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A Race to the Finish

Horse racing is all about the breeding. In a similar sense, when you get an architect and a contractor with pedigrees that reflect a deep-rooted history of working with Churchill Downs, the end result is sure to be a winning trifecta.

In 2001, the board of Churchill Downs Incorporated in Kentucky reviewed a renovation plan for Churchill Downs, the company’s then 127-year-old flagship track and the home of the famed Kentucky Derby, that would span four years and cost $121 million. The uncertainty of the nation brought on by the tragedies of Sept. 11 that year caused a pause in the plan, but didn’t bring it to a halt. The decision was made to proceed with the renovation in two phases.

The Louisville-based architectural firm, Luckett & Farley, was given the job of designing the renovation. This firm’s history with Churchill Downs extends back to the design of the twin spires in 1895, which was completed by an architect who was a predecessor of Luckett & Farley.

“Luckett & Farley knew what type of design we needed for the renovation,” explained John Asher, vice president of communications for Churchill Downs. “They’ve been intimately involved with Churchill Downs for years.”

Sullivan & Cozart, Inc., the construction manager based in Louisville, Ky., also has a long history with Churchill Downs. “We have a photo, dating back to about 1940, of the founder of Sullivan & Cozart, Dan Sullivan Sr., overseeing the infield tunnel construction at Churchill Downs,” said Dan Polston, senior project manager.

With all the right picks in place, the renovation plans soon started.

The Yearling Sale

Every fall, yearling horses with the best bloodlines are auctioned off. The horses are bought with hopes of developing them into big winners in two years. The yearling sales mark the beginning of a new generation of race horses.

The architect and construction manager were tasked with developing a renovation plan that would expand Churchill Downs to include first-class facilities and amenities allowing the historic track to comfortably host a range of business and social events during its racing meets and throughout the year. They worked together on a guaranteed maximum price contract with Churchill Downs of $121 million for both phases. The original plans for the project had been specified using primarily masonry, insulated metal panels and fiber reinforced plastic—and it came in over budget.

In reviewing their options, they found they could accomplish the same, if not better, aesthetics more economically by using more exterior insulation and finish systems in the design. They combined this with a cement-board stucco system on the high-impact areas in the seating sections that would have the same appearance to visitors, yet maintain a consistent look while performing specific functions. The use of EIFS would also reduce the number of control joints required, improving the aesthetics.

“EIFS was more cost effective and better to use with regard to scheduling,” explained Rob Diamond, executive vice president, Architect of Luckett and Farley. “We needed a material that would allow us to do some custom detailing, and you can do that with EIFS. The detailing was key to articulating the existing look of Churchill Downs in these new phases.”

Churchill Downs reviewed and approved the materials selected for the exterior without question. “We know the facility and the feel and character of it. We’ve been on the same page for many years so they depended on us to choose the right materials to create the desired look and feel,” Diamond said.

And They’re Off!

The first phase of the project started in the summer of 2002. It included the construction of three new floors of luxury suites. One floor was completed for the 2003 Kentucky Derby, and the remainder of the first phase was completed in time for the opening of the track’s Fall Meet that year.

Phase two of the project involved much more work. Before they could get out of the starting gate, Sullivan & Cozart needed to remove a 345-foot long section of the existing clubhouse. The plan was to rebuild from the ground up to create a new facility for year-round entertainment, business and convention purposes.

“This was a fast-track project,” Polston said. “We had 18 months to complete this phase, which consisted of 400,000 square feet of floor space, and the majority of it had very high-end finishes. The first and second floors had to be useable for Derby 2004 with final completion for Kentucky Derby 2005.”

The tight time line was only one aspect of the challenges of the project. Churchill Downs didn’t close or cancel any meets during the renovation. Times for each morning’s training sessions were adjusted slightly, but the contractors had to work around the daily schedule of the horses and the more than 70 days of racing in the track’s Spring and Fall Meets.

“We did most of our work at night,” said Don Martin, owner of Martin Drywall & Acoustical, the EIFS subcontractor. “The limited daytime hours made it difficult to get much done due to hot temperatures and general construction traffic.”

The track schedule made it difficult for the distributors to deliver product to the site too. “We could not deliver product while the horses trained in the morning, so we had to schedule a little differently to make sure product was there when the subcontractors were allowed to work,” explained Kurt Seifert of White Cap Construction Supply.

And if the scheduling wasn’t challenging enough, Mother Nature muddied the track, literally. The Louisville area experienced record rain in the fall, followed by freezing weather.

“For several months, we didn’t have three consecutive dry days to work. The ability to construct EIFS panels in the shop and then install them on site really helped the scheduling issues caused by the weather. Almost all of the cornice work was panelized,” Martin said.

Phase two consisted of about 90,000 square feet of EIFS with 12,000 lineal feet of detailed cornice work and more than 50 arches. Most all of the cornices were panelized off site and installed finished on the job.

“In my 20 years, this was truly the most challenging project I’ve ever done,” Martin said.

The Winner’s Circle

As one of the nation’s landmark sports facilities, it was crucial that the renovation of Churchill Downs was done with respect for its reputation and history, both from a national viewpoint and a community level.

Two phases of renovation were completed around an active track with daily training, two racing meets per year and three Kentucky Derbys—nobody on this job would tell you this was an easy project.

“In the end, the project was completed on schedule, within budget and without any major issues. We were very pleased with the final product, and we believe Churchill Downs is too,” Polston said.

About the Author

Ashley Feit is marketing communications manager for Degussa Wall Systems, Jacksonville, Fla.

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