11/07/2005 1:00AM

Tornado casts doubt on Ellis Park's future

Janet Worne/Lexington Herald-Leader
The tornado that hit Ellis knocked down about half the grandstand, but left the other half nearly untouched.

The tornado that ripped through western Kentucky and southwestern Indiana early Sunday, killing 22 people, inflicted widespread property damage at Ellis Park in Henderson, Ky. No people were seriously injured at Ellis, but three racehorses died, and dozens more were injured, as a result of the tornado.

Officials at Churchill Downs Inc., the Louisville corporation that owns Ellis, reported Monday that about 10 barns and other key buildings and property incurred major damage in the tornado, which brought winds as strong as 160 miles per hour and cut a wide swath through track property shortly after 1 a.m. The racing office, jockeys' room, about half of the grandstand, the infield tote board, a starting gate, and parts of the inner safety rail were destroyed.

CDI spokeswoman Julie Koenig-Loignon said that the company had insurance coverage "for just this type of damage" and that adjusters on Monday were beginning their assessments.

"We won't have any dollar figures until the adjusters have a chance to see the damage," she said.

The barn area is sparsely populated during the offseason at Ellis, where live racing traditionally is conducted from mid-July to early September. CDI officials said about 160 horses were stabled there when the tornado struck.

Burl McBride owned and trained two of the horses who died - one a 2-year-old filly, the other a 2-year-old gelding. McBride said he trains two other horses that suffered serious leg injuries but said both probably will survive, although their racing careers are in jeopardy. The third horse who died was a 3-year-old gelding trained by Mary Nelson.

Incredibly, Ellis is the third Churchill-owned track in the last 10 weeks to sustain major weather-related damage. Fair Grounds in New Orleans was heavily damaged Aug. 29 by Hurricane Katrina, forcing the relocation of its 2005-06 meet to Louisiana Downs, while Calder in Miami was closed for several days last week because of damage inflicted by Hurricane Wilma on Oct. 24.

Racing has been conducted in a country-fair atmosphere at Ellis since 1922, but business at the track has slumped badly in recent years, including at the 41-day meet that ended Sept. 5. CDI announced in 2003 that the company intended to sell the track, but there has been no serious interest from prospective buyers. The tornado damage already has fueled speculation in some media reports that CDI now will close the track for good, but Koenig-Loignon said Monday that "it is absolutely too early" to address that subject. Ellis recently was assigned 36 racing dates for 2006 by the Kentucky Horse Racing Authority.

Offseason simulcasting operations at Ellis were suspended Sunday, although Koenig-Loignon said "it should be a matter of days" until the facility reopens, "provided the infrastructure is safe. By and large, the main facility is in good shape." Electrical power and phone service had been restored by Monday morning after being cut off in the storm.

Horses that had been training at Ellis are being relocated. The track is unsuitable for training because of the loss of much of the safety rail.

Koenig-Loignon said Ellis was "very fortunate this didn't occur during our live meet," when about 1,000 horses are stabled at the track. "In terms of timing, we were also fortunate that we weren't in a position like we were with New Orleans, with a live meet just a few months upon us. This affords us the time to assess what needs to be done.

"Considering what came through here, we were very lucky not to have more damage," she added. "It's amazing to see what winds that strong can do - and what they don't even touch."

The Associated Press reported that the tornado killed at least 22 people in southwestern Indiana, including 17 at the Eastbrook Mobile Home Park, just southeast of Evansville. The storm also led to hundreds of injuries and major property damage in affected areas. Ellis Park is located several miles south of Evansville, on the north shore of the Ohio River. The AP said the tornado briefly touched down on the south side of the Ohio in Henderson before landing on the north side.

The tornado was the deadliest to hit Indiana since 1974, when 74 people died. A few hours after the Evansville-area tornado hit, another tornado swept into the western Kentucky town of Munfordville, where no deaths were reported but substantial property damage was incurred.

Trainer Benjie Larue, 43, said he was at Ellis Park when the tornado touched down. Larue and his wife, Sarah, who live in a mobile home park in Henderson, had been watching the weather reports on television.

"Every time a big storm comes up, we run over to the track and get in the tack room," said Larue, a 16-year training veteran.

The Larues were in their small truck, just outside Larue's barn at Ellis, when the tornado came through. "The worst part lasted only maybe 10 seconds," said Larue. "It blew the windows out of the truck and bounced us around, but then it let us back down. It was just a lucky deal we didn't get hurt."

Larue said his barn was destroyed, but the four horses he trains "didn't have a scratch on them. If anybody saw my barn, they would say, 'How the hell did that happen?' It was unbelievable."

Other trainers, however, were not as lucky, said Larue. Several veterinarians, said Larue, "worked their butts off all day Sunday, sewing horses up."

Larue said Monday that his horses already had been shipped to a private training facility owned by Elvie Cobb. He said other trainers were planning to move to Riverside, a former harness track that is now a local training facility, or other private farms.

Larue, a lifelong resident of the Ellis Park area, said he and other horsemen believe CDI will not rebuild their favorite track because "the track was heading the wrong way even before the storm. But I sure hope we're wrong. We like Churchill Downs, but we love Ellis Park."