(Originally published in the July 2, 2011 issue of The
Blood-Horse magazine. Feel free to share your own thoughts and
the bottom of the column.)
By Evan Hammonds
Competitors on the track, comrades on the backside—Thoroughbred racing is a sport of contradictions. That dichotomy was brought into sharp relief in Louisville, June 22, when, without warning, a 105-mile-per-hour tornado ripped along Longfield Avenue and through the backstretch at Churchill Downs, causing extensive damage to nine barns.
As roofs crumpled and debris swirled wildly, grooms and other workers left their card games and dorm rooms with shanks in hand to rescue trapped horses and catch loose ones. They worked purposefully to get horses to shelter amid downed power lines, leaking gas, and roof nails and splintered wood littering the ground.
It was a chaotic scene as night descended, according to witnesses. Yet the spirit of fraternity, embodied by cool-headed rescuers and trainers opening their barns to competitors, is what everyone will remember.
Trainer Steve Margolis, who arrived soon after the storm to find his barn heavily damaged and horses trapped, summed it up: “A lot of good Samaritans helped on the backside.”
As rescue efforts were under way, other entities were mobilizing to provide assistance. Keeneland and Turfway Park let Churchill Downs know they had barns available to accommodate the estimated 75-100 displaced Thoroughbreds. Sallee Horse Vans had trucks at the ready to ship those horses. The Red Cross stepped in to find temporary shelter for track workers left homeless by the F1 tornado.
Horses were shipped to outlying training centers around Louisville, including the Skylight Training Center in Oldham County.
Remarkably, Churchill Downs officials only canceled one race program and, after track maintenance crews combed the dirt track and turf course for debris, racing resumed with a “Downs After Dark” program June 24 and a crowd of more than 25,000 on hand. Proceeds from its “Pony up for Charity” program were pegged for backside storm victims.
Also in the tornado’s path on the backside was the Christ Chapel, which sustained a few holes in its roof and had some of its siding ripped off. The chapel’s insurance provider had an agent on the grounds the next day to assess the damage. Chaplin Ken Boehn and Paul Ransdell, executive director for the Race Track Chaplaincy of America since February, quickly put together a “Thanksgiving Service” held June 27.
Oddly enough, Mother Nature’s fury has battered Churchill Downs properties time and again. Fair Grounds in New Orleans was heavily damaged by wind and water during Hurricane Katrina in August 2005. Katrina caused racing to be canceled at Calder Race Course in South Florida and Hurricane Wilma took a few barn roofs with her as she blew through in October of that year. Under the Twin Spires in Louisville in August 2009, the Kentucky Derby Museum sustained severe water damage following a microburst of five inches of rain in an hour.
Despite the chaos brought on by last week’s tornado, it is nothing short of miraculous that no horses or humans suffered injury and that the front side of Churchill Downs, the racing surfaces, and the iconic symbol of Kentucky racing, the Twin Spires, remained intact.
After the heroics of June 22, scores of people rolled up their sleeves the next day to help clean up.
“Racing’s a big family,” track spokesman John Asher said. “You never appreciate it more than at a time like this.”
The love of the horse serves as the common bond among this diverse family, whose members represent great cultural, socioeconomic, and other diversity. Consequently, people who wouldn’t necessarily sit at the same table together or move in the same circles will unite. It’s happened time and again in this sport, as witnessed by fundraisers for old horses and fallen jockeys; the offer of stalls, tack, and feed to horsemen made destitute by fire; the donation of veterinary services to handicapped riding programs; and the like.
“You hear all the bad stuff in this industry, but you don’t hear about the good stuff where everybody jumps in, pitches in. It’s amazing; it really is,” groom Jerry Brown told reporters the day after the tornado.
Barns might come and go; races will be won and lost;
but the compassion and generosity of racetrackers will
endure.Jacqueline Duke contributed to this column.