04/30/2002 11:00PM

2002 theme: Tight security

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LOUISVILLE, Ky. - The increased security measures seen at sporting and cultural events since the September terrorist attacks will be in place this weekend at Churchill Downs.

Beginning Friday with the Kentucky Oaks program and continuing Saturday with the Derby, Churchill Downs will have a higher level of security at entrances, an increase in security personnel at the track, and restrictions on picnic equipment and other items customers bring on the grounds.

Churchill Downs president Alex Waldrop said the decision to change security and entrance policies was made shortly after Sept. 11, and that the new policies are similar to those used at the Breeders' Cup, Super Bowl, and Winter Olympics.

"If it weren't for Sept. 11, we wouldn't have seen it," Waldrop said. "We believe this is a measured response that balances the genuine need for security with the desire to limit the inconvenience. We have a two-day event with 250,000 people, and with the international nature of the event we felt we needed more security."

Customers headed to the infield, a popular destination for casual racegoers, will notice the most significant changes. Customarily, the infield crowd brings food, drinks, and picnic items.

No weapons or cell phones

This year, the lengthy list of prohibited items includes weapons, bottles and cans, coolers, thermoses, grills, alcohol, backpacks or other duffel bags, umbrellas, and strollers.

The permitted items include food brought in clear bags no larger than 18 by 18 inches, box lunches in clear bags, cell phones, cameras, camcorders, binoculars, purses, blankets, and small radios and televisions. All electronic devices will be inspected at entrance gates.

The track is allowing customers to carry small, clear bags into the grounds so security staff can quickly glance at contents. Chairs will be permitted through gate 3, while blankets and tarpaulins are permitted through gates 1 and 3 for use on the infield only.

All customers must pass through barriers outside the entrance and will be subject to a magnetic wand search at the gates. Vehicles on track lots will also be subject to search.

To accommodate infield picnickers, Churchill has arranged with a local grocery store, Thornton's, to provide two venues for people to buy picnic items at costs closer to supermarket prices than concession stand prices. The infield can hold 60,000 people, and Waldrop said the two Thornton's stores will have 15 pay stations each and the capacity to service 70,000 people each day. The markets will sell items such as bread, sandwiches, drinks, coolers, and ice. In addition, track concessions will offer reduced prices on some items.

Waldrop said signs in parking lots will serve as reminders of the prohibited items in an effort to avoid confusion at entry gates. "Our goal is to inform people before they arrive at the gates," Waldrop said.

In the past, Churchill Downs has confiscated alcohol at the entrances. That policy has not changed, Waldrop said. "We've never allowed people to bring alcohol," Waldrop said. "Once they come inside the gate they can buy it. People will still try to sneak it in, but it will be harder."

Additional security also will be in place for the Preakness Stakes at Pimlico on May 18 and the Belmont Stakes at Belmont Park on June 8.

Pimlico and Belmont act

Pimlico officials on Tuesday announced security procedures for the Black-Eyed Susan program on May 17 and the Preakness Stakes. Pimlico, too, is limiting the items that may be brought into the clubhouse and grandstand, and is adding security personnel. Belmont Park has the benefit of experience, having hosted the Breeders' Cup this fall.

"We're going to put the same plan in motion," said Bill Nader, senior vice president of the New York Racing Association. Belmont will permit customers to bring coolers into the backyard area and track apron.

Churchill Downs sent staff members to the Breeders' Cup at Belmont Park, and in February to the Super Bowl in New Orleans and the Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City to observe security procedures and customer service, Waldrop said.

"Our plan is more like the Olympics in that we'll have an emphasis on hospitality," Waldrop said. "We won't have armed guards, but Churchill Downs employees."

Waldrop said there are 61 gates surrounding the track designed to ensure a quick admission procedure. The security plan was developed in conjunction with several local, state, and national law enforcement agencies, according to a track statement released in March.

"Our goal is to get people in quicker than before," Waldrop said. "We've added 20 percent additional gates. We want to focus on speed and friendliness."

Nonetheless, the track is urging customers to arrive early. Gates open at 8 a.m., with first post at 11:30 a.m. on both Friday and Saturday.

Any effect the new security measures could have on the size of the crowd was downplayed by Waldrop, who declined to estimate the audience for Friday and Saturday's races.

Last year, the Kentucky Derby program drew 154,210, second only to the 163,628 that attended the centennial running in 1974. The crowd for the 2001 Kentucky Oaks was 102,904, second only to the 2000 figure of 106,156.

"I don't want to make a prediction," about attendance, Waldrop said. "We have no sign of decline in interest in the event. Hotels are filling up. There are no signs that we are in for a low crowd.

"We'll be able to learn a little from Friday and go from there," he said. "It will be a dry run, but not much of a dry run. We'll have 100,000 people."