Picking Up the Pieces at Ellis Park

By Chad Mendell
TheHorse magazine

No call at 2 a.m. is good. Rodney Leibring, DVM, received one of those calls on Nov. 6. Leibring, a Thoroughbred racetrack practitioner, was asked by the male caller if he was at Ellis Park yet. Leibring, confused because he wasn't expected there until after 8 a.m., replied, "No why?" The man told Leibring that he needed to get there right away. A tornado had just hit the racetrack's stables, and it didn't look good.

Part of Ellis's grandstands, the paddock area, and offices were destroyed by an F3 tornado. View moreĀ images here.

An F3 (the Fujita scale ranges from 0 to 6) tornado hit Ellis Park in Henderson, Ky., with winds of up to 200 miles per hour. A 400-yard-wide path of toppled trees and leveled buildings indicated the tornado's path. The tornado traveled 41 miles, killed 23 Western Indiana residents, injured more than 100 people, and resulted in the death of three horses at Ellis Park.

At Ellis, two horses belonging to Burl McBride and one horse owned by Mary Nelson were seriously injured during the storm and were euthanatized. Only two track workers were injured when their concrete dorms were leveled by the storm.

Leibring, along with two other veterinarians, worked nonstop cleaning and suturing horses' wounds. Leibring fears that some horses will develop infections in their wounds because they were covered with dirt and debris from the storm.

Rebecca Beasley, owner and trainer of six racehorses who survived the tornado at Ellis Park with minor injuries, said, "It's never good to get a phone call at 2 a.m. with someone telling you that your barn has been destroyed by a tornado, and when you get there, they're right.

"Doc stitched that black filly up by his truck headlights," Beasley said. "He told me that if it looked like it would scar he would come back and redo it later."

While Leibring was working on Beasley's Nasty Leader, a horse she bought as a steeplechase prospect, he said, "They all look pretty amazing for what they went through."

Beasley laughed, "I don't think he had any problems jumping out of that stall that night."

Ten of the 39 barns at Ellis were reduced to splintered heaps and twisted metal. The other 29 barns suffered medium to light wind damage. The force of the tornado even twisted a gooseneck horse trailer's frame and tossed it over the nearby levee wall as if it were a child's toy.

Josh Abner, a spokesperson for Ellis, said it could have been much worse. The Ellis Park race meet just ended, which had more than 1,100 horses on the backside.

"Over the next week, we were going to start consolidating our horse population," Abner said. All 158 horses were going to be moved into the 10 barns that were razed by the tornado because they were the closer to the track's entrance.

The horsemen worked together to rescue the horses. "All the horsemen and the security personnel did a real good job," Beasley said. "The security (people) were very organized and concerned about us. They weren't barking orders or anything like that."

Owner/trainer Burl McBride lost a pair of 2-year-olds (a gelding who just won his last race and an unraced filly) that were euthanatized because of their extensive injuries. "Bob Jackson (director of operations at Ellis) was there soon after it happened," McBride said "He was there helping people and asking what was needed. Bob's a horseman, and he knows what it is like to lose a horse. There were a lot of people there the next day just looking at the damage, but Bob was there helping us."

Jackson helped uncover one of Mcbride's fillies trapped beneath a concrete wall. "I thought she was dead," Mcbride said. "The filly was in shock and she fell several times moving her to another barn." Even two days after the tornado, the filly still wasn't back to normal. Mcbride's yellow sign and a stall gate were the only distinguishing marks left of Barn 14, where the two deceased horses were stabled.

Mary Nelson also lost a horse in the same barn. Lord Nitro (a 3-year-old gelding) was stabled on the back side of barn 14. "He suffered a broken jaw and shoulder and ribs and had internal injuries, and his legs were really bad," Nelson said. "It was just a horrible sight."

Susan Souls, executive director of the American Red Cross Cardinal Chapter brought food and water to the track workers. She said, "There was such an indescribable silence here on Sunday--an eerie silence. There was a lot of activity going on and a lot of things being done, but there was a hush over the track. People spoke softly."

Paul Kuerzi, Ellis Park vice president and general manager, issued a memo to the horsemen stating that the track will begin its clean-up efforts next week and asked that all horses be removed from Ellis by Sunday. "We are not forcing anyone to leave our grounds, and we certainly understand that finding new quarters and training facilities is not a simple process," Kuerzi said. In addition to the challenge of finding new places for the horses, some of them are unable to be moved because of their injuries.

Churchill Downs Inc., which owns Ellis Park, hopes to return simulcasting to the track by Nov. 16. As of Wednesday (Nov. 9) 108 horses remained at Ellis. It will be some time before the racetrack, which was littered with debris, will reopen. Owners are looking to move horses to other tracks or training centers such as Churchill Downs in Louisville, Ky., and Oaklawn Park in Hot Springs, Ark.

"We don't know what we're going to do from here," Nelson said. "We've called a couple of places, but we don't know right now. We're just trying to let our horses heal and try to figure some things out."