02/28/2003 1:00AM

Under construction


LOUISVILLE, Ky. - Despite an initial inclination to limit admissions for the 2004 Kentucky Derby, officials at Churchill Downs now have decided they will exhaust all measures to "accommodate everyone who wants to come to the Derby next year," according to Churchill vice president David Sweazy.

The 2004 Derby, which track officials have billed the Demolition Derby, faces major logistical problems because of the massive restructuring of the track's grandstand and clubhouse.

Sweazy, who as head of operations at Churchill is closely involved with the project, said officials initially believed ticket sales to the '04 Derby were going to have to be limited because of a lack of sufficient space.

But after careful examination, "I think we're going to be able to use enough temporary stuff, some outback suites and corporate tents and other things," Sweazy said. "I would hate to say, 'This is invitation only.' We'll do that as a last resort, but we're already thinking way ahead on it."

Sweazy said track officials are keenly aware that any attempt to limit Derby admissions could create a huge public relations nightmare, since "so many people revere their Derby traditions, from the people on millionaire's row to the folks in the infield."

Meanwhile, the $121 million project is proceeding mostly on schedule and on budget, Sweazy said. Phase one of the project, which began in late 2001, includes the creation of three levels of sky suites atop the former grandstand. Some of the suites are expected to be ready for the spring meet that begins April 26. Sweazy said the ongoing construction should create "zero inconveniences" for patrons at the 2003 Derby, to be run May 3.

Phase two of the project is far more ambitious. It includes the demolition of the former clubhouse and creation of a wide array of seating, dining facilities, full-card simulcasting areas, and other amenities.

"Two or three weeks after the spring meet ends [July 6], we'll start the [tearing] down of the clubhouse," Sweazy said. The result will be a difficult fall meet for patrons. "We're only going to be able to accommodate x number of people in the fall, so we're going to have Trackside open every day."

Trackside is a nearby simulcast facility.

Sweazy expects that by spring 2004, the first and second floor will be ready, but not floors three through six.

"I'll have some large open-area rooms available," Sweazy said. "Obviously, we'll have to come up with a lot of different ways to improvise, but we're determined to make that happen."

The entire project is expected to be complete by the 2005 spring meet.

Sweazy, 51, has worked the last 35 Derbies. As the foremost expert on the layout of Churchill Downs, he said he has "been thinking about this project for 10 years. It's the biggest challenge this racetrack has ever taken on, but it's going to be fun, and the end result is definitely going to be worth it."