04/27/2004 11:00PM

Makeover shouldn't affect fans too much


LOUISVILLE, Ky. - Crunch time has arrived. Racing fans descending upon Churchill Downs this weekend will find the place to be organized chaos, an unavoidable result of what happens smack in the middle of a $121 million facelift.

Although construction on the new and vastly improved Churchill is scheduled for completion by this time next year, much of the plant sits in a state of semi-readiness for this weekend, when about 250,000 fans will attend the Kentucky Oaks and Derby. Churchill officials long ago began bracing for this very weekend by making contingency plans that they say should not put fans to any great inconvenience.

The main developments during this transitional year are:

* The Infield Hospitality Village will reposition well-heeled clientele from their former clubhouse seats in Millionaires' Row and other high-dollar spots. The Infield Village consists of several tents that will be fenced off from the notoriously rowdy infield crowd. The tents occupying about four of the infield's 25 acres and accommodate about 3,500 customers.

* Sizable seating areas are ready for use in the clubhouse, still under construction, including premium box seating on the first and third floors. Also, some parts of the unfinished second-floor clubhouse will be open for use. In all, track officials say a relatively insignificant number of seats (fewer than 500 from an original capacity of 54,000) will be unavailable for use this weekend.

* The grandstand and its 64 skyboxes will be in full use.

* All entrance gates will be open, including those that have been closed during the renovation.

* Spacious open areas under and behind the new clubhouse construction will be open for standing-room only.

* Two permanent 19- by 37-foot video boards are atop the infield tote boards, very useful visual aids.

* Crowds in the infield, which traditionally has been populated most densely near the far turn, will fill in more space on the clubhouse turn because of the Infield Village.

The Churchill renovation began in December 2001, but until this year, Churchill has largely avoided major shifts in crowd placement because of construction. But with much of the clubhouse having been demolished last summer so that construction on the final phase of the new facility could begin, there was no avoiding this transition phase.

"The overwhelming majority of fans 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," said Churchill president Steve Sexton.