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The Derby's Unbridled Security

Several hours before a dark bay colt named Barbaro smoked the field by six-and-a-half lengths at the 2006 Kentucky Derby, Saundra Spaulding was working the Churchill Downs telephone switchboard. At one point, as she tried to focus on the callers, she was distracted by caterwauling and banging on the floor above. At first she couldn’t figure out the source—until it dawned on her that she was beneath the on-site jail. The inmates were getting restless. “One lady was yelling, and kept going on and on. It was obvious she had had too much [to drink],” says Spaulding. That was at 2 p.m. By the end of the day, scores of people had passed through the two cells on their way to the downtown Louisville, Kentucky, jail.

The 132nd Derby drew 157,536 people—the second largest crowd on record. From the opening bugle to the final race, they smoked cigars, won and lost bets, elbowed through swarming crowds, sweated to the brink of dehydration under a burning sun—and drank copious quantities of beer and mint juleps. Even though the mint juleps are pricey, 120,000 of the bourbon-and-crushed-ice concoctions would be consumed by the end of the day, along with 300,000 cans of beer.

Given that strong drink is as intrinsic to the Derby as fast horses and seersucker suits, some errant behavior is expected. But thorough wantonness is not tolerated. “We don’t like rowdies around here,” says Elissa Harris, a veteran officer on the Churchill Downs security force, a team that faces the enormous challenge of providing protection for “the most exciting two minutes in sports.”

Along with ensuring that average spectators don’t endanger themselves or others, security must safeguard a host of VIPs, such as well-known entertainers, business leaders, politicians, and diplomats from all over the world, not to mention the 1,400 horses that are the real celebrities of the day. They do so knowing that any mishap can be instantly broadcast around the globe by the thousands of journalists in attendance.

Heading up the effort is Ed Blaser, director of security at Churchill Downs, who relies not only on his internal security force but also on assistance from federal agencies, local and state police departments, and even U.S. military personnel.

Jockeying for the Winner’s Circle

The Louisville Jockey Club was founded in 1874 by Col. Meriwether Lewis Clark, a grandson of explorer William Clark of Lewis and Clark fame. It was meant to showcase the Kentucky breeding industry, and in that regard, it has been wildly successful: 99 of the horses that have won the Derby have been bred in the “Bluegrass State.”

The Jockey Club was rebuilt in 1895 with a new grandstand featuring the famous Twin Spires that have come to symbolize what was incorporated as Churchill Downs in 1937. Today, the 140-acre property is split into three different sections: the front side housing the grandstand, paddock area, and clubhouse; the infield, a spacious meadow surrounded by the track; and the back side, where there are 47 barns numbered 1 to 48 (in a nod to superstition there is no number 13). Three tunnels run through the infield from the front and sides. The property can be accessed via eighteen gates; only four of those are available to the public.

Planning for the Big Day

About two months before the big race, a law enforcement meeting is held involving all of the agencies that will be present during the Derby and the previous day’s blockbuster, the Kentucky Oaks—a race that also attracts more than 100,000 people. The Churchill Downs security team gives the agencies a projected wish list, and they reply with an estimate of how many personnel and what equipment they will deploy.

For 2006, as in years past, some 35 federal agencies were available to assist in event planning and enforcement, including the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF), the United States Secret Service, the United States Postal Service, and the Attorney General’s office.

A couple of weeks before the Derby, U.S. Army personnel come in from Fort Knox to take readings, looking for radiological, biological, or bacterial elements in the air. The vigilance steps up as the race nears. “We keep track of the air in this place all week long, including event day,” says Blaser.

Four days before the race, the Louisville Fire Department brings in several fire trucks to park in the infield and on the front and back sides. Firemen check access routes and squirrel away their “donut packs” full of equipment—axes, boots, fire retardant clothing—in the areas they will cover.

A week before the Derby, the Louisville Metro Police sends its bomb dogs out to Churchill Downs, and they stay on the case until the race has been run. Some of the eight canines are sensitive enough to sniff out a bullet.

Three days before race day, Kentucky SWAT teams also pay a visit to familiarize themselves with the track. “They know every inch of the property. They have the blueprints and access to everything,” says Blaser.

Squeezing in. Since the crowd is three times bigger than the 52,000-person grandstand capacity, creative solutions have emerged to accommodate race-goers. In parking lots adjacent to the track, well-appointed and spacious white tents are available for VIPs.

