Feature: Equine Security Man, The Agency and Tradecraft of Don Ahrens

Don Ahrens (pictured left) designs a traffic pattern for one of his staff during the Sam Houston Race Park Quarter Horse Meet. As the Director of Security and Parking, he leads a team that is charged with keeping the public, the staff, and the animals, as safe as possible.
Don Ahrens (pictured left) designs a traffic pattern for one of his staff during the Sam Houston Race Park Quarter Horse Meet. As the Director of Security and Parking, he leads a team that is charged with keeping the public, the staff, and the animals, as safe as possible.

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It was just abuzz with activity … “Closing Day” at any horse track in America has a rapidity to its pulse. The Thoroughbred Meet in Hot Springs was dimming, but what remained included the firing of many a synapsed memory. Those connections that missed upon entering or bettors who muttered “if I had only,” all tried to forget. But for the winners … oh those winners, they would be reminiscing and literally musing on their success for years.

The throng of people descending on historic Oaklawn Park was stereotypically palpable; by days end, a swell of some 65,000 people would pass through the gates like ants inside one of those glass farms. Marching in unison towards the Paddock, the Rail, and the Grandstand … they all were mechanically craning their necks for a glimpse of the coming action. They were there to watch the 1988 Arkansas Derby, a ubiquitous flash along what is simply known as the Derby Trail. To say it was a highlight of the season, would be a massive understatement.

As the public streamed in that Saturday morning in April, the Oaklawn staff began making the rounds to offer their goodbyes. Racetrack cultures are part-circus, part-academic village, and part-therapy group; seasonal in nature, but incredibly cohesive places where people become “fast-friends” and colleagues—some relationships last a lifetime. Each year, many renew acquaintances, looking forward to the next time around. Within the bowels of that historic Grandstand, deep within the maze, there are rooms few have the chance to view. Burrowed down in the basement level, a set of “sister” offices sat next to one another. One included the OP Stewards’ desks, a room with a mishmash of tables and chairs meant for scribbling and questioning. Hot seats for choice invitees … Next door was a petite 8x8 box, where 2 agents of the Thoroughbred Racing Protection Bureau, also known as the TRPB, were housed. They weren’t elaborate digs, meant only to be utilitarian in nature.

Around 10am, into that first office stepped a slightly balding man in his early 50s, wearing a plaid shirt, jeans, and boots by the name of Harold. He clutched a brown leather suitcase that looked as though it had multi-generational stories to tell. The State Steward on duty that day was Mike, and as he glanced up, he saw the man standing before him with his case wide-open. Inside were a stack of documents; they were neatly arranged as if the man curated them like an archivist. After a brief chat, he rose from his seat and said authoritatively, “Come with me.” Stepping into the TRPB Office, he found the pair of agents going through their daily reports, as they were packing their gear, ready to head to the next stop. They both looked up when they heard Mike’s booming voice say, “Guys I think you are going to want to talk to this man.” One of the agents was Don Ahrens. With his trademark mustache, and intrepid good sense, he grabbed a pen … a “Security Man” ready to listen.

That moment, like countless others he would encounter, is precisely the type which Ahrens awaits as an agent … an agent with agency—with an independent capability; to put it another way, his penchant for preparation and action leads to a process that unfolds steadily and methodically in everything he does to this day. He applies what he has learned over the course of almost 40 years in the business of safety and security at American racetracks by watching. That sounds rather simple, but nothing could be further from the truth. Learning to observe came as he has worked in nearly every Thoroughbred venue you can conjure. Overseeing all aspects related to the business, from collaring pickpockets to enforcing the rules in the barn areas, Ahrens hasn’t seen it all. That’s not his way. Instead, he remains flexible, cautiously optimistic about human behavior, and is at-the-ready when it comes to the deployment of empathy. Beginning in 1981, he became a member of the TRPB as an agent, remaining a constant until 2009, when he assumed the role of Director of Security and Parking at Sam Houston Race Park in Texas.  

