Published June 22, 2011
LOUISVILLE, Ky. – The famed Churchill Downs horse race track, longtime home to the Kentucky Derby, was hit by a possible tornado Wednesday, knocking down parts of barns and chasing out horses that ran loose before being corralled.
Hours after the storm hit, officials had no reports of injuries to humans or horses at the track south of downtown. Elsewhere in the city, high water from torrential rains briefly trapped a couple of people in their cars, a mayor's spokesman said, and a hospital reported that it treated two patients hit by falling trees.
The National Weather Service said radar tracked a confirmed tornado near the track and the University of Louisville campus about 8:10 p.m. Though no races are run on Wednesdays, a simulcast of races elsewhere was being shown at the track, and a Texas Hold 'em poker tournament was being held, officials said.
At least nine of the track's 48 backside barns were damaged, as was the chapel. The barn damage, displacing about 200 horses, was in an area of the track where workers live in apartments above barns. One barn was flooded by a water main break.
"It's a hell of a mess back here," track spokesman John Asher said of the barn area where the damage was concentrated.
Louisville fire Capt. Salvador Melendez said safe areas were found for the horses overnight at the track. The nearby state fairgrounds along with Keeneland Racetrack in Lexington offered stall space if needed, Asher said.
The iconic twin spires above the clubhouse overlooking the finish line were apparently not damaged, said track President Kevin Flanery.
"Clearly we've got several barns with significant damage and we're just trying to make sure people and the animals are safe first," Flanery said.
Security guards told reporters that some horses had gotten loose for a time but were later caught. At least 1,300 horses were stabled at Churchill, said vice president of racing Donnie Richardson.
Several people taking part in the poker tournament said they saw the rotation in the clouds and then saw swirling winds touch down along the backstretch and skip diagonally through the barn area, Asher said.
"Clearly in their eyes it was a tornado." Asher said. A National Weather Service team will determine whether a tornado or straight line winds did the damage.
Trainer William "Jinks" Fires had to find new living quarters for 24 horses in a barn that had part of its roof torn off. Water was knee-high in the barn after pipes broke.
"I was home in my pajamas," he said. "But it didn't take me long to get here."
Other trainers offered empty stall space for the horses he trains.
"Anyone who had an empty stall, we put 'em in," Fires said.
The Kentucky Derby, the first leg of horseracing's Triple Crown, has been run for 136 years at the track. It has a capacity to handle a crowd of some 160,000-plus for the annual spring tradition known as much for its mint juleps and fancy hats as the racing.
The track, owned by Churchill Downs Inc., underwent extensive renovations in 2002 and 2003 totaling more than $200 million. Thursday's racing card was canceled because of the damage. The track has nine live racing days left in its spring meet that runs until July 4.
In August 2009, a flash flood heavily damaged the Kentucky Derby Museum, situated just off Gate 1 at Churchill Downs. The museum was closed for nine months while it underwent a $5.5 million renovation.
No damage has been reported at the university, which is sparsely populated at this time of year, said John Drees, a university spokesman. Scattered reports of damage to buildings in the Louisville metro area were reported from the storms that continued to move through into the night. The worst damage appeared to be in the Churchill Downs area, though, said Chris Poynter, a spokesman for Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer.
Eyewitnesses said they saw about a dozen power poles downed near the track and university. Some 2,600 customers were without power around the Louisville area at about midnight.
Storm sirens wailed in Kentucky's largest city as multiple tornado warnings were issued as the storm went through.
"It looks like we dodged what could have been a really bad ... evening," Poynter said.