03/16/2004 12:00AM

Girding for the 'Demolition Derby'

Charlie Westerfield/Sullivan Cozart
With the Churchill Downs clubhouse a construction site, the traditional Millionaires' Row will be missing at this year's Kentucky Derby, as will the familiar clubhouse-garden standing area. The Twin Spires remain.

LOUISVILLE, Ky. - It just so happens that in the one year Churchill Downs might dearly love to have a few extra days to prepare for the first Saturday in May, the Kentucky Derby will be run as early as the calendar will allow: May 1.

With a mere six weeks before Derby 130, Churchill officials are working feverishly to ensure that their complex array of temporary facilities and contingency plans for what is being called "The Demolition Derby" will be ready for the usual large crowd.

Still, with the track's $121 million renovation in a full-steam-ahead mode, much of the racetrack property resembles an iron-and-steel jungle, a raw outline that yields only glimpses of the palatial plant that will greet fans attending Derby 131.

Despite the track's outward appearances, Churchill's president, Steve Sexton, has promised that "the overwhelming majority of fans who attend this year's Kentucky Derby and Oaks will feel no impact from our ongoing construction project, aside from the fact that our racetrack looks quite different than it did one year ago."

The changes are sweeping indeed. As soon as the 2003 spring meet ended last July, crews began demolishing most of the old clubhouse facility and its adjacent annexes and entrance gates, although some parts will endure - namely, the famed Twin Spires and the facilities beneath them, and six stories of non-premium seating past the finish line.

Perhaps the keystone feature to this transitional year is the Infield Hospitality Village, which will reposition well-heeled clientele from their former seats on Millionaires' Row and other high-dollar spots into a tented area just inside the turf course near the finish line. The tent will be fenced off from the notoriously rowdy infield crowd while occupying about four of the infield's 25 acres and accommodating about 3,500 customers.

"This is the same kind of concept used at the Olympics, professional golf tournaments, the Breeders' Cup, and other major sporting events," said John Asher, the Churchill vice president who is spokesman for the renovation project. There will be all sorts of amenities in the Infield Hospitality Village, Asher said, including mahogany-paneled walls, separate lounge and dining areas, and all the creature comforts that pampered Derby guests normally receive.

Unlike some temporary infield structures that have caused visibility obstructions at Derby time, Hospitality Village has been designed to prevent that, Asher said.

Besides the infield facility, which Churchill officials said they might continue to use on an annual basis, there will be other sizable seating areas ready for use, including the premium box seating on the first and third floors of the new clubhouse. A spacious area on the second-floor clubhouse also will be open for use, and although there will be no trackside viewing and the space will be largely unfinished, Churchill will equip and staff it in the same manner as if it were finished.

"The TV's and food service and everything will go in before the Derby, and then it will all come right back out afterward," said Asher.

Other spaces that will accommodate large numbers of fans include the grandstand area and its 64 skyboxes, most of which were not ready for the 2003 Derby; a paved, open area between the two main clubhouse gates (10 and 17), essentially replacing the popular standing-room-only clubhouse-garden area eliminated in the renovation; and of course, the infield, which traditionally has been populated most densely near the far turn. This year, with the Hospitality Village occupying so much space, far more of the 60,000 or so infield spectators can be expected to fill in the areas on the clubhouse turn. (Officials said they do not expect a noticeable decline in infield attendance because of the new structure.)

Churchill also has spent some $1.5 million on two permanent 19- by 37-foot video boards atop the infield tote boards.

Churchill officials say that while Derby 130 may have its trouble spots, they are confident that most fans are in for a positive experience.

Jim Gates, acting general manager at Churchill, said that as the renovation has progressed, "we've been pleasantly surprised to see how smooth Derby weekend could go. Of course, we might come across something we don't expect, but we're confident we'll be able to handle whatever is thrown at us."

Racing fans seem to have prepared themselves for the inconveniences of the upcoming Derby and are resigned to making the best of the situation. Some might even be looking forward to what is likely to be a unique experience.

Bill Steiden, a horse owner and lifelong Louisville resident who has attended almost every Derby run since 1964, said, "I haven't heard any customers say, 'Oh my gosh, what are we going to do?' Nobody seems that upset. I think Churchill has alleviated a lot of concern. People might be a little mad that their seats got moved or lessened, but they're looking at that as a one-year deal they can live with."

Derby attendance in the last five years has averaged about 150,000. "We wouldn't mind if we got 145 or so like we've had the last couple of years," said Asher. "We think we're prepared to handle them. Come on with them."

The Churchill renovation project began in December 2001 and is scheduled for completion by the 2005 Derby. Since the project was announced, those closely involved with it have eyed the 2004 Derby as the largest hurdle.

Rob Diamond, senior vice president and project architect for Luckett and Farley, the Louisville architectural firm overseeing the renovation, said last week that he has "been working on this for about eight years. It has changed character during that time and had its stops and starts. But the project is on schedule and has gone very well, at least in respect to all the issues and complications that we have faced. We've got these unmovable target dates - the first being this Derby, the second being next year's - and there is a mass of people contributing to the effort."

Diamond said 300 to 400 people are combining to work 18-hour days. He said there are major safety issues that pertain to the 2004 Derby because of the inherent dangers involved with large crowds attending a major event at what is basically a construction site.

"There's been a lot of stress involved in resolving those issues," said Diamond. "We're going down to the wire on a lot of this."

Gates said that because everyone has been immersed in day-to-day details, "I think we'll all look back one day and say, 'How did we ever make it through all this?' We'll probably think it was harder than it was."

Churchill has continuously updated its video documentation of the project, and fans can even catch a glance into the construction proceedings via webcam on Churchill's kentuckyderby.com website.

Asher used a racing metaphor to describe how the final few weeks will unfold before May 1 arrives.

"It's going to be a photo finish," he said. "But I think we'll win it."