The road Ahrens has travelled is about the totality of everything he has experienced to-date. That has led him to participate in some of the seminal developments in the sport of horse racing, all from a vantage point that few give much thought. While you are watching your favorite horse run, whether it be on-track or off, Ahrens is deploying his tradecraft—vigilant, ensuring that his staff is controlling a vast set of systems that are under their auspices. His journey is guided by his intelligence, his love of the sport, protection of its people and animals, and his devotion to core principles that form the bedrock of his code of morality. Ahrens has amassed an arsenal of experiences that would rival any that have come before or after. He has worked countless Triple Crown races, spearheads what is called “Equine Security” at the Breeders’ Cup over the years, and serves on-the-ground protecting everyone in the business from the lowest claiming horse to the greatest champions, which have included instant legends like Triple Crown Champion, American Pharoah, and who he calls the “Queen of the Track,” Zenyatta. Ahrens spoke with verve when he said, “Every time she came out to workout it was a spectacle … the crowds … the event of it all … and the best part was she knew it!” He has relished every minute of what became, almost instantly, a calling.

Don Ahrens pictured with celebrity and horsewoman Bo Derek at a recent Breeders’ Cup. He has worked the week-long event in “Equine Security” for almost 20 years.
Don Ahrens pictured with celebrity and horsewoman Bo Derek at a recent Breeders’ Cup. He has worked the week-long event in “Equine Security” for almost 20 years.

His vocation began after he graduated from Marist College in New York in 1981. He intended to be a police officer, or maybe even a detective, but chance played an important role when a family friend of his parents offered him a job. He didn’t know much about the sport of horse racing, only that they had it in Florida, and that was a place he most assuredly wanted to go for the sun, surf, and sand. When it came to the sport, like most, he recalls vividly watching Secretariat win the 1973 Triple Crown. Beyond that, he didn’t follow racing or attend racetracks. What he had done in college was enroll in a basic horsemanship class because growing up around animals his whole life was a passion. “I felt really comfortable in barns, and knew my way around them,” Ahrens said. That was good because he would need it where he was going.

Ahrens received a phone call one morning, as he would time and time again from the TRPB, telling him where to report. It was like receiving orders from HQ, before dropping into some “hot LZ.” To hear Ahrens tell it, “Paul Berube (the future President of the TRPB) gave me some case files to read, and after I went through them, I knew this was some interesting work that I could do.” After accepting what would become his new vocation, he packed up his car, an activity that he would repeat over and over. This time, his folks came along, pulling a trailer made from the bed of an old Model A. To new beginnings … he started work on New Year’s Day, January 1, 1982, at a now defunct track in Maryland called Bowie, where he made roughly $75 a day. That was considered a stable wage compared to other spots on the circuit where $40 was more of a median. “In those early days for me, I was green as grass, and it was a group of ex-Baltimore police detectives who were employed by “The Bureau” as second careers,” Ahrens said, “I soaked up all their know-how … it was thrilling.”

The road began to open up, as he made his way through a veritable 101 and 102 of “coursework” at what was dubbed “Pimlico University.” The TRPB introduced him to his tradecraft. It would be with him the rest of the way—as we speak. The networks were established shortly after the Second World War, as J. Edgar Hoover, a horse racing enthusiast himself, saw fit to protect the American pastime from negative influences. A tattoo system of verification for Thoroughbreds became commonplace, and following the money, looking for everything from race fixing to doping by trainers and veterinarians, fell under the purview of the TRPB. File building was essential, as agents reported regularly, sending mail to the aptly named main hub in Lake Success, New York. The cache that was built over time in the “steno pool” was a veritable treasure trove of information. Before the Internet churned, this was the best means to collate and cross-reference using paper and typewriters. Incorporating the old FBI file system, the TRPB’s operated in a similar fashion. The long reach of Hoover had that effect.

