built.

A recent tour of the new clubhouse revealed that the project is indeed nearing completion. Among the new features are:

* An elaborately remodeled entrance at Gate 17. The most eye-catching feature will be a suspended sculpture that purports to announce to visitors that this is no longer your father's Churchill Downs.

* Fifth-floor skyboxes known as "super suites." Situated on or near the finish line, the new clubhouse skyboxes join the other 50 or so suites that were built during the first phase.

* A two-tiered turf club (floors 3 and 4) with numerous amenities, including dozens of flat-screen televisions and an impeccable view of the finish line.

* A fourth-floor directors' room that abuts the upper turf club. This room is for Churchill directors, officials, and their guests and will be one of the most luxurious areas at the track.

* The Winn Dining Room, an upscale dining area with a view of the track. This third-floor room effectively replaces the old Eclipse Room.

* A relocated winner's circle. Formerly situated across from the sixteenth pole, it is now only about 40 yards from the finish line.

* A new press box and an adjoining area for members of the track's rewards program, the Twin Spires Club. Located on the sixth floor, the new press box is not nearly as long as the old one but is considerably deeper and will accommodate the same number of media personnel.

Several large simulcast areas have also been completed on the second floor. For many local patrons, this will become a commonly used area throughout the year, since it will replace the Trackside simulcast facility after the Derby.

Also new for this year - more expensive Derby seating. This is the first year that Churchill will offer personal seat licenses, a fee that allows customers to purchase seats to the Derby and Oaks. Asher said Friday that 3,118 seats - only about 5 percent of total seating, but all of them with a premium view - have been subject to this additional fee. Prices for a 30-year seat license, which allows the purchase of six to 10 tickets, range from $18,000 to $75,000.

Asher said most outside-contract workers will be done by the end of this month, after which "our own in-house people will take over, moving furniture and the like and attending to the final details." After such a lengthy rebuilding process, he said, "It has been very, very exciting to see how this has all come together. This should be a special Derby."