A Saturday Visit to Churchill Downs

Seeing the pictures of the tornado damage at Churchill in no way prepared me for seeing the wreckage in person. The backstretch and the nearby neighborhood were studies in contrast: incredible destruction juxtaposed with pristine completeness.

The tornado apparently made its way down the backstretch like an unruly two-year-old, leaping and touching down unpredictably and powerfully.  Darren Rogers, senior director of communications and media services at Churchill Downs, told me that it first hit at the beginning of the one-mile chute, moving relatively straightly down the backstretch. It was, according to Rogers, a narrow tornado, which limited the damage it inflicted.  More than once I saw a barn in pieces next to one completely untouched. Click on photos enlarge.

Steve Margolis's barn, which bore the brunt of the storm

On Saturday morning, Churchill’s vice president of communication, John Asher, talked on a local radio station about the storm and its aftermath, saying that much of the damage came from the wind rushing down the shedrows and lifting the roofs up.  The problem, he joked, was that the roofs didn’t come back down in the right spot.

The neighborhood across from the backstretch looks remarkably unscathed, aside from the occasional downed tree. Rogers said that that appearance is deceiving, crediting those who had worked this week to get the streets and yards cleaned up, implying that it had been a real mess earlier in the week.

Spirits were high throughout the track: patrons, horsemen, and CD employees were still marveling at their good luck and appreciative of the many who had come out on Friday night for the first racing card since the storm.

I didn’t make it out there for the Friday night card, which I rather regret: an estimated crowd of about 25,000 reportedly enthusiastically partook of the food, drink, and music on offer.

Saturday at the races was gloriously sunny and warm, and on the track, a four-year-old half sister to Shackleford made her second start for trainer Dale Romans.  After breaking her maiden for him earlier this month, Afleeting Lady finished second in an allowance race on Saturday.  Sired by Afleet Alex, she’s owned and bred by Michael Lauffer and William Cubbedge, the same men who bred and own the Preakness winner; the filly made her first five starts for trainer Tom Albertrani.

Winner Marvel Gaye (4) and Afleeting Lady (8)

In the featured Grade 3 Debutante Stakes for two-year-old fillies, Flashy Lassie took advantage of a hot early pace and won by a length. She was the longest shot on the board and paid $37.20.

Five Star Momma (inside) & winner Flashy Lassie

More photos of the backstretch here.

9 thoughts on “A Saturday Visit to Churchill Downs

  1. “The tornado apparently made its way down the backstretch like an unruly two-year-old, leaping and touching down unpredictabily and powerfully.” This may be one of my all-time favorite lines from Brooklyn Backstretch!

    Thanks for sharing all this. You are so right; seeing destruction in person is so much more powerful than thru photos and video. Indeed, that community was very, very lucky.

    Enjoy your time in Bluegrass Country and we’ll hold you a parking spot for when you get back.

  2. Thanks for sharing the pictures. You did a very nice job on XM/Sirius on Saturday regarding thoroughbred after-care. See ya at the Spa.

  3. I wish you had made it to the Friday night racing, I’d be curious what you think of the whole Downs After Dark experience. While attendance and handle are up, I’m sure, my opening day/night experience was nothing I ever care to repeat.

  4. Scott and Gene: thanks so much for those nice words. And especially for holding me a parking place. 😉

    Linda: I went last year. Quite a scene. I enjoyed it, but not exactly what appeals to me about the track. I’m glad it works for them, and I’m a little sorry I missed it, just for the experience.

  5. I saw someone post about it on COTH right after it happened, and I was chatting on MSN to my friend, who lives about ten miles from CD on the other side of town.

    “Uh, Laurie? How’s the weather outside down there?”
    “OMG, the sky is BLACK!” (They were okay where she was, besides wind and rain.)

    It was a very lucky thing no one (human or horse) was seriously hurt.

  6. One thing is for sure:

    The handful of night programs at Churchill clearly are a major success, as people seem to make a point at being at those. Churchill now seems to need to seriously look at for 2012 either shifting the Stephen Foster program (the “other” big card at Churchill during the spring meet) to Friday night or make the Foster program a Saturday night one. That card appeared to get completely lost in the shuffle at Churchill this year between the Friday night card and Father’s Day this year.

    Just amazing photos from Churchill, and equally amazing was the fact that Churchill was able to get back on track as quickly as they did almost like nothing happened. The fact they were able to is a tribute to everyone involved. Also equally amazing was the fact there were no injuries at all.

    Getting back to the lights, their biggest benefit looks yet to come for Churchill. Even if this year’s Breeders’ isn’t the first full-fledged one at night, the lights are why Churchill to me is a near-lock to get not only a third straight BC in 2012, but several more BCs in a row after that UNLESS one of the following happens:

    1. NYRA can get the laws that forbid thoroughbred racing after sunset changed so they are permitted to stage night racing AT LEAST for special events like the Breeders’ Cup.

    2. Santa Anita installs lights.

    3. The situation with Hollywood Park is resolved and they make a bid (they have lights and do race at night on Fridays in the spring and first part of the fall meet).

    4. Another track capable of racing at night makes a serious bid.

    I definitely see the Breeders’ Cup becoming a full-fledged night event in the next few years, especially if it moves back to NBC after ESPN’s contract expires. Friday is clearly established as a second day now, and I don’t think having the Friday BC races in the daytime will work because many people can’t get off work on Friday afternoons in the fall, even for that. Sunday can’t be the second day because of the NFL being the 800-pound gorilla that it is.

    I also still think next year’s Oaks and Derby will be at night because NBC is going to want the TV rating to count in the prime time ratings during the “May Sweeps” and for the same reason I think the BC eventually will be at night: You can no longer ignore the Asia-Pacific region from a handle standpoint. The potential for hundreds of millions in new handle is why I think that will be the case with both the Oaks/Derby and BC.

  7. Walt,
    I won’t argue against your points in favor of night racing, especially for the big events. I just think it’s unfortunate that it all comes down to handle and TV ratings. I’ve attended night races at my local track, which was a great experience and at Churchill, which was not so great because the attendees – dancing, drinking and hopefully betting – likely didn’t give a crap about the horses out there on the track. It was all about the party.

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