Nearly 24 hours after a tornado tore through sections of the stable area at Churchill Downs, damage assessment and clean-up continued in the aftermath of the storm that hammered portions of the historic home of the Kentucky Derby.
Warning Coordination Meteorologist Joe Sullivan of the National Weather Service office in Louisville toured the storm-battered area of the Churchill Downs stables Thursday and confirmed that the damage was inflicted by a tornado that dipped out of the sky just after 8 p.m. (all times Eastern) on Wednesday, June 22. Sullivan said the tornado packed top winds of 105 miles per hour as it roared through the Churchill Downs stable area and was rated as an F1 storm on the Fujita Scale, the official classification system for tornado damage.
As the clean-up and assessment efforts continued, Churchill Downs officials announced that racing would resume at the track with Friday’s “Downs After Dark” night racing program on Friday, June 24. The first of “Downs After Dark” races is scheduled for 6 p.m., and admission gates will open at 4 p.m. Racing and training at the track had been cancelled on Thursday.
Entries for Friday’s races at Churchill Downs were taken on Sunday, days before Wednesday’s storm cut its destructive path through the stable area. Racing Secretary Ben Huffman said owners and trainers – even those in the storm-battered barns – pledged their support for the track’s plane to resume its Spring Meet, which has eight racing days remaining following Thursday’s cancellation.
"So far every trainer that had barn damage and had horses in tomorrow (Friday) night has reported their horses are fine and they’re running,” Huffman said. “That goes for Saturday as well. Our horsemen are resilient and they are supporting us 100 percent and we could not be more proud of our horsemen for stepping up during this adversity. It’s trying times, but they are absolutely with us in getting this together so that we can race Friday.”
While tornado damage to some barns on the track’s backside was substantial, no injuries were reported to humans or horses in the aftermath of the tornado. The story was quite different in the track’s clubhouse and grandstand. Vice President of Operations David Sweazy said those areas, and the track’s signature Twin Spires, were untouched.
“The frontside (of the track) has sustained no damage at all,” Sweazy said. “We don’t have water damage…there isn’t a blade of grass bent over on the frontside. We have done a complete assessment… we’ve walked on the rooftops and through every area and tested everything and there is no damage.”
The number of barns left uninhabitable by the storm was reduced on Thursday from an original total of nine to six and half as two and a half barns were deemed safe by Louisville fire officials and an earlier evacuation order for horses housed in that barn was lifted. Churchill Downs’ Steve Hargrave, the track’s superintendent of stalls, said the number of horses displaced by storm damage is now estimated at 75 to 100, and roughly 30 of those horses have been relocated to stalls at Keeneland Race Course in Lexington, Ky.
Structural engineers and architects were on hand to inspect the storm-damaged barns on Thursday as track officials worked to assess the total damage caused by the storm. Members of the track maintenance team headed by Vice President and Track Superintendent Butch Lehr combed the dirt track and turf course for storm debris, and used magnetic devices to search for nails or other metal items that could have fallen on the track as the storm’s swirling winds passed through the track.
National Weather Service records indicate that Wednesday’s tornado was not the first to hit the home of the Kentucky Derby, which conducted its first racing meet in May of 1875. NWS records of tornadoes recorded in Jefferson County, Ky. describe an unusual winter tornado that touched down around 7:20 a.m. on the morning of Jan. 19, 1928. That storm damaged homes on Longfield and Dresden Avenues near the track before it crossed into what is now the stable area of Churchill Downs. The number of barns located on the property now is significantly large than in 1928, but an NWS map indicates the path of that larger storm was very similar to Wednesday’s tornado.