YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

Trying to Grab the Reins to Kentucky Derby Security

Horse racing: Officials, law enforcement will try to strike a balance between safety and keeping the fans comfortable at Churchill Downs.


LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Charles Matasich has been to the Kentucky Derby for the last 35 years, adding to the festival-like flavor with his rose-adorned cowboy hat and green jacket covered with ornamental pins.

If Matasich and his pins can make it past the metal detectors at Churchill Downs this year, he will again be among the expected crowd of 150,000.

But he fears that tightened security in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks will do nothing more than frustrate fans and take away some of the fun.

"It's going to have a very different feel this year," he said. "Very, very different."

A force of 1,400 officers from various agencies--double the manpower for any previous event--will patrol the track on Derby Day.

Concrete barricades will limit the traffic outside it, all buses and limousines will be swept for explosives, and all vehicles entering the track will be subject to searches.

Everyone from infield patrons to the owners and trainers to the celebrities who sip mint juleps on Millionaires' Row will be scanned with metal-detecting wands upon entering.

Banned items include many things fans have lugged into the infield for years to add to their makeshift campsites.

Some race regulars are angered to the point of not attending.

"It's going to be too much of a hassle," said Jennifer Hicks of Louisville, who's been to the Derby the last 13 years.

Churchill Downs President Alex Waldrop said track and local law-enforcement officials worked to strike the right balance between protection and convenience.

"We realized we were in a no-win situation," Waldrop said. "Some people consider security a high priority. ... Then there's a large contingent who are used to the Derby atmosphere who are going to be dismayed if we were to change that environment."

The list of banned items includes bottles of suntan lotion and water, cans, coolers, grills, thermoses, backpacks, duffel bags, luggage, trash bags, wagons, strollers, umbrellas and anything that can be used as a weapon.

Food can be brought in only in clear, plastic bags no larger than 18 inches square.

Chairs, blankets and tarps are allowed in, but only at certain gates. Purses and baby bags are subject to search.

"It's one thing to not allow me those items aboard an airplane," said Peter Nicolos of Hopkinsville. "But picture me in an open area in the midst of 125,000 or so people. I could hurt an individual or two with a corkscrew or a can of something, but I could inflict just as much damage with my fists. I mean, what are they trying to prevent?

"If they're worried about a terrorist, the guy's not going to put a bomb in a cooler. He'll probably strap it to his body. So, instead of checking purses, they better have everybody pull up their shirts or pull down their pants."

Once infield patrons get through the gates, they'll be able to purchase most of the banned items--including sunscreen--at two temporary convenience stores. The stores will not sell alcohol.

Waldrop said the track will not raise the prices of other items to take advantage of the restrictions.

That's not good enough for Dave Grisham of Louisville, who said the measures will keep him away from the festivities this year.

For the last eight years, Grisham has taken his wife and children to the Kentucky Oaks, the race for fillies the day before the Derby that's traditionally attended by local fans and their families.

"Most people don't go to the infield on either day to watch the horses run--they go there to have a nice day with friends and their kids," Grisham said. "Most people don't want to bother purchasing a cooler. They want to bring their own. They want to bring in whatever they want, do whatever they want and make a day of it.

"This kind of eliminates a lot of that."

Grisham also considered the long lines that are likely. He foresees thousands of Derby patrons setting up camp outside the track and spending the day there, like football tailgaters.

"I'm sure a lot of people will just say, 'It's just not worth standing in line, paying whatever it is to get in, and then having to buy everything once you get in. Let's have our own party,'" he said.

Waldrop said the potential lines were a chief concern.

"The best thing we can do on Derby Day is get people in quickly and get them in their seats. The worst thing we can do is come up with a security plan that leaves people standing in line for hours," he said.

"We're trying our best, but we're also trying to tell people to expect delays."

Unlike the Super Bowl and the Olympics, the Derby did not get the National Security Special Event designation that city officials asked for in December.

Milton Dohoney, Louisville's director of public safety, said the federal Office of Homeland Security told the city of its decision not to grant the status.

"They said it was a question of resources and that they were trying to determine the appropriate threshold--if the Derby gets it, what about the Indianapolis 500, what about NASCAR races, what about other events?" he said.

Los Angeles Times Articles