LOUISVILLE, Ky. – As a record rainfall of nearly three inches fell, more than 157,000 spectators filled Churchill Downs for the 144th Kentucky Derby May 5 in Louisville. Making sure the day was safe and organized were Soldiers of the Kentucky Army National Guard's 198th Military Police Battalion.
Roughly 200 MPs of the 198th augmented the Louisville Metro Police and Churchill Downs in providing security, directing traffic and crowd control during the "most exciting two minutes in sports."
The crowd size and high-profile nature of an event like this one drives the necessity of having additional trained personnel on hand to help local law enforcement.
"Without the National Guard here, we simply couldn't do our job," said Matthew Meajher, a lieutenant with the Louisville Metropolitan Police Department. "There's no way we could secure this facility without having them here to help us.
"We use the National Guard to augment security for our entire backside of the Downs. The challenge is covering all the gates and gaps and keeping up with all the vehicular traffic, pedestrian traffic and there is just so many people that you can have all kinds of issues," Meajher added.
Standing between the gates where the racehorses enter and exit the track were MPs making sure things run as smoothly as a well-oiled engine.
"We are providing security for the horses and for the pedestrians having a good time but me want to make sure they do that safely - keep them aware of cars and horses that are coming through this area," said Pvt. Austin Culpa with the 438th MP Company.
Being able to assist in missions like this one is the National Guards specialty. Building relationships with local entities builds trust and a bond that makes the Guard unique.
"We’ve got a healthy relationship with the LMPD and we are here for them when they need us," said 2nd Lt. Jonathan Sturdivant , security officer in charge. "As National Guard members we are here to build rapport with the local populace and to make sure they stay safe for this event."
A lot of challenges are faced when you bring in a crowd this size. Having as many hands on deck really helps make things go according to plan.
"The biggest challenge has been dealing with the pedestrians in traffic. Everyone wants to get where they are going right now rather than follow directions from the signs and law enforcement," said 2nd Lt. Angel Pagan, traffic officer in charge. "So far though everything has been running smoothly getting the civilians into the track and hopefully later tonight getting them out as safely as possible."
This is a special event that isn’t lost on the Soldiers asked to work at the Derby. Likened to the Super Bowl, as far as notoriety and television coverage, the stage is very large and exciting for everyone involved.
"It’s a great feeling for me to assist with derby, when I found out I was going to be working the biggest horse race in the world, I got really excited because it’s a big deal," added Sturdivant.
As the hours of rain fell, and the more damp everyone got, it was the attitude of the Soldiers that impressed the ones they were working with.
"We’re all here in the elements and standing for long periods of time today and not one time did I hear the Soldiers complain about anything," said Meajher. "They seemed generally happy to be here to help out."
National Guard Soldiers weren't just used for security purposes outside the grounds; rain- drenched Guard Soldiers were guarding the Derby trophy, while other Soldiers and Airmen provided a rope detail in the winners circle to maintain the media after the race.
This was the 112th time the National Guard has been involved with the Kentucky Derby out of the 144 years Churchill Downs has been hosting the event.