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Tornado Hits Near Churchill Downs

By Associated Press

Louisville, KY – A few barns partially collapsed and horses ran loose for a time Wednesday at Churchill Downs, home of the Kentucky Derby, after a powerful storm that spawned tornadoes blew through Louisville.

Officials have no immediate reports of serious injuries to humans or horses at the track on the southwestern side of Louisville. A mayor's spokesman said a couple people may have been trapped in their cars in high water on the east side of the city.

The National Weather Service said radar was tracking a confirmed tornado near the famed track and the University of Louisville campus about 8:10 p.m. Though no races are run on Wednesdays, there was simulcasting of races elsewhere, so people may have been there, said track President Kevin Flanery.

At least five barns were damaged, as was the chapel. The barn damage was on the backside of the track where workers live in the dorms, Flanery said.

"It's a hell of a mess back here," track spokesman John Asher said of the barn area where the damage was concentrated.

The iconic twin spires above the clubhouse overlooking the finish line were not apparently damaged, Flanery said. A Texas Hold 'em poker tournament was being held on the front side of the track when the storm hit, Asher said.

"Clearly we've got several barns with significant damage and we're just trying to make sure people and the animals are safe first," Flanery said.

Some horses had gotten loose for a time, but were later secured, Asher said. At least 1,300 horses were stable at Churchill, said vice president of racing Donnie Richardson.

Vans were being brought in to move horses out of torrential downpours and from the barns, Asher said. At least one barn was flooded by a water main break and horses were being moved to a safe area. The nearby state fairgrounds and Keeneland Racetrack in Lexington offered stall space if it was needed, he said.

The Kentucky Derby, the first leg of horseracing's Triple Crown, has been run for more than 130 years at the track. Churchill Downs is in its spring meet, in which racing takes place Thursday through Sunday until July 4.

The track has a capacity to handle a crowd of some 160,000-plus for the Kentucky Derby.

The 136-year-old track, owned by Churchill Downs Inc., underwent extensive renovations in 2002 and 2003 totaling more than $200 million. Thursday's racing card was cancelled because of the damage.

In August 2009, a flash flood heavily damaged the Kentucky Derby Museum, situated just off Gate 1 at Churchill Downs. The museum was closed for nine months while it underwent a $5.5 million renovation.

No damage has been reported on the university campus, which is sparsely populated at this time of year, said John Drees, a university spokesman. Drees said there were reports of power outages around campus. Dwight Mitchell, spokesman for Louisville police, said two buildings were damaged near the campus, though.

Eyewitnesses said they saw about a dozen power poles downed near the track and university. A weather service team will determine whether a tornado or straight line winds did the damage. More than 7,600 customers were without power in Jefferson County where Louisville is located.

The worst damage appeared to be in the Churchill Downs area, said Chris Poynter, a spokesman for Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer

Weather service meteorologist Ryan Sharp said damage also was reported in the Shively area, west of downtown Louisville.

Storm sirens wailed in Kentucky's largest city as multiple tornado warnings were issued as the storm went through.

"It looks like we dodged what could have been a really bad ... evening," Poynter said.