Aug. 4 started out innocently enough, as my two daughters and I planned to drive to Churchill Downs to see the Kentucky Derby Museum, part of our week-long vacation in the Bluegrass.
It turned out to be an adventure that could have been featured as an episode on the Weather Channel’s Storm Stories, and will no doubt be vividly remembered by all three of us for years to come.
As we got in the car to drive from our Lexington hotel to Louisville, Ky., about 7 a.m., I looked up at an overcast sky and asked my older daughter, Kaitlyn, what the television forecast was.
“They said to bring your umbrella,” she said.
That turned out to be the understatement of the year. About halfway to the Derby City on I-64, a light rain began falling. Suddenly, the skies turned from gray to nearly black, illuminated by jagged bolts of lightning striking around us. As the rain’s intensity increased, it became more difficult to see the road and the cars in front of us.
After we finally reached Louisville at 9 a.m., pea-sized hail pelted the windshield. Cars were pulling off to the side of the road, but I was so close to Churchill I decided to keep moving. Turning onto Central Avenue, I passed through some large puddles, but never did I imagine they were just the precursor of the flood to come.
Once in the Derby Museum’s parking lot, I told Katie and my younger daughter, Devon, that we were going to sit and wait until the rain subsided before we dashed inside. But about 9:30, I noticed that cars attempting to navigate Central Avenue were getting stuck in high water, and the water was quickly rising to where we were parked.
“I’m moving to higher ground,” I said, and started to drive back toward Gate 17. As the water sloshed up on the hood of my car, I thought maybe I had waited too long. The covered entranceway in front of Gate 17 was completely underwater, so I steered past and found an elevated spot in the next lot.
With cars and trucks unable to get through the rising tide at both ends of the parking area, and the torrential rain continuing, we decided to make a run for the building. We sloshed through shin-deep water; drenched and inside Gate 17, a Churchill Downs employee informed us the roads surrounding the track were flooded and barricaded by Louisville police.
As my daughters had never been to Churchill before, we wandered into the grandstand and saw an amazing sight—the entire main track had been transformed into a raging red river, complete with a current that flowed clockwise. The water was halfway up the inner rail; the turf course was also partially underwater. The water had risen past the first two rows of seats. Down at the betting windows near the Gate 17 entrance, water seeped into the grandstand, and the paddock was submerged.
Linda Dougherty Photo
Soon after, we met a security guard named Laurie whose own car was flooded in the parking lot. She escorted us to the employee cafeteria, where we met a stranded taxi driver and watched TVG. Laurie later returned and said management wanted us, and about 15 patrons left in the Derby Museum, to stay in the jockeys’ room, where they planned to serve us lunch.
To my daughters’ delight, Laurie led us through the old catacombs of the Churchill grandstand, past the management offices, and up into the jocks' room. There, she brought the sodden museum patrons dry clothes (Derby 135 shirts!) and blankets, and put our wet socks and shoes in a dryer. Within minutes, a large group of Churchill employees—including members of management, office staff, and maintenance workers—set up tables and brought in enough food and soda to feed an army, an amazing display of teamwork and cooperation. Hours later, when several streets reopened, a police officer led us back to Taylor Boulevard.
It goes without saying that those Churchill employees treated us like royalty in the face of very difficult circumstances. While my daughters never got to visit the Derby Museum, they did get to see a part of the historic facility few people are privy to and no doubt learned an important lesson about the importance of compassion—and extraordinary customer service.
Linda Dougherty is a Blood-Horse correspondent who lives in Philadelphia, Pa.