Increased security a mostly welcome presence

Crowd: Fans offer few complaints regarding stricter searches and added restrictions in the wake of Sept. 11.

May 19, 2002|By Jon Morgan | Jon Morgan,SUN STAFF

The first Preakness of the post-Sept. 11 era went off with few hitches yesterday as fans came prepared for longer lines, more thorough searches and new restrictions on what could be brought into the track.

"We were totally willing to be flexible about it. You had to be a little creative about how you pack your sandwiches, but we got an earlier start this year," said Susan Holler, of Fairfax Station, Va., who said she has attended each Preakness since 1989.

About 20 percent more law enforcement officers were on hand than last year, including representatives of the Baltimore city and county police departments, Maryland state police and National Guard, FBI and Secret Service, said Baltimore Police Col. John McEntee, coordinator of security for the day. He declined to say how many officers were involved, but said it was fewer than 1,000.

Video surveillance of public areas was also in use, and there were extra plainclothes officers. At the main gates, members of the city police SWAT team were armed with semi-automatic rifles.

McEntee said the crowd appeared well-behaved, with few problems or complaints despite a morning rain shower that foiled efforts by the track to get people to come early and avoid backups at the gates.

"It looked like they are arriving later and it's fewer people," he said. Total attendance of 101,138 compared with a record 104,454 last year.

"Good morning, do you have any guns, knives or glass?" said Marine Corps Lance Cpl. Christi Gambrell, quizzing patrons as they arrived at a grandstand entrance. She and fellow Marines based at Fort Meade volunteered for security duty, with their pay going to finance a ball on the base.

"Some people are a little cranky, but most of them seem to understand," she said.

New rules put in place since the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington meant food and beverages had to be carried into the grandstand and clubhouse in see-through boxes or bags - backpacks and coolers were prohibited.

Instead, the track sold 5-pound bags of ice for $1 and soft-sided coolers for $3 so people could transfer their picnic items once inside the gates.

Mel Lewis of Bel Air complained about making fans shift items from their own dark-sided coolers to dark-sided coolers sold by the track.

"It certainly doesn't make sense to me. They are taking advantage of an opportunity," Lewis said.

But Timothy T. Capps, executive vice president of the Maryland Jockey Club, which oversees Pimlico and its sister track, Laurel Park, said the ice and coolers were being sold at cost.

"We know where our coolers come from and we know they are secure," he said. For fans who didn't want to buy a cooler, the track provided clear-plastic bags for free.

The track decided not to make wide use of metal-detecting wands, except for special cases, he said. Patrons were instead asked to open bags and purses for inspection. "We had the capability, but we felt, after discussions with our law enforcement people, that it wasn't necessary," Capps said of the use of metal detectors.

Nancy Walden of Petersburg, Va., who said she has been attending the races since 1982, had no complaints with the extra security.

"I feel more comfortable because I know what is in my bag but I don't know what is in other people's bags," Walden said.

In the infield, where puddles and mud from the morning rain remained at race time, patrons reported a visible police presence and thorough searches at the gates. Coolers and backpacks were permitted in the infield as in past years.

"The lines seemed a little longer, but they moved pretty quickly," said Preakness veteran Paula Jennings of Brunswick. "They searched like they always do, but they had people moving through the crowd checking bags, too, so there wasn't a holdup at the gate."

Tressa Ronis of Bel Air said she was barely checked. A guard felt the outside of her bag and asked her if she had any breakables. When she said no, he waved her through, she said.

Police reported 192 ejections and six arrests during the day.

At the Kentucky Derby earlier this month in Louisville, Ky., police reported only 15 arrests - a fraction of past years. Heightened security procedures, which were even more strict than Pimlico's and included absolute bans on coolers and even suntan lotion containers, were credited.

Joseph De Francis, president of the Maryland Jockey Club, was effusive in his compliments to the police department. "They've done a great job of getting everyone moving along, and keeping the traffic moving. It seems to be working very well," he said.

Despite a dip in attendance from last year's record crowd, he said, "All in all, I think it is a good day."

Sun staff writers Tanika White and Tricia Bishop contributed to this article.

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