Within the infield, hugging the inside rail near the finish line, collapsible minitowers, called “Outback Suites,” have been brought to the site for the last two years. These structures have a metal foundation housing an inside chamber, topped by an open-air covered platform reached by stairs. They come complete with theater seating, catered foods, tended bars, and betting facilities.

More seating is above the grandstand in the “Jockey Suites,” which are bought by companies or individuals for six figures per year. Up to 15 people can fit comfortably in the rooms, which have a balcony that overlooks the track, well-stocked bars, and kitchens with cabinets and sinks.

Folding chairs are brought in by some of the infield revelers, but they can only tote them through Gate 3, which leads directly to the expansive meadow. They are banned from entry at Gate 1 on the front side due to fears they will be set up amidst the heaving crowds. “It’s so crowded on the front side, if you put a chair in there, someone will fall over it, or hit somebody with it, or block fire exits,” says Jerry Jones, a sergeant on the Churchill Downs security force.

Out to pasture. Parking spaces are scarce relative to the size of the crowd. Employees are ordered to leave their vehicles a mile from the track and ride the trolley bus into work on the day of the big race. Blaser himself does not park at Churchill Downs on Derby day.

Central Avenue—running in front of Churchill Downs—is barricaded and through-traffic is barred. Cabs and buses running on the road on race day are checked for the proper documentation—they must have an all-route pass.

“There is a book kept—we know the exact buses that are coming here and who is supposed to be driving them,” says Blaser. Hundreds of National Guardsmen direct traffic near the facility.

The thousands of employees working at the track must wear identification badges. The dictum applies to third-party staff, such as those working at Levy Restaurants food concessions and maintenance crews servicing the Tote machines that take the bets.

The months of preparations all come to a head on race day. The focus narrows to entry at the gates, crowd control, surveillance, and emergency response.

Gated Community

At 8 a.m. on the morning of “The Run for the Roses,” the sun casts shadows from the Twin Spires down onto the paddock area. Horse handlers mill about in corduroys and caps. Vendors set up their stalls of Derby paraphernalia, and early-arriving bettors cut into their first beer of the day while scrutinizing tip sheets. The media shuffles in, riding the elevator up to the 6th floor pressroom overlooking the finish line.

The security team is already hard at it. At Gates 1 and 3, where workers and spectators are filtering in, the guards keep a “stop list” that contains the names and sometimes the photographs of undesirables to be turned away. There are hundreds of people on the list, many of whom are regulars known by the guards.

“These are people who have done something all over the United States that makes it so they should not be here,” says Jones. Their crimes vary: theft, vehicle vandalism, drug possession, drunkenness, fighting, or even status as an illegal alien. Churchill Downs liaises with other tracks to keep the rap sheet up to date.

Security officers at the gates examine patrons’ bags and belongings to make sure nothing illicit enters. Metal detectors are used. The rules are clear: no bottles and cans, grills, alcoholic beverages, duffel bags, thermoses, backpacks, luggage, wagons, strollers, umbrellas, or weapons.

Even with security on full display at the entrances, wise guys take their chances and try to sneak arms inside. One man packing a gun was caught and charged. Plenty of knives were confiscated, their blades snapped off and tossed in a dumpster. It’s not just the men; one woman tried to smuggle in nunchakus in her bag.

People will go to great lengths to try to slip booze onto the grounds. At the 132nd Derby, security officer John Bell found a pair of binoculars that appeared strangely opaque when he peered through them. “When I tilted them back, I heard a slosh,” he says. Bell found two 8-ounce containers of whisky where the eyepieces should have been.

One race fan showed up far in advance of Derby day and was spied burying a large cache of bourbon by a clump of bushes in the infield. Another melted the writing off cans of beer and wrapped them in root beer labels.

A man-and-wife team cooked up false press credentials and raided the sixth-floor media bar, drinking and stuffing bottles into a sack until reporters noticed their suspicious behavior. As they were being arrested, Blaser says the inebriated man complained about a lack of “southern hospitality.”

Controlling the Party

The overall vibe at the Derby is carnival-esque. Floating down from the Millionaire’s-Row box seats on the front side are women in elegant dresses, heels, and elaborate wide-brimmed hats, escorted by men strutting around in buckskin shoes and seersucker suits, or unabashedly loud color montages of plum, lime green, orange, and purple.

Mint julep vendors cruise the paddock area yelling, “Who’s ready? No waiting! Who needs me?” The cigar hawkers do a brisk business and sell out by midafternoon. Bettors crane their necks to watch their picks on banks of television screens.

