The Derby’s Unbridled Security

By Robert Elliott

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.



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