What was especially interesting is not just the work that was completed through the file building mechanism, but also through the phone and fax machine lines. Those born after say, 1990, would have a hard time understanding a world where emails and instant messaging did not dominate the fiber. Before that era, people picked up the phones and reached out. Live voice recognition between individuals created a cohesive system. Every agent had a badge as their credential, but they were always armed with a typewriter, so they could fire reports off at a moment’s notice—tool of the trade. In fact, it wasn’t that long ago that Ahrens finally retired his own trusty machine, since it was taking up too much space on his desk, only using it sparingly of late. Tradecraft dictated it. As Ahrens’ related, “You worked the phones, typed reports, shared information about individuals who crossed your path, and that helped other offices know what might be coming.” Whether you were at Arlington in Chicago, or down near Miami at Hialeah (one of Ahrens favorite locations—he is a Dolphins superfan), the grid supported itself by creating a self-sustaining model. Ahrens spoke with all sorts of people in the business, sometimes never meeting them until years later, when he least expected it.

As a TRPB agent for nearly 30 years, Ahrens carried this ID badge everywhere he went. His travels led him to serve at 40 racetracks across North America. Note the signature of President Paul Berube.
As a TRPB agent for nearly 30 years, Ahrens carried this ID badge everywhere he went. His travels led him to serve at 40 racetracks across North America. Note the signature of President Paul Berube.

That notion of collaboration, reporting, and file creation became second nature to Ahrens. He took to it … understanding that tradecraft was integral, and so was knowing when to call upon assistance. Asking for help didn’t always lead to solutions. So, engaging in a consistent rhythm would help others down the road, especially when it was least expected. Keeping track of certain nefarious individuals was not always easy, so it was essential to send reports up to Lake Success. Standing on the backs of those files and phone calls made for easier lifting, and also allowed Ahrens to develop his own improvisational approach. If he was leading his own investigations, moving from Bowie to Monmouth to Hialeah, then back to Maryland, and beyond … he could rely on the network to see him through some tough moments, but also have the freedom to act somewhat independently.

Speaking of unilateral action, Ahrens found himself in just that predicament at Oaklawn Park back in 1988. When Harold and his patina-laden suitcase full of documents darkened his door, being led in by the State Steward, it was an inopportune moment. But regardless of being in the middle of 65,000 fans teaming upstairs in the grandstand on Arkansas Derby Day, when the call comes in … you are poised. The mysterious fellow explained that he was the former farm manager of an establishment near Danville that he knew was engaging in illegal breeding activities. Their game, he told Ahrens, was to take Arkansas breds, falsifying their paperwork, and miraculously turn them into Texas ones. With the expansion of racing in the Lone Star State, they reasoned, it would be the perfect opportunity to get in on the ground floor. At the time, as long as a breeding operation could “prove” a horse was born on the ground in a state, then that would entitle owners to a bevy of rights and in the end, cash. It was quite a scheme.

Ahrens planted himself at the copy machine, carefully laying out the new file, which included everything from covering cards to registration with the Jockey Club of America. His partner, the other TRPB agent onsite, was Gene Martin. A former professional wrestler as a younger man, Martin was an ex-police officer from Evansville, Indiana. “Farmer Gene,” as he was known in the ring, simply said to him, “I’m going to Oklahoma … this one’s all yours.” Ahrens shrugged … What unfolded after that initial meeting was a long and protracted investigation that would take him to the backroads of Arkansas, over to Louisiana where the defendants’ racing license was held, down to the Texas capital city for a jurisdiction check, and finally, to courtrooms from Austin to Amarillo. Ahrens amassed a voluminous dossier of paper as he built his case; he spoke to veterinarians, one of whom was performing surgery on a cat as Ahrens asked him questions. He followed up with the Home Office, informed racing officials on his progress, tapped into local law enforcement for backup when it came to interviewing possible flight risks, and eventually deposed those directly involved in the action. The ensuing Grand Jury heard his testimony for over an hour and a half in Austin. He used no notes, much to the surprise of all involved.

