It's the "Super Bowl of horseracing" but the Kentucky Derby has a dark side so disturbing it almost defies belief.

Louisville is a sleepy city on the Ohio River in the midwest state of Kentucky, US.

It's the kind of place where locals call strangers "sir" or "ma'am" and tip their hats as they pass by. The main street is often deserted and even in the poorest, crime-riddled suburbs, residents who sit on their front porches wave and smile at those who walk past. On the surface, not much else happens in Louisville, reports news.com.au.

But on the first Saturday of May every year, it springs to life as one of America's biggest sporting events — and the largest horseracing event in the world — comes to town. Some 150,000 people descend on Churchill Downs racetrack to watch and punt on the Kentucky Derby, spruiked by organisers as "the greatest two minutes in sport for 145 years".

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They come from all over the country and beyond with many Australians making the trip to the other side of the globe especially to be a part of it.

In the prestigious "Millionaires' Row" section, A-list celebrities can be spotted sipping fine wine among a sea of wealthy, designer-clad spectators in statement millinery. But even those with general admission tickets for the infield come cashed up and ready for a good time. And that's something pimps and human traffickers know all too well.

There's a dark side to the Kentucky Derby horse race at Churchill Downs, in Louisville, US. Photo / AP
There's a dark side to the Kentucky Derby horse race at Churchill Downs, in Louisville, US. Photo / AP

The Kentucky Derby is believed to be the second most popular major event for human trafficking in the country, after the Super Bowl.

It's a multibillion-dollar industry worldwide and with cases increasing in the US, major sporting events have become lucrative business opportunities in the eyes of traffickers.

But for the victims, who are mostly vulnerable girls and women whose lives are reduced to regular beatings, rape, threats and torture, it's another part of a vicious cycle many of them struggle to break free from.

Trafficking survivors who spoke to news.com.au in Louisville on the eve of this year's derby revealed they had collectively been buried in the ground by a trafficker, "raped up to 30 times a night", locked in a box, thrown out of cars, viciously beaten and repeatedly threatened with murder.

Several of the women said their traffickers marked them as their property, with branding irons or tattoos in a bid to assert their control, before sending them out on jobs to meet nightly quotas.

According to them, it's for these reasons that when traffickers instruct their victims to get on a plane and travel to Louisville during the derby or other major events to meet increased demand for paid sex, they go. They also return. No questions asked.

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Louisville-based Survivors' Corner founder Donna Pollard told news.com.au that traffickers instil so much fear in their victims that they often obey their every command.

People arrive at Churchill Downs Saturday before the 145th running of the Kentucky Derby horse race in Louisville, Kentucky, on May 4, 2019. Photo / AP
People arrive at Churchill Downs Saturday before the 145th running of the Kentucky Derby horse race in Louisville, Kentucky, on May 4, 2019. Photo / AP

"The crowds drawn for these celebratory events (including the Kentucky Derby) are used to enslave and exploit the vulnerable," she said.

This year was no different with four men arrested on human trafficking-related charges amid a Kentucky Derby Day police sting in Louisville last weekend.

Officers also identified 13 trafficking victims and underage girls before putting them in contact with advocates. But that's just the tip of the iceberg with countless traffickers and their victims falling through the cracks.

'WHEN THE CAT'S AWAY …'

Women of the Well Ministry is a non profit organisation for trafficking survivors. Founder Summer Dickerson, 40, told news.com.au there was no way to put an exact number on how many victims were brought into Louisville for trafficking at the derby. But, through her connections and outreach work, she estimates it's in the hundreds in any given year.

"It doesn't matter if it's the Super Bowl or Kentucky Derby, you get all these people from all over the world coming to town, sometimes they come with wives and sometimes they don't, and when the cat's away the mice will play," she said.

"Buyers think, 'I'm in Kentucky, who's going to know what I'm doing here?'

"So the traffickers send their victims to take advantage of that mentality."

