BC 2021: Chain of Custody ... The Story Behind the Breeders’ Cup Equine Security Team

The Breeders' Cup Equine Security Team receives some last minute instructions on Thursday afternoon from lead Don Ahrens (center right). Tasked with protecting over 150 horses that are housed at Del Mar for the World Championships, these are their stories ... (Photo by Skip Dickstein)
The Breeders' Cup Equine Security Team receives some last minute instructions on Thursday afternoon from lead Don Ahrens (center right). Tasked with protecting over 150 horses that are housed at Del Mar for the World Championships, these are their stories ... (Photo by Skip Dickstein)

It’s 4pm on Wednesday, and the sun begins its slow, mellow descent. There are numerous activities around the barn area, but for the Breeders’ Cup Equine Security Team (BCEST) at Del Mar, it’s assembly time. A shift change is in the process of taking place in a sequestered area set back along a high green fence line that runs along Via De La Valle. Jacketed personnel with arm patches signifying their picketed positions are trickling in, milling about, and awaiting instructions. It’s like a summer camp where counsellors arrive to collect who will be residing in their cabin. Quite a few of them look pensive, hoping to get the proverbial show on the road. It’s going to be a long 12-hours they have ahead of them. They are part of a private security contingent. Most are seeking wages to pay bills or make extra money over the course of what will be a 5-day span. They aren’t here to get tips on how to hit the Pick 6 on Saturday, or to catch a glimpse of their favorite horse trainer. It’s not like that.

The majority of them have never heard of the Breeders’ Cup World Championships or even witnessed a Thoroughbred run in the flesh. This is all new for them … What this cadre does have at their disposal is a crack team behind them, providing more than just support. See, they work closely hour-after-hour with a squad that is comprised of 20 investigators, who are onsite to perform a variety of essential functions specifically for what many say is the “All-Star Game” of Thoroughbred racing. This is, for lack of a better term, “Horse Watch,” but that is only one of many functions regularly performed in the days leading up to some of the most important races in the world … truly behind the scenes. It is the Breeders’ Cup after all, which means everything needs to be on point.

To understand what is happening as these Thoroughbreds ship into Del Mar, some perspective from a sociological point of view seems in order. If you don’t know about the Rule 150, made famous by the writing of idea-man Malcolm Gladwell, it states that at a certain point, a company’s ability to run at peak efficiency goes down exponentially when it crosses the threshold … 151 … that’s the number. Thinking about racehorses congregating for the Breeders’ Cup, when you get that many equine athletes and their human caretakers together in one place, you invariably have a fine line where order and chaos meet. In other words, it is a complicated dance with several moving parts. With investments in the millions of dollars on the line, people’s livelihoods are at stake. As equine safety issues remain forwardly placed, there is little room for error when it comes to security.

Over the course of the past few days, I have embedded myself within the BCEST. Day and into the night, they were good enough to have me. My goal was to try and figure out just what it is that they do. The “Watch” is a force to be reckoned with … breezy and convivial … conscientious and bursting with enthusiasm. Most of all though, they take seriously what they are about—the protection of the some 150+ racehorses that are here at Del Mar to compete at the very pinnacle of the sport. Time and time again, as I spoke to each and every one of them, I heard how they came to this point in their careers, the roads they travelled, and the craft they passionately built for themselves. It was fascinating. This is an aspect of this seminal event in the sport that few in Thoroughbred-land realize exists. If you are in the business, you probably have seen members of the “crew,” protecting runners on the “walkover” or in the Paddock at a major event, but knowing their names and backstories offers dimension and accentuates their level of determination. What they do, they know is an honor, but the standards by which they conform include a variety of intricate practices built over years of the proverbial blood, sweat, and tears. It is what makes them totally unique. These are their stories, to quote Dick Wolf’s famous show.