Throughout the next year of the investigation, Ahrens racked up some serious mileage, speaking to sources across 3 states. He watched as a change of venue waylaid progress, all the while doing his day-to-day tasks at Louisiana Downs (where he was stationed at the time). The case finally concluded with a pre-trial intervention—conspiracy and mail fraud stuck after a plea deal. The perpetrators lost their right to breed and race, of course, and Ahrens picked up his gear … it was time to move on. That was the life, a series of “Meets” across some 40 racetracks, where the names and faces changed constantly. Nicknames were a big part of the business, as Ahrens told me, “Sometimes you really never knew a person’s real name, but you got to know their story because you saw them every day.” There was always a “Cowboy,” a “Chief,” and someone named “the Hat,” as in … “Harry” or “Jimmy.” Like something out of the film Forrest Gump, during the main character’s tour in Vietnam … different cities, such as Baltimore, would have a “Detroit Izzy” or a “Chicago Rick,” denoting their origin story or favorite town’s team. Backstretch culture was equally unique and character-driven, with “The Ropeman” or “The Goatman,” as integral fixtures … a microcosm and delicious slice of socioeconomic strata. Life there had its share of drama … Title, “As the Hotwalker Turns.” You could find billionaires mixing casually with those that were working hard to muck out the stalls. Proving the leveling argument that there was and still is, little difference in human nature.

Ahrens with Lafitt Pincay in the late 1990s. He described the celebrated jockey as a “prince of a fellow.” Rider security and safety continues to be one of Ahrens’ primary objectives.
Ahrens with Lafitt Pincay in the late 1990s. He described the celebrated jockey as a “prince of a fellow.” Rider security and safety continues to be one of Ahrens’ primary objectives.

Ahrens formed lasting friendships in this diaspora, and he was invited to people’s homes, which offered a unique bundle of perspectives he never dreamed he would encounter. At Hialeah, he met a friend who practiced the religion known as Santería (a melding of Afro-Cuban cultures and Catholic traditions), and he gave him a few items to display in his office. Ahrens mused, “When we would interview folks, they would look at those images from my friend, and wonder what this tall white guy was doing with those—it kept them guessing.” Cross-cultural effects were powerful motivators, as Ahrens also worked hard to establish order in the temporary mini-cities behind the barn. There were, and to this day still are, always fights to break-up, stalls to inspect, and justice to mete out. As he reminded me, “If nothing happens on any given day, that is really something to celebrate.” Ahrens learned to be part cultural anthropologist, as well as an enforcement officer. Stakeouts could prove fruitful, especially in the face of those brazen enough to test the system. At times, it brought him into direct contact with some of the “lights” of the sport. One day, as he was sweeping through the Hialeah Barn area, he caught a handful of young men smoking marijuana, one of whom named Shawn was a lead groom … they all got tossed by Ahrens. Later, their employer, the celebrated trainer Woody Stephens approached Ahrens, angrily demanding an explanation. It was a couple years later at Churchill Downs, that Stephens pulled away from a conversation with owners Angel Pena Jr. and Brownell Combs, as Ahrens was walking by, when he said, “You know Don, you were right about Shawn at Hialeah, they caught him again up in New York.” Ahrens knew …

That “knowing” comes from experience, a melding of passion for the sport, and continuous exercises in the sublime of it all. Ahrens turned that into a baseline practice by developing a few bedrock principles. He doesn’t carry grudges or enact retribution unduly. That is not the way to approach a person. They deserve better. Rather, he files information in his memory bank for a rainy day. As he plainly tells those that are caught doing something they shouldn’t, “I am not trying to ruin your life, just today.” That might sound overtly harsh, but it is a code that has history. When you are talking with Ahrens, you don’t get the sense of an overt ego. He is frank and straightforward, but not without an understanding of the value of forgiveness and empathy. For him, this is a vocation, not a career, a paycheck, or a job, so his conduct must reflect as such, even if his decisions are seen, at times, as unpopular. When I asked him about those risktakers who believe that if “you are not breaking the rules, you are not trying to win,” he was cogent with his perspective. “I don’t believe we can have a game that is fair and equitable, if that premise is true,” he said. Ahrens instead takes a measured approach, and he finds ways to compartmentalize wrong-doing on a case-by-case basis. “You cannot in this business let one investigation bleed into another because that can cloud your judgement,” he explained.

