Saratoga County

Security a challenge at Saratoga Race Course

NYRA's security head George Venizelos discusses keeping people safe at the track.
George Venizelos, NYRA's vice president of security, keeps and eye on safety at the Saratoga Race Course.
George Venizelos, NYRA's vice president of security, keeps and eye on safety at the Saratoga Race Course.

By now, people who visit Saratoga Race Course know the routine.

Bring a cooler full of soda and beer to the track — aluminum and plastic containers only – and prepare for the security inspection. Carry in an oversized bag full of barbecue chips, sunscreen and newspapers and expect the same scrutiny.

It could be a longer process. Saratoga has never put electronic wands for metal detection at its main gates. But such a scenario could one day become a part of George Venizelos’ security plan.

“We’ve had lots of conversations and we’re still having conversations for the major races like the Travers,” said Venizelos, vice president of security for the New York Racing Association, which operates race tracks at Saratoga, Belmont and Aqueduct. “Say we have American Pharaoh come here for the Travers. It would probably be the biggest crowd ever in this place. What do we do, wand people, which would kind of take away from what this place is all about? Or do we just look through the bags. It’s a tough call.”

Venizelos still has time to think about it. He wonders about people backed up past the gates, waiting for electronic scans. “Can you afford to have things backed up?” he asked. “I don’t know if you can.”

For now, Venizelos has other things to worry about. Triple Crown winner American Pharaoh–who runs this afternoon in the Haskell Invitational–is currently the problem of the security chief at Monmouth Park in New Jersey.

Venizelos, 55, was named NYRA’s head of security earlier this year. He came to racing from the Federal Bureau of Investigation, where he worked as assistant director in charge of the bureau’s New York division. He’s been in law enforcement for the past 27 years.

The trick at Saratoga–celebrated as the summer place to be with horses, picnics and spots by the rail–is watching thousands of people every day. And doing the job so the sandwich, beer, lemonade and card fans never notice.

“We don’t want to lose the charm of this place,” Venizelos said. “So we don’t want to get too heavy. But on the same token, we want to keep that balance to keep it safe. We can never afford to have anything happen. We owe it to the people coming here to have a safe environment.”

Venizelos has more than 200 security operatives in place, seasonal employees who dress in light blue golf shirts with “Security” printed on the backs and a smaller contingent of uniformed officers who are permanent NYRA employees. There are also a bunch of investigators. Other agents are in plain clothes as they walk the park and watch the race crowd.

The new blue shirts and caps were Venizelos’ ideas. He thinks they’re more comfortable for the staff; more importantly, he thinks the outfits make the men and women stand out in a crowd.

He said security starts at the front gates.

“Generally, they’re looking for something that just doesn’t feel right,” Venizelos said. “We try to do our best to do some kind of screening on the way in, whether it’s going through the coolers, we’re making sure there’s no glass but you’re also making sure there’s nothing else in there.”

A race course like Saratoga can represent a bigger security task than a baseball or football stadium. Boston’s Fenway Park and other baseball stadiums use metal detectors, but fans are not allowed to bring in their own food and drink.

At Joseph L. Bruno Stadium in Troy, home to the New York-Penn League’s Tri-City ValleyCats, police officers, security personnel and emergency medical technicians are at every game. “You’re just kind of looking for anything that seems out of place,” said ValleyCats General Manager Matt Callahan. “In this day and age, everybody just has their eyes out for anything that doesn’t quite fit.”

There are no security wand scans at “The Joe.” Not right now. All fans are subject to random inspection upon entrance, and that includes all bags, backpacks and purses.

Like Saratoga, the ValleyCats’ crowds are generally well-behaved. “Our main demographic is families, and people are generally respectful of each other, of the teams, the game and the environment,” Callahan said. “Any time you have four or five or six thousand people in the venue you may have some disagreements crop up, but those are generally pretty rare.”

Aran Mull, deputy chief of police at the New York State University Police at the University at Albany, said proper planning is part of security at both the SEFCU Arena for basketball and Bob Ford Stadium for football.

“The most important thing in our experience is taking time ahead of time to consider what might potentially happen and making sure we’re doing everything we can to mitigate the likelihood,” Mull said. “And we’re working with all the rest of the folks, whether we’re talking to the people who are delivering catering, the ushers, the athletic staffs, it really has to be a coordinated effort to prevent an issue.”

The biggest job is moving crowds in and out of the venues safely. Tailgate crowds for football games — Mull said some people start with breakfast at 7 a.m. on game days — have not caused any problems. And security guys have also been fortunate as far as heavy drinking goes.

“We’ve been lucky when it comes to any issue that might develop due to alcohol,” Mull said, “people just getting to the point where they’re intoxicated and doing something foolish or harmful. We have not had any of that.”

Once inside a football or baseball stadium, Venizelos said, fans spend most of the three-hour games in their seats. At Saratoga, many people are on the move from noontime until 6 p.m. There are more people, places, comings and goings to watch.

Venizelos has thought about terrorism.

“Because of the way the world is and what’s going on around the world,” Venizelos said, “that, probably out of anything that goes on, is my worst nightmare, if something like that happened to this beautiful place. That’s my job to worry about it. I don’t want people to think about it or worry about it.”

Prevention, he believes, comes through vigilance.

“The way you protect it is you constantly pay attention to everything that’s going on, you pay attention to detail,” Venizelos said. “I’m never in my office, I’m always walking around, I’m highly visible not only to the patrons but to my people, making sure everybody is on their ‘A’ game.”

Venizelos had his first security challenge on July 24–opening day. Weather reports said there was a chance for a tornado in the area — a bad forecast when many people were outside. After quick conferences with NYRA’s executive management, the weather situation was announced to the crowd minutes after the news was received. Notices were placed on the Saratoga big board in the infield.

“I think it’s important to be transparent to the people you’re serving here,” Venizelos said. “They’re our customers, I think we owe it to them to be transparent as to what’s going on. That’s what I’ve always been about in security. But there have to be some things people don’t need to know. We don’t want to tip off the bad guys, so it’s important we have some things in our pocket.”

Bad guys making news recently are more likely to be troubled individuals than members of an organized groups.

“It’s very lone wolf,” Venizelos said. “It’s somebody who’s not really part of an organization, it’s somebody sitting in their basement being radicalized and getting full of hate who just wants to go out and do something. How do you know when that person snaps? That’s the biggest challenge in this society.”

Lost children alerts are something else security crews must prepare for. Venizelos said that could mean watching entrances, maybe closing entrances, to foil an abduction.

There are rehearsals for other scenarios, things that would involve municipal and state police officers. Venizelos said Saratoga Springs police officers were at the track before the meet started, and worked an active shooter exercise.

Lesser challenges come with injuries, lost cell phones and belligerent people. If people see ultra-rowdy people, Venizelos wants them to flag down security.

“More often than people realize, we ‘trespass’ people,” Venizelos said. “They’re banned from the track. If a person is being disrespectful or really belligerent toward employees or other members of the track, we don’t want them at the track. They cannot come back to the track unless we say they can. If we ever see them at the track again, we kick them out again. Our guys will know who these people are.”

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