Churchill Downs marked a milestone in the second phase of its sweeping $121 million renovation on Wednesday when a special beam was lifted into place at the highest point of the track's rebuilt Clubhouse to highlight a "Topping Off" ceremony in the track's paddock.The "Topping Off," which was witnessed by track employees and local government and neighborhood representatives, celebrated the progress of steel construction that has now reached the pinnacle of the track's rebuilt Clubhouse, which is the focus of the $95 million second phase of the renovation. The 40-foot white beam was lifted to the apex of the structure by a 250-ton crane to the accompaniment of a rendition of "My Old Kentucky Home" by track bugler Steve Buttleman.Louisville Metro Mayor Jerry Abramson, Churchill Downs Inc. president and CEO Thomas H. Meeker, and Churchill Downs president Steve Sexton added their signatures to the beam during the ceremony. It already included the names and messages of hundreds of fans, horsemen and jockeys that had been placed on the beam during the final three days of the track's recently completed "Fall Festival Of Racing." The beam also carried a pair of shoes worn by 2003 Kentucky Derby winner Funny Cide, an American flag, and an evergreen tree adorned with holiday decorations as it was lifted to the steel structure's highest point. In keeping with racing tradition, the shoes worn by Funny Cide, the Sackatoga Stable gelding that became the first New York-bred Thoroughbred to win the famed "Run for the Roses," were pointed up when they were affixed to the beam. That tradition holds that all of the luck in those shoes would run out if they pointed downward. Abramson described the project as a "bold investment" in the community. "It is an exciting day to be here at such a jewel in the crown of our hometown," said Abramson. "When you think of the $100 million-plus investment that is occurring, that's the kind of commitment that the ownership of this track has to our hometown." "By the completion of Phase II we will have a facility that is without question the most stellar in all of racing," said Meeker. "It is a reflection of commitment of the board of directors, our shareholders and our team members to making sure that this institution, Churchill Downs racetrack, lives on and on and on." Phase II of the Churchill Downs renovation is scheduled for completion in early 2005. The $26 million first phase, which included the creation of three floors of Jockey Club Suites and other meeting and entertainment spaces, was completed in early September. All of the structure created during the first phase of the renovation was in use during the historic track's recent "Fall Festival Of Racing" and are available for rental for holiday parties and other meetings and activities throughout the year.
"Topping Off" ceremonies date back to an ancient Scandinavian belief that the gods and spirits of their ancestors lived in the trees that were used to build their homes. A tree was placed above those shelters to give a home to wandering spirits and to keep displaced spirits from cursing the new structure. The tradition found its way to Great Britain and settlers and immigrants brought it to the United States. The modern "Topping Off" ceremony signifies success in the reaching of the pinnacle of new structure. For the team involved in the construction, it serves as a halfway marker in the building of the new structure and reinforces the project's completion goals. Updates on the progress of the renovation project may be viewed on the Internet at Churchill Downs and real time images of the construction work may be viewed through the track's "Construction Cam."