As workers began the task of accounting for all the horses under their care and cleaning up damage caused by a tornado the night before, all the talk on the backstretch of Churchill Downs the morning of June 23 was that it was a miracle no horses or people were injured during the powerful storm that hit around 8 p.m. EDT.
Training, racing, and simulcasting for June 23 were canceled at the historic Louisville racetrack as the stable area was littered with debris from roofing material ripped off nine barns and a chapel. The buildings have been ordered evacuated by fire officials until their status can be assessed.
There was no apparent damage to the clubhouse, grandstandm or dirt and grass racing surfaces, so racing will resume the evening of June 24, officials said.
It was obvious, however, that most of the damaged barns will be uninhabitable for quite some time, as large chunks of the roofs collapsed. At one barn, a side concrete wall of the barn sustained considerable damage and likely will have to be torn down.
By all accounts, track and stable personnel were caught off guard by the storm. While there were tornado warnings issued earlier, the warning for the storm that caused the damage at Churchill Downs and the surrounding area came just before it hit.
“The miracle is that no one was hurt and we are very, very happy about that,” track president Kevin Flanery said June 23.
Those who work in the stable are agreed.
“It was amazing; it was just incredible,” Susan Margolis, wife of trainer Steve Margolis, said of the scene she and her husband witnessed upon their arrival at Barn 23. “It was a blessing nobody got hurt.”
Margolis’ barn was one of the hardest hit with at least half of the roof collapsed. Among the horses trapped underneath the damaged roof were stakes horses Cool Bullet and Bouquet Booth, but both were evacuated without any problem and were not injured.
“Look at the destruction,” Susan Margolis said. “Everybody kept a cool head.”
In addition to the damaged roof, the barn was also flooded, and a gas line began leaking in the storm’s aftermath.
Employees of other stables came to the rescue, helping leading horses out of the Margolis barn. Susan Margolis said horses trapped by the roof collapse were so calm that initially she thought they were in a state of shock. She said veterinarians later told her that was not the case, just that the horses maintained their composure at a time of crisis.
Steve Margolis said 24 horses, including stakes horses Cash Refund and Crystals at Dawn, that resided in Barn 23 will be relocated.
Churchill officials said 150-200 horses will have to be relocated, some to vacant stalls elsewhere at the track. Others will go to nearby private farms or training centers, and some to Keeneland in Lexington. Also, Turfway Park had offered to house some of the horses.
Jinks Fires, who had to move 20 horses out of his heavily damaged barn, said the animals were not as calm as those in Barn 23, and that several had to be treated with tranquilizers by veterinarians. “During a storm, horses kick the wall, tear at the webbing, and even run into the wall,” Fires said.
In addition to the barn roof collapse, Fires said the barn was flooded due to water from sprinklers that were set off by the storm. “It was knee-deep with water when we were trying to get them out. It looks like something took a bite out of it (barn roof),” he said.
Fires also said there was a strong spirit of cooperation from others as they went about the orderly process of rescuing the horses. Fires, who has been racing at Churchill since 1961, said the damage from the storm was the worst he had ever seen during his time at the track.
It was not, however, the worst incident to impact the trainer. That, Fires said, was a barn fire in the early 1970s in Chicago in which all of the horses in his barn perished.
“We feel pretty good” that no horses or people were injured June 22, Fires said.
Trainer Dale Romans, who had one barn ordered evacuated, said some of the horses would be sent to his training center, but that others would ship to Saratoga for that track's summer meet. There are nine days remaining in the Churchill spring/summer meet.