03/26/2002 12:00AM

Tighter security at Derby and Oaks

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LOUISVILLE, Ky. - Security at Churchill Downs for the 128th Kentucky Oaks and Derby on May 3 and 4 will be tighter than for any previous runnings, because of measures that have been adopted across the United States since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

In a media conference at the track, Churchill officials unveiled sweeping changes in the procedures that will be implemented, including:

* Magnetic wand searches of all people entering the grandstand, clubhouse, and infield.

* The banning of coolers, backpacks, and all drink items, including nonalcoholic beverages, and restricting food items to those stored in clear plastic containers only.

* More uniformed security personnel in all areas.

* Vehicle barricades to all track entrance gates, and security sweeps of vehicles.

To partly offset barring patrons from bringing their own food and drink items, Churchill officials said two general-store type facilities will be opened in the infield to provide bread, sandwiches, drinks, coolers, ice, and other items at regular market prices. Also, the track's caterer, Levy's Restaurants, will reduce the price of some nonalcoholic beverages and increase the number of sale locations.

Alex Waldrop, president of Churchill, said security concerns "have never been of greater importance than today," adding that the track has relied on the expertise of such agencies as the Secret Service, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and various state and local police and fire departments "in formulating a security plan that we believe will provide maximum safety while allowing our fans to enjoy" themselves.

Earlier this year, Churchill was turned down by the federal government for a "special security status," which has been granted to only two sporting events, the Super Bowl and Winter Olympics. Nonetheless, Churchill proceeded with plans to significantly upgrade security.

The Oaks and Derby are the two most well-attended dates in racing each year in the U.S. Last year, 102,904 attended the Oaks and 154,210 saw the Derby.