BCEST Assemble! Don Ahrens and Mike Kilpack's hand-built team of investigators take time to pose for their annual team photo. Not pictured are 3 members of the night crew (J.C. Jaramillo Juan Estrada, and Ashley Leary ... they are sleeping. (Photo by Skip Dickstein)
BCEST Assemble! Don Ahrens and Mike Kilpack's hand-built team of investigators take time to pose for their annual team photo. Not pictured are 3 members of the night crew (J.C. Jaramillo Juan Estrada, and Ashley Leary ... they are sleeping. (Photo by Skip Dickstein)

Like many elite squadrons, you don’t apply for this unit … you are tapped on the shoulder. Personally selected, it comprises the best of the very best ... an All-Star line-up for an All-Star Game. An elite group of investigators with a variety of backgrounds, that is one of their greatest assets. As new member Tyler Durand (Manager of Racing Operations in Ontario, Canada) told me so succinctly, “We are here to demonstrate the value of experience.” The "value" of their pedigrees includes former law enforcement, and also those that began their careers working at local racetracks in security positions. What they all have in common is a deep love of the sport and its equine athletes. With a near and distant desire to see it evolve ... As many of them told me, “We want these horses to go to the track, with the utmost integrity and for them to pass every test.” Those tests are as rigorous as they have ever been, and BCEST is as integral to the process as ever.

Months before the Breeders’ Cup, with the direction of Dora Delgado, Executive Vice President and Chief Racing Officer, Equine Security sends an advance team for a series of planning meetings. Led by Don Ahrens (Sam Houston Race Park) and Mike Kilpack (Los Alamitos), they are a pair of seasoned professionals. With decades of BC experience in-tow, they have instituted a variety of best practices over the years that range from the use of purple/white ropes in the winner’s circle to the size of the roster. When it comes down to it, they handpick who they want to make the trip in late October. The Friday before, once the team is in place, Ahrens and Kilpack finalize their plans, and assemble the troops for deployment. As a moving target, Ahrens rarely sits behind a desk in one of the trailers marked for “Investigators.” When he does, he is normally examining the latest rotation schedules, all the while thinking about the next 4 or 5 chess moves before him. Just to his left is a picture of John Wayne, a former investigator with the BCEST that has passed on. Ahrens' signature cowboy hat and aviator glasses are always at the ready—he lives in Texas, of course. Just across the room with his hands planted firmly behind his head, looking like an ex-pat down in Baja California on the beach, is his partner, an Omar Bradley-type, named Mike Kilpack. The pair are discussing an early morning shift change … it’s Tuesday afternoon, with Friday seemingly around the next corner. “You know, there goes another plan that we had in place,” said Ahrens reluctantly, “I think we need to rethink this strategy.” That kind of conversation is not at all unusual. “It is the best laid plans,” mused Ahrens, “until they aren’t.”

You have to understand, this is a 24/7 operation which mirrors the commitments of the training staff. When barns make a move, Equine Security knows about it. Generally speaking, they would like to have 1 security officer for every 3 BC entries. That means that upwards of 130 security guards are employed per day … an extraordinary undertaking. Everyone involved is part of what is a “Chain of Custody,” a phrase that applies in a couple of different contexts. Literally, the investigators are tasked with collecting and passing any and all samples for testing along to the California Horse Racing Board (the local jurisdiction which maintains an office onsite). That could end up being well-over 100 bags collected a day. Ensuring that transference of each and every one of them takes place is integral to what the Breeders’ Cup represents—namely, integrity. Conversely, figuratively speaking the “Chain” is a human one, where over the course of the days leading up to the 14-race extravaganza, an interplay takes place. It relies deeply on trust and acceptance. “Forming that early on,” said Kilpack, “I think is absolutely crucial because we have to be everywhere all at once.” That’s not easy when you have staffing who are not well-versed when it comes to Thoroughbreds. Talking with some of the guards you get the sense, because this is their 1st experience with being at a racetrack, that they have little knowledge with what is coming down the pike.

