LOUISVILLE — After getting the all-clear from officials, Churchill Downs said the historic racetrack will run its planned "Downs After Dark" racing Friday night despite storm damage.
"We're going to celebrate the fact that we're still here," racetrack president Kevin Flanery told Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer as they toured areas of the track's backside damaged by Wednesday night's confirmed tornado.
All around them, people were picking up debris from at least nine damaged barns and the track's chapel. About six barns were closed Thursday.
The track will be back in business beginning with training Friday morning, simulcasting in the afternoon and racing in the evening; gates open at 4 p.m. with the first post at 6.
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"This is really a testament to all the people on the backside that have gotten on their boots, gotten back on the horse and said let's do this," Flanery said in a Thursday afternoon news briefing. "We're here, we're ready to race."
Flanery said Churchill doesn't have a damage estimate yet. He said the track does not anticipate trying to add a full day back, but it might add races to individual days to make up for some of the lost ones.
He said crews have been over the track with magnets and metal detectors and have cleared it.
"It's a miracle no one was hurt," Flanery said earlier of the storm, which struck the stable area just after 8 p.m. That area houses about 1,500 people and 1,400 horses. At the height of the storm, about 100 people took shelter in a tunnel that connects the stable area to the infield.
Track spokesman John Asher said the track had no warning. "We kind of got a warning when it hit the ground," he said.
A charity poker tournament going on in the grandstand also was swiftly evacuated into underground tunnels, he said.
The National Weather Service confirmed Thursday that an EF-1 tornado, with winds of 100 to 105 mph, hit Churchill Downs. The official survey determined that five barns at the track "had large sections of their roofs blown off and cinderblock walls buckled or collapsed."
According to the Weather Service, as the tornado moved east, it strengthened to EF-2 intensity, with estimated wind speeds of 120 mph, near the intersection of Floyd Street and Central Avenue, where a large building was heavily damaged and numerous trees were uprooted and snapped. Nearby Papa John's Stadium was undamaged.
A second tornado hit the Jeffersontown area, the weather service said, causing widespread damage there.
The racetrack was closed to training, racing and simulcasting Thursday for cleanup and assessment.
"We are incredibly fortunate to have survived last night's tornado without injury to our backstretch human or equine population," Flanery said. "We have a lot to clean up and are coordinating with horsemen whose barns were affected on relocation arrangements for horses that may need to be moved off site — and returned to the track for live racing — for the remainder of our 2011 spring meet."
Flanery said trainers, even those who had to move their horses to other places, supported resuming the live racing program.
After the storm, horses were removed from the most damaged barns, and overnight, the horses filled available spaces in Churchill's receiving barn and empty stalls scattered all over the backside.
By Thursday afternoon, about 100 horses were displaced, including some moved to a nearby training center and about 30 sent to Keeneland in Lexington.
Churchill hopes to do more to help.
"We will use our Churchill Charities 'Pony Up for Charity' fund-raiser already scheduled for our night racing event (Friday) to raise money for backstretch storm victims," Flanery said. Patrons can "pony up" a contribution when they buy drinks or food.
Some horsemen lost equipment and feed, and many backstretch workers' living accommodations were damaged or compromised by the storm.
The track's famous grandstand, with its iconic Twin Spires, was unscathed. Likewise, the dormitory, which houses many backside workers, was spared, Asher said.
However, the track chapel on the backside was damaged. Chaplain Ken Boehm said services will go on, somewhere.
About 20 stable-area workers have been displaced. Churchill is working with the American Red Cross and Louisville emergency management officials to find temporary shelter.