'I'M NOT ASKING TO BE IN A TORTURE CHAMBER'

Summer Dickerson is happily married with children since becoming a sex trafficking survivor. Photo / Supplied
Summer Dickerson is happily married with children since becoming a sex trafficking survivor. Photo / Supplied

In the lead up to this year's derby, police and anti-human trafficking activists announced that like most major sporting events in the US, the world-famous race would also attract predators looking for victims and buyers of sex, sometimes known as johns.

Kentucky's Attorney-General Andy Beshear also released a poster urging locals and visitors to the Derby to watch out for signs that someone may be a human trafficking victim, including whether they are "travelling in groups," "have identical tattoos or branding," or are "unable to identify what town or state they are in or where they are staying."

Ms Dickerson, who was trafficked for more than a decade, said the signs weren't always obvious but those in "the game" could easily recognise them.

While under the control of a trafficker, Ms Dickerson said she was brought from Chicago to Louisville to work during the Derby on several occasions.

"I've been trafficked in New York, Chicago, Louisville, everywhere," she said.

"I sat on Millionaire's Row at the derby and no one realised I was a victim.

"My trafficker sold me to a man who beat me when we left (the racetrack)."

During that time, she was "branded" with five tattoos by different pimps but has since had four of those markings covered, according to her. A tattoo of a bluebird with a crown on her outer right thigh is the last visible sign of Ms Dickerson's troubled past, although she's in the process of having that removed.

However, Ms Dickerson's physical and emotional scars from her many violent encounters with traffickers and buyers are not so easily erased.

"I've been pistol whipped, I've been thrown out of cars, I had to get new teeth after having a gun shoved down my throat," she said.

"I've had a buyer stomp on my head and beat my back in with steel capped boots and I still have back issues today.

"Lots of people think strippers or prostitutes deserve it. But I'm not asking to be in a torture chamber, I'm not asking to be beaten."

Human trafficking is estimated to bring in global profits of about $150 billion a year —$99 billion from sexual exploitation, according to the International Labour Organisation, a United Nations agency.

Summer Dickerson now runs a safe haven for women escaping sex trafficking. Photo / Supplied
Summer Dickerson now runs a safe haven for women escaping sex trafficking. Photo / Supplied

"If you have a gun you can sell it once but if I have you, I can sell you over and over again, and that's why the pimps do it," Ms Dickerson said.

In the US, ironically known as "the land of the free", modern slavery is rampant. It's an industry that thrives largely because its victims are dismissed as society's castaways — hookers, addicts, runaways, the homeless.

About 403,000 people were living in trafficking situations in the US last year, according to the Global Slavery Index. But the data is incomplete because cases are severely under-reported. Of the 5,147 human trafficking cases reported in 2018 through the National Human Trafficking Hotline, not one US state was excluded.

According to Department of Justice statistics from 2012, about a quarter of victims are white, a quarter Hispanic and 40 per cent African-American.

Alarmingly, many of the victims were children.

GROOMED BY 'THE BOYFRIEND EXPERIENCE'

Ms Dickerson was just 17-years-old when she was targeted by the first of several traffickers who would go on to make her life a living hell for many years.

She was working as a stripper when she unwittingly crossed paths with the man who groomed her into a relationship by professing his love and promising her a better life. Before she knew it, she was trapped in a vicious cycle of extreme physical, emotional and sexual abuse.

"It's a form of manipulation," she said.

"They'll groom you like they're your boyfriend and next thing you know they're like 'hey sweetie, I need you to do something for me'."

Ms Dickerson said she was tricked into "picking something up" at a hotel for her boyfriend when she was confronted by a buyer who informed her she had been "bought and sold" then raped her.

Summer Dickerson told news.com.au she has
Summer Dickerson told news.com.au she has "found purpose" in helping others. Photo / Supplied

"He was like 'I bought you so I'm going to do what I want'," she said.

"I went home and told my boyfriend and he was like 'by the way this is what your life is going to be like' then he beat the crap out of me.