That’s where Ahrens and Kilpack come in. “It’s our job to fill in the gaps, and support these people out in the barn areas,” Ahrens said, “I personally want to see to it that everyone has what they need to get the job done.” At times, that can mean passing out lunches to hungry sentries, or giving breaks to those in need. That’s where the unit really excels because each and every one of them is well-versed in human behavior. As investigators, it is their job to seek out solutions, identify certain behaviors, and being equine specialists in this regard, they are particularly “blinkered” when it comes to relationships with the training staff. If the security officers learn on the job how to relate to trainers and their staff, it can go a long way to working together as the hours trickle by. Years of work at their own operations back home prepared them to teach these lessons in this moment.

BCEST member Tyler Durand records and bags samples bound for the CHRB Office onsite at Del Mar from Brad Cox's Barn. The 'Chain of Custody' begins ...
BCEST member Tyler Durand records and bags samples bound for the CHRB Office onsite at Del Mar from Brad Cox's Barn. The "Chain of Custody" begins ...

For instance, Billy Fryer and Jack Dawson are retired cops from Lexington, Kentucky, and they are employed by Keeneland as plainclothes detectives. Both are seasoned veterans around a racetrack, and understand the practicality of how to treat others. Trailing Fryer, I was struck by his good nature, and his ability to spin a yarn. Precisely like all of his colleagues, you can tell how much he really cares about the horses and the guards that are under his charge. In the business of racetrack security, it is very much like being on “the beat.” You are constantly on rounds, speaking to anyone and everyone, and being on the lookout for burgeoning issues that might boil over. He introduced me to Dale, a guard in his early 30s who was sitting on Todd Pletcher’s Stable. Fryer spoke to the tall fellow, but in a kind manner, establishing rapport. Responding with a sandwich in-hand can be just as significant as filling out the log sheet of who enters a stall to attend to a horse. It’s all important, no matter how menial the task. “You need to speak to these individuals with respect and the proper temper,” says the folksy Fryer, “I think that puts them at ease and helps you when you really need them to perform.” Dawson echoed that sentiment, saying, “This is a challenging business and we need to ask people to play a very important role.” Oversight is key in situations like these, and in this world, rules have consequences, no matter what time it is. This is not the land where suggestions live.

When it comes to enforcement, Ahrens and Kilpack’s roster ties together a plethora of backgrounds and diverse experiences. Ironically, before they arrived at the Breeders’ Cup, most of the group fell into this work by happenchance. Tony Patricola landed his job with NYRA as an investigator because his wife sent in his application without him knowing. “I get this call as I am going to the Court, and I hang-up on the lady because I have no idea what she is talking about,” he said with a wry smile. “Once I figured it out, I called her to apologize, and she wanted to know, when could I come in for an interview?” Others, like 1st time BCEST participant Eric Shepherd from the Oregon Racing Commission, heard about an opening and took the chance on a new opportunity. “This time last year, I was working in the Medford Police Department, and now, I am at the Breeders’ Cup … I am just unbelievably grateful,” Shepherd said. Speaking on that topic of gratitude, seasoned security personnel like Ed Arriola and Deanna Nicol, bring a wealth of perspective to the table after their work at Arlington Park (Arriola), and Tampa Bay Downs (Nicol). They represent a different aspect of the business, working their way up through the ranks at local racetracks. Like Ahrens at Sam Houston, both have managed expansive staffs. “I deal with part-time employees throughout our Meet,” said Nicol, “this is second nature to me.” As for Arriola he said, “Investigators are absolutely integral, and after working the Arlington Million for the past 20-plus years, there are major similarities when it comes to management.” Looking for those common threads that run through everything the team does … from a sense of unmatched gratitude to how to employ their experiences is applied with the utmost thoughtfulness.    