“Go Number 1, go!” hoots one woman in the Paddock Bar. “I put a $1,000 on that horse and it’s 39 to 1,” she explains to no one in particular.

In the infield, people are dancing and drinking, headgear is being fashioned out of Budweiser boxes, and lines for betting windows are dozens deep.

Team effort. Blaser’s roughly 40-member security staff is no match for the raucous crowd, so at the onset of the Derby week of festivities the team is bolstered partly by contract personnel hired for the occasion. The newcomers quickly get a taste of the madness. “The first day I had three people quit. They are overwhelmed,” says Blaser. The contractors who stick with it help at the admission gates as well as patrolling the premises; they are backed by local law enforcement officers from the Sheriff’s Department, the Kentucky State Police, and the Louisville Metro Police.

In addition, hundreds of Kentucky National Guardsmen chip in, canvassing, in particular, the rowdy infield. Overall, more than 1,000 local, state, and federal law enforcement officials bolster the in-house security team.

Spotters are posted everywhere, looking out for pickpockets, ticket scalpers, purse-snatchers, illegal drugs, and weapons. The infield is gridded off into sections so staff can quickly pinpoint any location.

Around the circumference of the infield, four green bunkers are used by the law enforcement authorities as rest stations. Stocked with water, they have capacity for more than 20 people.

Detentions. Anyone who is disruptive and doesn’t take a warning to heart or who gets out of control on substances will be taken into custody. “You can’t reason with a drunk,” says Jones.

The on-site corrections facility with the two prison cells is in the administration building adjacent to the main gate. Computers, phones, and booking vans are all set up to process and transport detainees to the city jail. If an incident occurs in the infield, offenders can be held in a large Louisville Metro Police trailer. A lane created by two barbed-wire fences that leads to one of the infield’s tunnels is used to drive the troublemakers out of Churchill Downs on their way downtown.

Stable Security

On the back side, a sheriff watches over each of the 20 Derby horses at their stalls. No one is allowed to get near the animals during the five hours before the race unless a state official is present. “You can’t even have private time with your horse,” says Blaser. A register is kept of every person who visits the steeds so that if an incident occurs, it is fully documented.

Two months in advance of the race, the Churchill Downs security team trains every person who is going to be around the horses at the track. The sessions last four hours and instruct trainees on what to look out for, how to handle intruders, who needs to be contacted in case anything happens, and what information needs to be tendered.

Trainers are the vanguard of the effort. “We try to cover every possible situation so there are no surprises,” says Blaser. “The horsemen are a great help. The trainer runs the barn, and we expect them to direct law enforcement.”


To further keep tabs on the roiling crowds, a network of CCTV cameras was installed at Churchill Downs as part of a three-year, $121 million renovation project completed in 2005. Thirty-six cameras now watch over the loading dock, the betting areas, the general offices, the inside of the clubhouse, and other zones.

There are cameras both inside and outside of the money-counting rooms, areas that merit particular attention considering the amount of cash that changes hands. Total wagering on the 2006 Derby, including on-track and simulcast betting, was a record $118 million.

The cameras are digital and are monitored live from Gate 1 and from the desks of principal security officials. They can be viewed via the Internet. The cameras record for up to 48 hours, and footage that is considered important is cherry-picked and preserved. Blaser said the limited recording time is a drawback and adds that the security team is working toward a system that can record up to two weeks’ worth of images.

Emergency Response

The most common security issues at the Derby are dehydration and other medical emergencies. But emergency and disaster response are also a priority. The track has suffered unusually severe weather and is haunted by the specter of fire. In 1995, a blaze ripped through Ellis Park racetrack in nearby Evansville, Indiana, killing 27 horses and leveling a barn. The same track had been hit by fire in 1978, killing 31 horses. The latter was determined to be arson.

On the back side of Churchill Downs, wooden buildings and mounds of hay and straw are potential matchsticks for an inferno. Smoking in the area is prohibited, hot plates are banned, and many of the buildings that used to be entirely made of wood have now got a foundation of cinder block. The barns have sprinkler systems both inside the horses’ stalls and hanging from the main ceiling.

On Derby day, firefighters are brought in to constantly peruse the barn area and elsewhere. Fire trucks are parked in each of the three main sectors of the grounds. All of the equipment arrives long before race day. Parking is monitored along the streets crisscrossing the barn area so that roadways and access routes are kept clear for fire engines and emergency teams.

