10/24/2003 12:00AM

Old making way for new as the races go on

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LOUISVILLE, Ky. - It's not your daddy's Churchill Downs any more.

Bulldozed and gone are the clubhouse boxes on the finish line, the Eclipse Room, the old Turf Club, and any number of nooks and crannies that generations of Churchill fans once made their homes away from home. For some people, the demolition of their favorite spots, ones that held so many memories, is sad. But for others, the reconstruction of Churchill was something that was long overdue, and as inconvenient and unsightly as the next 18 months might be, the benefits of Churchill's $121 million renovation will far outweigh the regrets.

"My gosh, this place is 129 years old," said Tony Terry, longtime track publicist, during a recent tour of the Churchill frontside. "Some-thing had to change."

For the next three meets (fall 2003, spring 2004, and fall 2004), or until the renovation reaches its scheduled completion in early 2005, Churchill will lay in various states of disrepair and disuse. For the 27-day meet that begins Sunday, virtually all of the old clubhouse section is off limits, except for a far-removed, group-seating tent on the clubhouse turn and several sections under the Twin Spires, the famed landmark that was spared the wrecking the ball for obvious historical reasons. Fans who grew accustomed to their old comfort zones at Churchill are being asked to make substantive changes, at least racetrack lifestyle-wise.

"People being creatures of habit, they're going to have to find their own new little niche," said Terry. "They're going to find that this isn't the old Churchill Downs. The new one - it'll be even better."

In the meantime, the going might be a little rough. Gate 1, which is adjacent to the Kentucky Derby Museum, will be the only admission gate in use, meaning many fans will have to ride a shuttle bus from the Longfield Ave. parking lot before and after the races. And although there still are some 20,000 outdoor seats, many are old-style aluminum bleachers in the grandstand. All seating currently available ends about 40 yards from the finish line.

Churchill has hoisted a temporary trailer several stories above the finish line to accommodate the computerized photo-finish system, pan-shot camera, stewards, placing judges and other officials. Conspicuously lacking an elevator, the trailer is 96 steps from ground to entrance, "as in that '60s song '96 Tears,' by Question Mark and the Mysterians," quipped Terry.

Barring entrance to that restricted area, probably the best vantage points for onsite fans will be one of the two giant television screens that will be positioned in the infield, or, for the more well-heeled, one of the luxurious Jockey Club suites located atop the old grandstand. Because of the high prices the suites command, everyday horseplayers will have little interest in them, but more affluent customers will have the best seats in the house, for the view from the suites are outstanding indeed. Turf club members without suites will be situated on the grandstand's fifth floor in a spacious room that will serve as temporary digs until the new turf club is built.

Acknowledging the logistical difficulties that fans might encounter, Churchill is keeping Trackside, its nearby simulcast facility, open until the renovation is complete. Also, admission on weekdays (except Nov. 27-28) will be free.

As for potential construction-related distractions, all work on the renovation will be halted during live racing hours. Until Sunday, crews had been working 16 to 18 hours per day in two shifts. The project is on schedule and on budget, said Terry.

Understandably, Churchill officials will be trying to divert fans' attention away from the renovation by offering numerous promotions and giveaways throughout the meet, including a Funny Cide bobblehead on Nov. 22, and by stressing the ongoing quality of its racing product. Steve Sexton, the track's president, said the "nature of the meet will be a bit different," but added, "We are experiencing one of the most exciting times in our history, so we hope our fans will join us in take a look at the changing face of Churchill Downs."