Wednesday’s tornado that hit Churchill Downs damaged barns, but fortunately no horses or people were injured. Back in April, I wrote of the 1915 tornado that damaged the Latonia track and killed 11 race horses on a Pennsylvania Railroad train bound for Windsor, Ontario. Given that history and what happened Wednesday afternoon, I wondered about how often this may have previously occurred. Fortunately, not too often it appears, but still more than one would like.
In June 1916, a tornado hit Oaklawn in Hot Springs, Arkansas, killing at least 80 people in its path. As the June 11 Daily Racing Form noted:
In April 1925, the Miami Jockey Club track at Hialeah suffered only minor damage—“the tearing out of one corner of one stable”—when a tornado struck, resulting in less than $200 in damage. However, in September of the following year, the track was not so fortunate, when a devastating storm hit the region, killing over 250 people. The track’s grandstand lost large portions of its roof and several stables were blown down, according to a September 22 New York Times article.
In June 1925, more than 3,000 people were in attendance at Ak-Sar-Ben race track in Omaha when a tornado hit, blowing the grandstand roof off. Amazing, the track survived a massive May 6, 1975 tornado, but race trackers witnessed it pass nearby; track photographer Bob Dunn captured images of it which appear on this website, and he is found discussing the twister in this 2005 retrospective:
In April 1948, one man died and four others injured when a “baby tornado” hit Keeneland just a day before the 11-day spring meet opening; more than 700 horses were stabled at the track, including 100 in the affected barns, but all escaped serious injury. As the Kentucky New Era newspaper noted:
“Two barns filled with horses for the Keeneland race meeting opening today were extensively damaged but none of the animals was hurt. Roofs were torn from both of the barns. Arthur Radel, 40, Louisville, a groom for the Peavy stables, was killed while sleeping in the groom’s quarters of one of the barns...The severe wind storm, accompanied by heavy rain and lightning struck about 2:40 a.m. and raged for more than an hour. The wind, which carried a force of 85 miles an hour, swept across a section of Warren Wright’s Calumet Farm, tearing down fences and uprooting trees. Keeneland officials said today’s race program would be held as scheduled. No damage was done to the track and stands.”
However, probably the worst fright of all occurred during the May 27, 1896 tornado that hit St. Louis. Deemed by the New York Times the country’s worst disaster since the Johnstown flood, over 500 people died in the twister, including it was initially believed 150 people in the collapsedgrandstands of St. Louis Fair Grounds race track when the storm hit shortly after the fifth of six races. Fortunately, those early reports were incorrect. According to contemporary newspaper accounts late compiled in book form by Julian Curzon (pp. 183-187):
“At the Fair Grounds races, 3000 persons received a fright that they will not soon recover from. The roof of the grand stand was blown off and completely demolished, a portion of it striking a horse hitched to a milk wagon on the Natural Bridge road. The horse was killed instantly. No lives were lost, and that such is a fact is indeed miraculous. The rain probably saved many persons from being crushed to death by falling portions of the room. Whenever the visitors at the Fair Grounds are overtaken by a heavy rain all hands either seek the basement or betting ring as places for shelter. When the storm broke the portion of the crowd not in the betting ring at once turned down into the basement. There they escaped being injured.”
“The crashing of the roof on the ground was like the explosion of a hundred cannons and together with the thunder and lightning sent fear to the hearts of every person on the grounds. Every one thought of the cyclone and its terrible ravages and pandemonium reigned for fully fifteen minutes. Women became hysterical and ran around the basement like mad while strong men were terror-stricken and speechless. Only the presence of mind of a few kept the crowd from surging out of the doors leading to the north walk, where certain death from flying timbers awaited them.”
Racing continued the following day, with only the lower part of the grandstand being used.“In the betting ring, where many speculators were in line trying to cash on the fifth race, which had just been run, and others waiting for the odds to be posted on the sixth event, the greatest confusion prevailed when the storm lashed forth in all its fury. The betting shed stood well the test of the wind and the only damage done was the blowing away of the awnings that surrounded the affair. As the wind continued to blow, several hundred persons who fancied that it was only a matter of a few moments when every building on the grounds would be razed to the earth, ran as fast as their legs would carry them across the track to the center field. There they stood amid the thunder and lightning watching the wind spend its fury.”
As one commenter noted, the Great Barrington Fair track suffers a devastating tornado hit, on May 29, 1995. Here's a link to a recent television retrospective discussing that event with some footage of the destruction.