After leading hundreds of investigations over the years, Ahrens left the TRPB in 2009. It was a precipitous end to a storied chapter. Changes over the years, which are well-documented by the members of the turfwriting community, tells of a Bureau that started to lose steam, beginning somewhere around 1995. The older system in Lake Success was finally shuttered, and operations shifted south to Fair Hill in Maryland, as their processes were peeled off. Local tracks had the option to employ their own security personnel, who in many cases liaised with state agencies. The Bureau still functions, but mainly focuses on illegal wagering issues. As for Ahrens, he made the move to Penn Gaming’s Sam Houston Race Park (SHRP) in 2009. “You know, it all just came to an end,” Ahrens admitted, “I was an agent working for this complex organization, and then I wasn’t.” However, it became about “the things he carried,” so to speak.

Dwight Berube (no relation to Paul Berube, who served as President of the TRPB from 1988—2005), knew exactly what kind of knapsack Ahrens toted. As the Vice President and General Manager of SHRP, he once worked briefly at the Atlantic City Race Course during the same time as his new Director of Security. When they reunited, it became a pivotal relationship for the pair. Each brings a certain set of special social skills and credibility. Berube told me, “We cannot operate at such a high-level of safety and security without what Don provides; it simply is not possible … he is just that important to this organization, and Sam Houston Race Park is extremely fortunate to have him on our team.” As is common today among racetracks who have taken over their own measures, SHRP employs Ahrens as their Director of Security and Parking. He oversees a large staff of personnel, who enforce everything from traffic flow in the parking lots to onsite rock and country concerts to the rules of the barn area. Armed with a radio, Ahrens tries to be “present” in almost any kind of situation imaginable. It is a tough task, but one that he relishes. “I never profess to see everything, nor would I ever say that there is nothing I haven’t experienced … that kind of overconfidence can easily get you in trouble,” he argued.

In his time at Sam Houston, Ahrens continues to bear witness to challenges that are continually just that. He has weathered the Roman Chapa buzzer incident, where the jockey used an electrical device in a race. The culprit was discovered when a photograph of his “Win” was posted on the SHRP website. Ahrens got that call when he was on his way back from the grocery store one Sunday morning. On another occasion, he was asked to come to the register of a SHRP employee who was missing around $800 from her till. Berube asked Ahrens to see if he could get to the bottom of it, since the woman claimed to have no idea where the money had absconded. Ahrens arrived, looked her up and down, and said, “Take off your shoes, please.” Agog … the woman reluctantly complied, and inside was the missing cash. He has seen a good bit in almost 40 years after all, knowing full well, it takes all kinds.

During one of our interviews in his office, which is a curatorial treasure trove of pictures and stories that directly reflect Ahrens’ time in the business, I was just about to ask him to elaborate on a subject. The topic concerned jockeys and his role in keeping them safe after accidents. Suddenly, he detected a cryptic call coming in over the radio—a sort of sixth sense was immediately illuminated. He stood up like a field general sensing the sting of battle, and said to me quickly, yet succinctly, “Well, you want to see me in action … we have a medical emergency at the Front Gate.” A longtime SHRP patron had suffered what appeared to be a stroke, and was severely disoriented. Accompanied by his son, the man made it to the entrance of the Grandstand. Walking with purpose and making a beeline to the man’s position, Ahrens knew exactly who he was because he was one of the first “locals” he encountered at the track upon his arrival in 2009. Ahrens provided support, oversaw the emergency response, and saw to it that ambulance staff had everything they needed once they arrived. He was visibly emotional and empathetic—patient stability was key. “The safety side of this business is fundamentally different than the security,” admitted Ahrens, “they can coincide, but we want our guests to have everything they need to enjoy this great sport.” In that moment, it was clear Ahrens understood the power of kindness (by the way, he checked on the patient in the coming days, who was recovering nicely). He went on to say, “It doesn’t matter who it is, we want to encourage everyone to seek medical attention … just get checked out, that is it … because it can go a long way to possibly saving a life.” The choice is simple, but sometimes a hard sell.

Ahrens in action … responding to an emergency at Sam Houston Race Park comes when you least expect it. Always at the “ready,” Ahrens sees security and safety as 2 fundamentally different areas of response.
Ahrens in action … responding to an emergency at Sam Houston Race Park comes when you least expect it. Always at the “ready,” Ahrens sees security and safety as 2 fundamentally different areas of response.

