THE MAGAZINE

The Derby’s Unbridled Security

By Robert Elliott

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.

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