Tornado strikes Kentucky Derby's historic home

June 23, 2011 - 7:44 PM
Kentucky Tornado

Part of Barn 23 used by trainer Steve Margolis is severley damaged Thursday, June 23, 2011 by the possible tornado that struck Churchill Downs in Louisville, Ky., Wednesday night. Margolis said Thursday that no horses were injured despite the roof collapse. The National Weather Service sent teams out Thursday to determine whether the funnel cloud reported in the area was the cause of the damage.(AP Photo/Garry Jones)

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) — Susan Margolis rushed to Churchill Downs on a rescue mission as a tornado was pummeling stables full of horses at the home of the Kentucky Derby.

The first twister to strike at the 136-year-old track demolished parts of her husband Steve's barn and six others Wednesday night but left without inflicting any human or equine casualties.

Churchill Downs' famed twin spires, along with the stands and clubhouse, were untouched by the tornado's swirling winds. The historic track has survived flooding, ice storms and heavy winds over the years, and now, for the first time, a tornado.

When it hit, the trainer and his wife rushed to the track near downtown Louisville.

"When we came around that corner last night, my mouth was so dry because I thought, 'Oh God, that's our barn,'" Susan Margolis said. "I thought we were going to find bodies of people, never mind the horses."

The National Weather Service said the tornado was classified as an F1 with wind speeds of 100 mph. The twister intensified as it moved away from the track and smashed a nearby business.

Every available pair of hands scrambled to pull horses from stables as the storm caved in roofs and tossed debris. Seven of the 48 backside barns and the track's chapel were damaged.

Dale Romans, trainer of Preakness winner Shackleford, had to pull 20 horses out of one of his barns.

"Ours wasn't near as bad as some of them," said Romans, who had to move a total of 200 horses due to the storms. "It's a pretty amazing thing."

Other horses were moved to undamaged barns at Churchill, private farms and Keeneland racetrack in Lexington.

Thursday's racing was canceled but Friday's card was expected to go off as scheduled.

Trainer William "Jinks" Fires said it looked as if something "took a bite" out of his barn. His horses were spooked by the storm — kicking the wall and bumping into stall doors — and he had to tranquilize two to settle them down.

Jerry Brown, a groom for trainer James Baker, was watching a movie with his wife in their apartment above a barn when the storm hit.

"I shut the door, grabbed my wife, we got over there in the corner and huddled," Brown said. "I said we have to ride it out because there's no way we could make it down the steps."

Once it was over, Brown went to Margolis' barn to clear debris and make a path for the horses to get out. The roof was bowed to the ground and the winds left a gaping hole in it.

Plenty of people pitched in to help.

"It doesn't matter who they worked for. If they saw a horse in need, they immediately put themselves in danger to get that horse out," track chaplain Ken Boehm said. Even the track's chapel sustained some roof damage.

Churchill Downs underwent extensive renovations in 2002 and 2003 totaling more than $200 million. In August 2009, a flash flood heavily damaged the Kentucky Derby Museum, which closed for nine months while it was renovated.

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Dylan Lovan is on Twitter at www.twitter.com/dylanlovan

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Associated Press writer Brett Barrouquere and AP freelancer Josh Abner also contributed to this report.