Tornadoes also pose a threat. In 1974 a major twister hit Louisville as part of what was called the Super Outbreak of tornadoes that struck 13 states. It cut a 21-mile path and destroyed several hundred homes in the Louisville area. In the summer of 2005 a tornado came close enough to Churchill Downs to cause an evacuation and the cancellation of that day’s racing (the patrons received free tickets to a future event). The track’s security team has a system of codes and procedures in place to move the crowds off the lower levels and get them to safe areas such as the tunnels.

Evacuation of hardcore bettors is not always an easy task, even in the case of a natural disaster or an illness. “I’ve had people in first aid, who we think are having a heart attack, and the doctor is working on them, and they want to know if we can get a bet down for them,” says Blaser. “I’ve had people who are being transported out of here on stretchers after they fell, or had a stroke, or had a bad spell with their medicine, and they want us to cash their winning tickets.”

For routine medical needs, emergency medical service trucks are parked at ubiquitous locales. “There are always heat casualties,” says Sergeant Tony Simpson of the Kentucky National Guard, standing at the entrance of a first aid station. “People dehydrate because of the alcohol and have to come in and get an IV.”

Golf carts are used to transport those who have passed out and are being shuttled to the hospital.

After the Races

Racing is cancelled for three days after the Derby because the place is such a mess. As cleanup squads are combing Churchill Downs, digging through a topsoil of betting chits, beer cans, racing forms, food wrappers, and cigar stubs, planning for security of the next Derby is already underway.

An appraisal of what went right and wrong with the security is developed and run by the track president. Problematic subcontractors are scratched off next year’s roster; statistics are crunched on the number of arrests and crimes.

The review is a routine annual drill, and every year yields lessons. A few years ago the crowd rushed one of the exit tunnels off the infield and caused mayhem. Security personnel now open the fire gates on the perimeter a half hour before the Derby is run. The move accommodates the many patrons who want to vacate Churchill Downs after the famous 10th race instead of lingering for the final two events. The fire gates accept 15 people at a time, a spacious alternative to the skinny turnstiles.

Another problem has been tougher to solve. In the late 1990s, cruising became popular, bringing with it drinking, partying, and violence. Central Avenue was closed off to traffic in 2000.

The cruisers relocated to Broadway Avenue in downtown Louisville and several people died in subsequent shootings. In 2006 Broadway was barricaded to quell the problem, and although the huge volume of cars choking the street was cut down, crowds developed on nearby thoroughfares. This year, police arrested at least 20 people on the night of the Derby alone, and 83 the previous evening.

Back at the track, some of the on-site technology is being upgraded or juggled. “We are in the process of increasing the number of cameras and repositioning some we believe could be better located,” says Blaser.

There are six blank camera screens on the network that are due to be brought online. And this year, for the first time, security personnel also used RAE Systems’ hand-held wireless toxic gas detectors. Other devices are being tried out and introduced into the network, including intelligent surveillance systems, says Blaser, who was reluctant to discuss specifics.

But the most significant and recurring lesson revolves around the human element. It’s an eclectic security force that assembles for race day. “The one big lesson that has been learned is that you have to have a good working relationship with all the participants in the security plan,” says Blaser.

“Everyone has their expertise and their expectations. If members of the group are not doing what’s expected, you have to react to that quickly, or it has a domino effect.”

Robert Elliott is an assistant editor at Security Management.


The Kentucky Derby is a wide-open affair where heavy drinking, smoking, and betting by more than 157,000 spectators makes for a security challenge much bigger than what can be handled by the Churchill Downs staff. On Derby day, the track’s in-house security team is bolstered by more than 1,000 officials representing some 35 federal agencies including the FBI, CIA, United States Postal Service, Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF), and others.

Among the more prevalent problems facing the security team are unruly patrons who drink to excess; pickpockets; purse-snatchers; ticket scalpers; and those smuggling booze and weapons into Churchill Downs. To cut down on the problems, bag checks are performed and metal detectors are in use at the gates, spotters are placed in various key locations on the grounds, and a ubiquitous closed-circuit television network is monitored by the in-house security staff. For the rowdiest patrons who get arrested, there is an on-site jail where they are kept until a paddy wagon takes them to the downtown Louisville prison. Cameras are trained on the money-counting rooms to watch over the enormous amounts of cash being handled.

Fire is greatly feared: veteran fire department officials constantly make the rounds during the races, particularly in the barn area, where hay, straw, and wooden buildings present the matchsticks for a blaze.

Robert Elliott is an assistant editor at Security Management.