05/01/2005 11:00PM

Patrons get first look at renovation


LOUISVILLE, Ky. - Judging by the overwhelmingly favorable reaction to the Churchill Downs renovation, the weekend that took 3 1/2 years to arrive was very much worth the wait.

The thousands of fans who filed into the track on opening weekend were generous in their praise of a new facility that melds the treasured history of a 130-year-old landmark with a state-of-the-art clubhouse.

"It's beautiful, just beautiful," said Frances Lyons, who roamed the second floor of the new clubhouse Sunday with her longtime boyfriend, ex-jockey Don Brumfield. "They did a great, great job."

The clubhouse is the primary feature of a $121 million renovation that began in December 2001. Saturday and Sunday were not without their minor logistical and procedural problems, said Churchill president Steve Sexton, but overall, opening weekend could not have gone much better.

"I thought it went terrific," said Sexton. "There were some little kinks, but they were things that the general public probably wouldn't even notice, and we're working on those [Monday and Tuesday]. We had meeting after meeting after meeting before opening day, and I told our employees that I know the meetings could get tedious, but the end result showed in how everything went so smoothly opening weekend."

Ontrack attendance Saturday was 15,394, up 35 percent over last year, and the largest opening-day crowd since 2000. The Saturday weather was not particularly good, "so I think if the weather had been better we might have gotten 20,000," said Tony Terry, Churchill's publicist.

Preliminary figures showed sizable increases in ontrack and all-sources handle. Ontrack wagering, not including simulcast imports, was $1,735,908, up 32 percent, while betting from all sources was $12,763,061, up 29 percent. Complete business figures from the Sunday card were not available Monday.

The Saturday card was preceded by several special touches, including a ribbon-cutting ceremony and a choral presentation. Throughout the day, people marveled at the innumerable new features in the clubhouse, including the spectacular mural of the 96 Kentucky Derby-winning jockeys by Daily Racing Form cartoonist Peb.

David Bell, a well-traveled handicapper and tout-sheet publisher, said: "I can't remember people ever being more excited about an opening day at any track."

"They did a great job with this, they really did," said Cary Gold, who has been a Churchill regular for some 40 years. Gold will spend most of his time in the new Gold Club members room on the sixth floor. "There's pretty much something for everybody here."