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.
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.