For Ahrens, he is equally vigilant when it comes to the racehorses that are under his care. For almost 2 decades, he has assisted with the Breeders’ Cup, and he recently returned from Del Mar, completing his latest mission ahead of the 2021 version of the titanic event. He runs point on what is called “Equine Security,” a rotational schedule led by 20 industry professionals who keep the some 180+ BC runners under guard. It is constant over the 72-hour blocs during that week in early November. Each sentry draws roughly 3 horses, which as you can imagine, leads to a massive undertaking. Local security companies are interviewed, and training ensues in an organized and efficient manner. The practice began back in the 1980s, when Grade 1 events brought in shippers from around the country. Ahrens recalls vividly when Southern California horses would arrive at Hialeah. These high-profile runners would have guards, in order to ensure that owner’s investments were protected. The practice soon spilled over to the Breeders’ Cup, which sought to offer everyone the same kind of “customer service.” The Breeders’ Cup version is a blue-ribbon consulting security panel if there ever was one. Hand-picked, Ahrens forms a squad of specialists who bring a wealth of protection experience to the barn.

Ahrens (back row, second from the right) with the 2013 “Equine Security Team” at Santa Anita. The handpicked team of security specialists work tirelessly to protect the Thoroughbreds that come to the Breeders’ Cup.
Ahrens (back row, second from the right) with the 2013 “Equine Security Team” at Santa Anita. The handpicked team of security specialists work tirelessly to protect the Thoroughbreds that come to the Breeders’ Cup.

Along with this expertise, Ahrens continues to offer his assistance in a number of capacities outside of his duties at SHRP. A giveback, paying it forward … In the early 1990s, he helped to found the Organization for Racing Investigators (ORI). That began as a “seed of an idea” when professionals in Texas and Oklahoma brought together like-minded members of the horse racing security community to discuss tradecraft and best practices. Since 1996, the annual events have grown more diverse, and membership ballooned from the low 20s to over 80 individuals, who are connected to a variety of racetrack entities. One year they began to read case files, and teach tradecraft much like the TRRB did at one point. For instance, topics included, how to look for “milkshakes” that were being blended and illegally disseminated to horses in the barns. Types of illegal paraphernalia was covered, along with behavioral cues by would-be suspects. Ahrens knows stakeouts, and over the years has a wealth of experience monitoring activities. Thus, putting on mock sweeps were regularly deployed at conferences in order to give participants the feel of what it was like execute a “sting.” Ahrens is proud of their educational outreach, and considers it one of his major achievements. “It is gratifying to have speakers come and give talks, as we watch the next generation take up the mantle,” he said. “Passing the torch” is something on his mind as he enters what is soon-to-be his 40th year in the business.

On this last point, Ahrens’ story from the Thoroughbred Racing Protection Bureau on, reminds us that understanding the current climate at racetracks can be better appraised and measured in the future, when we recognize and appreciate where we came from. Comprehension of the major systems that exist, even behind-the-scenes, is paramount when it comes to growth. Thus, he is one of those rare lenses that exists, and serving as a vanguard against those that would do harm to the game that we all love. Ahrens has enjoyed what he regards as “the best job in the world … that isn’t one at all.” To hear him tell it, just “getting to do it,” continues to be the “honor.” He continues to be vigilant, driven by seeking the “why,” when it comes to those that would harm.

Remember, as a “Security Man” he tells those that he comes across who operate outside the boundaries, he is not always against, just for that moment. His moral code of ethics is built around this direct principal of never judging the day. “You take what it gives you,” he stated. With a touch of superstition, Ahrens ascribes to the theory that no day is uneventful, and that is precisely what keeps him returning again and again. The irregularity of it all … learning to handle each and every situation differently … to care in different ways, especially when animals and human’s lives are at stake. Ready to listen, to appraise, and to act. That’s Don Ahrens’ agency, and it continues … because you never know who will walk through the door on “Closing Day” with a suitcase.

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