THE MAGAZINE

The Derby’s Unbridled Security

By Robert Elliott

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.”

Surveillance
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.

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