Guard guards Derby prize

By Staff Sgt. Benjamin Crane, 133rd Mobile Public Affairs Detachment

Kentucky Soldiers escort Derby trophy around Churchill Downs

Kentucky National Guard military policeman, Sgt. Erin Underwood, 438th Military Police Company, 198th MP Battalion, holds the Derby Trophy tightly as she waits to walk it out to the winners circle at Churchill Downs prior to the Kentucky Derby May 4, 2019. (U.S. Army National Guard photo by Staff Sgt. Benjamin Crane)

LOUSVILLE, Ky. – A small group of Kentucky National Guardsmen dressed to the nines in their Army Service uniforms snaked through unique areas of Churchill Downs in Louisville, May 4. They were charged with guarding and escorting the most coveted prize in horse racing, the Kentucky Derby trophy.

Sgt. 1st Class David Cooper, 149th Maneuver Enhancement Brigade, Staff Sgt. Tyler Thurman, Sgt. Erin Underwood and Spc. Tyler Kirkman, with the 438th Military Police Company, accompanied the one 24-carat gold trophy and three smaller sterling trophies past thousands of Derby spectators, across the red carpet, past celebrities and politico types, to four separate stops for visitors to see the trophy and pose with it for photos.

“I was really thrilled to get to represent the Guard like this,” said Cooper, who has been coming to the Derby for years as a spectator and has worked the Derby twice before with traffic details outside the track.

The route for the trophy started where several of the most well known attendees do, at the red carpet and made its first stop in the prestigious Green Room. Once there, it was unboxed so celebrities and VIP’s could get the first look at it as they arrived.

“Today we are doing a lot of movements,” said Cooper. “I’ve never been to the red carpet before and its cool we’re getting to show it off in front of a lot of different people.”

The next stop took the trophy from the Green Room to the Directors Room in the Churchill Downs grandstand where more VIP’s could get their picture with the coveted hardware. While there Kentucky Senators, Rand Paul and Mitch McConnell, stopped to take photos with the four Guardsmen and the trophies.

Click here for Derby trophy video.

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The trophy then made its way to the top of the building to the Mansion at Churchill Downs where Hollywood royalty, politicians and major sports stars go to spend their day at the races.

“When I joined the Guard, I never thought I’d ever get to do something like this,” said Underwood, who was able to have her picture taken with actor and comedian Chris Tucker. “We walked the red carpet with the trophy and ran into Tom Brady and (N’SYNC member) Joey Fatone.”

For Underwood, the whole day was special. Her units non-commissioned officers wanted to surprise her with her promotion so they took her uniform after she went to sleep and made all the alterations necessary to have it ready to be worn when she woke up.

“I got my promotion orders last evening before I went to bed,” said Underwood who has been in the Guard for eight years and is a team leader with the 438th. “When I walked in this morning to get ready for today it was all ready to go with sergeant rank and even the stripe down the pants. It was special and touching that they took the time to do that.”

The newly promoted NCO didn’t have to wait long to show off her new stripes. She would soon be the one carrying the coveted Derby trophy into the winner’s circle leading up to the race

The last stop of the day was the most important and high profile than even the Mansion. The trophies had to make their way through the hordes of guests on the main level as it headed to the hall that connected the paddocks to the track. After getting lined up by track directors and NBC gave the cue, it was time to walk the trophy outside. Underwood carried the main trophy across the muddy track and through a steady rain. She then placed it along with the smaller ones in the winner’s circle as a crowd of nearly 151,000 spectators looked on.

The Guardsmen guarded the trophy until it was Gov. Matt Bevin’s turn to handle the trophy as he presented it to the winning horse’s owner.

As for the best part for Underwood, she was undecided, with all the options she had to pick from.  “I don’t know, it’s hard to say, the winner’s circle was very exciting, but getting to walk down the red carpet and having people stop me and say, ‘Hey, that’s the Derby trophy’ was pretty great too.”

In addition to the trophy detail, more than 150 Kentucky Guardsmen augmented local law enforcement and track security to help ensure a safe Derby day for fans.