Officials at Churchill Downs said June 23 it was a miracle no horses or people were injured the previous day when a tornado ripped through a portion of the stable area at the historic track in Louisville, Ky.
“The miracle is that no one was hurt and we are very, very happy about that,” track president Kevin Flanery said during a press briefing at the racing office located just outside the main stable entrance. “We have 1,500 people living on the backside, and last night they were struck with something that nobody wants to go through and they handled it calmly and professionally. We are very, very lucky we are here today to just look at damage to some buildings. Buildings can be rebuilt.”
John Asher, vice president of communications for the track, said nine barns have been ordered evacuated by fire department officials until their status can be evaluated. Between 150-200 horses that were housed in those barns were relocated throughout the night after the storm struck at about 8 p.m. EDT.
Many were taken to empty barns at other areas of the track, and some were relocated to nearby farms or training centers, though movement of traffic out of the track the evening of June 22 was limited due to storm damage.
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There was no apparent damage to the track’s iconic Twin Spires or to the clubhouse and grandstand areas, but the backstretch chapel sustained roof and steeple damage. The National Weather Service the morning of June 23 determined that a tornado hit the Churchill Downs area, but officials are unsure of its size or severity.
Stable workers who resided in the damaged barns had to make other living arrangements, with 17 of them spending the night in the jockeys’ room on the front side. Also, one area of the grandstand was set up to accommodate stable employees, with representatives from the Red Cross and Salvation Army on hand to provide assistance, Asher said.
Training, racing, and simulcasting were canceled for June 23, but Churchill announced its live "Downs After Dark" racing program set for the evening of June 24 would be held as planned. Despite the damage to the stable area and the heavy rain that accompanied the storm, Flanery said there was no apparent damage to the main track and turf course, and that both would be available once racing resumed.
On June 23 crews were working to clean up debris that primarily consisted of roofing material ripped off the damaged barns. Observers could see large chunks of damaged roofs on some of the barns. Most of the roofs had fallen in but had been supported from complete collapse by the hay lofts and concrete half walls that line the outsides of the barns.
Though there were tornado warnings issued for Louisville by the National Weather Service, they had all expired when the storm hit without much notice, Asher said.
“We have had great volunteer spirit,” Asher said of the efforts by track and stable personnel to work to rescue horses from the damaged barns. “Trainers will tell you it was a remarkable thing to see everyone pull together. Right now, we are still in damage assessment. As best we can tell, it is something that has never happened in the 137-year history of this racetrack.”