LOUISVILLE — Jerry Brown stood beneath a tattered corner of trainer James Baker's barn Thursday afternoon, short on sleep but full of amazement over what he and his backside brethren at Churchill Downs had survived the night before.
"You hear all the bad stuff in this industry but you don't hear about the good stuff where everybody jumps in, pitches in," the longtime groom said. "It's amazing, it really is."
Brown was one of the many people who acted on sheer instinct in the aftermath of the tornado that touched down in the Churchill Downs barn area Wednesday night. Because of his and others' selflessness, what could have been a major tragedy for Thoroughbred racing will go down as an unfortunate but non-fatal incident.
Though nine barns suffered damage as a result of the EF-1 tornado causing 75 to 100 horses to be displaced, some quick thinking by those on the backstretch helped all the horses and people escape with no major injuries.
Barn 23, which housed horses trained by Steve Margolis, was among the most severely damaged, with entire portions of the roof ripped off and other sections completely folded over.
Margolis was forced to relocate his entire string to Keeneland Thursday, but he was amazed by the teamwork that resulted in all his workers and horses being unharmed.
"We couldn't believe it. So many people were helping — backstretch workers and other trainers — grabbing horses and putting them anywhere they could," Margolis said. "Looking at the barn, I didn't know what to expect. But thankfully it didn't collapse on top of the horses."
Brown was watching a DVD in his room above Baker's barn when his wife Ramona, who was on the porch, first spotted the funnel cloud.
By the time Brown went outside to see the scene, the tornado was already upon them.
"I figured it was an F1 because it wasn't like a freight train like everyone describes, but the rush of wind was just tremendous," said Brown, who has worked as a groom on and off for 30 years. "Debris was just flying through the air so I shut the door, grabbed my wife, huddled in the corner and I said 'We have to ride it out because there is no way we can make it down the steps.' "
Once the wind had passed, Brown scurried down the steps, checked on Baker's horses, and then immediately headed over to Margolis' barn to help get those horses to safety.
Despite having only about 6 to 7 feet of space to get some horses out, Brown was taken by how calm the Thoroughbreds were and how many hands were helping him.
"That was the amazing thing, you have stakes horses who are normally nuts and they came out as calm as can be," Brown said. "You've got all these different cultures back here and everybody is just jumping in, helping."
Trainer Dale Romans had to relocate about 20 of his horses after a large section of his Barn 5 roof was ripped off, but he credited the hay lofts above the stalls for saving his string from major injuries.
"I think that protected the horses because even though the roof of the barns collapsed, the rubble landed in the hay lofts and didn't really get into the stalls or on top of horses," Romans said. "We're lucky."
Trainer Rusty Arnold relocated his horses to Keeneland after his Barn 28 at Churchill was condemned because of the damage. Others, like Ian Wilkes, shifted some of their horses to Skylight Training Center in Oldham County.
How long it will take to rebuild the damaged barns is yet to be determined and Churchill Downs President Kevin Flanery said the track would consult with horsemen as well as engineers about the design of potential new facilities.
"I think there could be total tear-downs," Arnold said. "That line of barns of Ian Wilkes, Steve Margolis and myself got just annihilated. But it is pretty remarkable as far as a bad wreck goes, it could have been a lot worse."