Expanding on the notion of experience, it is significant during the day shift, but it is just as important in the dead of night. Horses still need to be watched, attended to, and given legal treatments, no matter what time is registered on the clock face. Former police officer Jason Klouser, currently the Director of Enforcement for the Pennsylvania Racing Commission, is part of a crew of 4 once the daytime shift concludes. His role is to cover an expansive set of barns, and ensure that everything continues to run smoothly. “There is nothing easy about working nights; I did it for 5 years in law enforcement, but getting the best out of people is our focus and task at hand,” he said. He is joined by Ashley Leary, a former investigator in Colorado at Arapahoe Park; Juan Estrada, of the Arizona Department of Gaming; and last but not least, the whiz kid and youngest member of the group, the “real” J.C. Jaramillo—a NYRA Investigator. His 1st Breeders’ Cup, Jaramillo is humbled by the opportunity to serve. “For me, growing up with racing in New York, learning the history, it’s a dream come true.” Talking with this night crew, you get a real sense not only of their appreciation, but of how important order and organization can be once it gets dark. When guards get tired, when the Stable Gate gets busy, or when veterinarians need to access stalls, there can be a flood of challenges. Like Leary said, with a giant smile on her face, “We are here because this is the opportunity of a lifetime, no matter the time of day.” To put it another way, there is no “graveyard shift” with the BCEST … no matter what the time, it is meant to be a seamless stream.

Besides the evening shift, other challenges abound, especially since the Breeders’ Cup is an international affair. With horses shipping from places as varied as Europe and Japan, the quarantine barns must have coverage, just like the American sections. This time around a pair of investigators, Mark Ludwick, a 20-yr man with the Iowa State Police who works Homicide, and Chris Gordon, the Head of Security and Investigation for the Irish Horseracing Regulatory Board, are the leads for “International Horse Watch.” It is not until a 48-hr lockdown is complete, that trainers from outside the U.S. have the opportunity to exercise their runners. It is a tight timeline, but as Ludwick says respectfully, “I work for Chris.” And Gordon, almost right on cue, counters with, “I work for Mark.” That kind of synergy, what Ludwick deems as “another layer of protection,” is exactly what is needed during what becomes a waiting game. “We have such a great contingent present, and what makes this year special is that we have so many international trainers that have never been to the Breeders’ Cup,” Gordon related. His own perspective and background working for organizations like the EU, the UN, and currently covering the 27 racecourses that can be found in his home country of Ireland, comes in handy in situations like these. Ludwick and Gordon, like a hybrid golf Ryder Cup pairing, have formed a strong nucleus.

Outside the Quarantine Compound at Del Mar, runners can workout, now that the 48-hr lockdown is complete. Here Francis Graffard's runner, Malavath (IRE) returns from stretching her legs. She is entered in the Juvenile Fillies Turf on Friday.
Outside the Quarantine Compound at Del Mar, runners can workout, now that the 48-hr lockdown is complete. Here Francis Graffard's runner, Malavath (IRE) returns from stretching her legs. She is entered in the Juvenile Fillies Turf on Friday.

Another BCEST duo that frequently works together is Jaclyn Lees and Lance Morell. Both have a cool demeanor, and are extremely affable to speak with in casual conversation. Lees came to the business as someone who was always around horses. Starting out in the “Test Barn,” she did every job. That love and respect for the animal grew into her seeking a career as an Investigator. “I have such passion for them, and being an advocate is my primary objective with everything I do,” speaking candidly. Morell’s experience with the Breeders’ Cup dates back to his days as an agent with the Thoroughbred Racing Protection Bureau (known as the TRPB), which he joined back in 1993. Moving to Parx Racing as a full-time employee roughly 10 years ago, he now oversees all of their operations from the Casino to the Racetrack as the Director of Risk. It is one of the few year-round gigs in the industry. When I asked him what it means to be a part of this celebrated event, he replied, “I come to recharge my batteries, but even more so it’s to get back to my roots.” Both of their perspectives remind us that complementing one another, can provide strength in numbers.      

