05/03/2004 12:00AM

Derby went smoothly, officials say


LOUISVILLE, Ky. - Conditions may not ever be more difficult during Kentucky Derby weekend at Churchill Downs than they were this year, but track officials said Monday in the aftermath of Derby 130 that Derby Day proceeded reasonably smoothly, and that they are relieved to have gotten this transitional year behind them.

This was the Derby easily most affected by the 3 1/2-year, $121 million renovation at Churchill, and some people were concerned that the partially finished facility might harbor difficulties for customers. Further complicating this issue were the heavy downpours that soaked Churchill on Saturday, including one particularly strong storm about two hours before the Derby.

Probably the most potentially hazardous situation Saturday was a severe overcrowding during the heaviest rain of the two side-by-side tunnels leading back and forth from the grandstand to the infield. John Asher, Churchill Downs's vice president for racing communications, said that type of situation "could occur at any Derby, and it's the kind of thing we're always conscious of. It just so happened during a year when we were in the middle of a massive makeover."

Other reported problems involved the Infield Village tent, where about 3,500 customers were moved this year after being displaced from their traditional prime-viewing seats in the old clubhouse section. There were severe plumbing problems in the tent Friday, and the wind and rain led to major leaks there Saturday.

Drainage overflows and leaks also were evident throughout the plant Saturday, including massive poolings just outside the paddock and in the infield near the first turn, although sewer officials reported short-term flooding as being a commonplace problem throughout the Louisville area.

The Saturday attendance was 140,054, down nearly 10 percent from the 150,000-plus that have descended on Churchill in recent years, but more than the 130,594 who attended in 1994, when similarly wet conditions led to the most recent sloppy track in the Derby.

Asher said Monday that, despite the reconstruction and weather, "We feel like this was an extremely successful Derby - in fact, a great, great Derby that thousands of people will always remember as a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

"We always knew that the potential existed for people to be inconvenienced or uncomfortable, but we did what we could to minimize that, and hopefully most everyone would agree that we were successful, in spite of the weather. All in all, we couldn't be more thrilled with how everything went Saturday, and now we'll look ahead to having our spectacular new facility next Derby," when the renovation is scheduled to be complete.

Asher said no decision has been made regarding whether the Infield Village would be set up again next year in order to accommodate demand for premium seating.