Across the Del Mar Fairgrounds, a good hike from the International Wing, is Barn Y. Meant as an exhibition space for all sorts of farm animals, it is an expansive structure that can house a huge number of Thoroughbreds. Patrolling this sector is a dynamic pair of BCEST members, John McDonnell and Robert Jordan. It is not an easy venue, of course none of these postings are, but this one is a challenge because of the landscape. McDonnell is a hardened veteran from his days with the New York State Police, and eventually, NYRA. He is now retired, and comes every year to join Ahrens and Kilpack’s band. His stories are rich with personalities, and his passion just overflows when you speak to him. Likewise, his partner, Jordan, is the Head of Stable Security at Woodbine just outside Toronto, Canada. Managing an expansive operation is his forte, and he has met roadblock after roadblock in the wake of COVID-19 that would make your head spin. “Woodbine is a boarding facility, as well as a racetrack,” he said, “and coming and going is just part of what we do.” The Breeders’ Cup presents a similar problem, and McDonnell and Jordan meet it head-on. “Our issue in a setting like Barn Y is that we might have a single horse who is on one side, and that requires a guard at all times,” said the former NYRA Investigator, “I think we find ways to rotate, fill gaps throughout the shift in order to do our job.” Once again, a partnership like this one, works well because both individuals are focused on a common goal, the integrity of the sport.   

Watching the watchers ... McDonnell and Jordan's expansive Barn Y at Del Mar has major territory to cover for the Equine Security Team, and the guards that staff it.
Watching the watchers ... McDonnell and Jordan's expansive Barn Y at Del Mar has major territory to cover for the Equine Security Team, and the guards that staff it.

Expressing a word like that flows through the bloodlines of its members. Ahrens and Kilpack collected each and every one of them, looking for an understanding of that quality. The Organization of Racing Investigators (ORI), the flagship fraternity, is where many of them come from. In fact, 7 of the 11 Board Members are on staff at the Breeders’ Cup, and that speaks to continuity. To hear Ahrens put it, “We want to be on the cutting edge when it comes to best practices, and employing the top investigators is our priority.” Just this past month special circumstances surrounding Bob Baffert and his ability to run at the signature event were put in place. Starting at Santa Anita, both Kilpack and Louie Razo, who are both based in California began a “Watch” and rigorous testing of Baffert’s Barn members. It was their job to ensure that standards were met, and compliance was achieved. Razo, a former investigator at the Pomona County Fair, has worked countless details over the years. His personality is infectious, and you immediately gravitate to his demeanor. Known as “Coach” (nicknames are prevalent), because he has managed everything from boxing to cricket, he has the perfect “Get Back” mentality (another alias), when it comes to crowd control, along with a wonderful attitude. “I try every day to bring my very best listening skills to each and every situation—because that’s how you learn and come to difficult decisions,” he said. An important lesson …

Over the course of Breeders’ Cup Week, the Equine Security Team is going to be doing its fair share of listening and collating. Gathering evidence, their notes and witness statements could be admissible in the near future. That is why it’s important to get it right, first and foremost. You never know … Their experiences at Del Mar are a two-way street. Not only do they bring their skills to a great moment in the history of the sport, but they also take back knowledge that can be integral to their own positions back home. This is an opportunity of a lifetime, and as Juan Estrada told me, “When you get asked to be here by Don and Mike, you feel the energy that they bring to the Breeders’ Cup, and it makes you want to rise to the occasion.” Working with the security company might be a major challenge, but it is going to be worth it once the Breeders’ Cup takes to the track over the course of Friday and Saturday. “What these folks that we are working with don’t know,” said Fryer, “is that they get to go with their horses out to the track, and you cannot believe how excited they are when you tell them that secret.” That is one of the major “perks” of the job, as they take part in this unbelievably wonderful Thoroughbred event.

Whether it is collecting evidence, responding to a call that comes over the radio, or simply offering a kind word in what could become a heated moment, the members of the BCIES are ready to “defend the faith” when it comes to exporting the reality of a level playing field. Watching Tyler Durand oversee the acupuncture procedures on Essential Quality in Brad Cox’s Barn, and carefully document all of the particulars, is just one of a myriad of examples of how professionalism and tactfulness can be employed in any situation that comes down the lane. The value of experience, tested time and time again by the Rule of 150, makes one appreciate the significance of the “Chain of Custody.” On so many levels, these are the strong links that should reassure us that the Breeders’ Cup is indeed in very good hands—the mark of integrity. This is the Equine Security Team, and these are their stories ...