"I didn't feel like I had an out and I stayed with him for a while.

"I didn't know my pimps were my pimps until I was out of 'the game'."

Ms Dickerson said she was "sold anywhere up to 30 times a night for $1000US" each time and eventually turned to drugs and alcohol as coping mechanisms.

"I'd get clothes and stuff but I'd never get the money because he'd say I was paying off a debt," she said.

'HE BURIED ME ALIVE'

Things soon took a much worse turn for Ms Dickerson when she fell into the hands of a "gorilla pimp" — a term used by victims to describe the worst and most vicious traffickers who "kill people no questions asked".

"I couldn't do what I'm doing now if he was alive because he'd find me and kill me or try and kill my kids," she said.

"He was crazy."

Ms Dickerson said this particular trafficker tortured her in ways that still haunt her today.

"He literally buried me alive one day," she said.

"He took me out the back and dug a hole and put me in it. He was showing me 'I'll kill you … don't play with me'.

"From there he took me and put me in the box for hours.

"I also saw him shoot a girl in front of me … he killed her."

Ms Dickerson said that on another occasion her best friend, who was also trafficked, was murdered by a buyer.

"We're the girls people find dead in dumpsters or floating in rivers or down an alley like garbage," she said.

"But we're not garbage. We're somebody's daughter and often a mother.

"But in that world, when they're done with you, they're done with you."

For the human trafficking survivors who do make it out the other end it's a long road to recovery.

A SAFE HAVEN

Nestled in a modest street, which Ms Dickerson lightheartedly refers to as "the hood", sits Esther's House.

The two-storey home was donated to her by a pastor and has since been converted into a safe haven where women escaping trafficking or domestic violence can come to recover. It's precise location is kept secret to protect the women living there from their former traffickers who might seek vengeance over their escapes.

Up to eight women, aged between 18-60, live in the house at one time and each stay an average of about two years.

They receive mandatory trauma counselling and "learn to live again" through programs facilitated by various organisations.

One of three shared bedrooms in 'Esther's House'. Photo / news.com.au
One of three shared bedrooms in 'Esther's House'. Photo / news.com.au

"We call it a discipleship program," Ms Dickerson said.

"Stage one is loving you to life, letting you lick those wounds a little bit, nurturing. Then we're going to work."

The organisation's core purpose is to show residents they "can turn their whole lives around", according to Ms Dickerson.

"I know what love is," she said.

"I understand their struggle better than anybody. I understand what keeps them stuck. These people are dealing with so much judgment and so much hatred. But staying stuck is not an option.

"I'm going to push you to be the best person you can be."

Esther's House residents are required to take classes, dependent on their needs.

"If they have drug issues we give them rehabilitation; trauma care; budgeting and parenting classes; everything they can learn to do life a different way than what they're used to," Ms Dickerson said.

"We teach women how to have a voice, accountability, discuss issues and resolve them. We're tyring to build a sisterhood. I want to teach the women we're not each others' enemies as 'the game' can teach you that. And society does that as well."

The facility is privately funded and relies largely on donations. But it's also propped up by the women who Ms Dickerson teaches to make soap bars out of goats' milk and sells the products.

Inside 'Esther's House', a safe haven for women recovering from human trafficking, in Louisville, Kentucky, US. Photo / news.com.au
Inside 'Esther's House', a safe haven for women recovering from human trafficking, in Louisville, Kentucky, US. Photo / news.com.au

"We love our Summer," one of the women proclaimed when news.com.au visited Esther's House in May.

Building the organisation from the ground up and renovating the home has been Ms Dickerson's passion project. She's poured her heart and soul into her work and the women who come for help since opening just a few years ago. It's also helped save her.

"I'm happy now," she said.

"I have a purpose and I'm at peace. I know my worth today.

"I'm a survivor and a warrior."

According to Ms Dickerson, her work in the field of advocacy has only just begun. But it's not only the traffickers she has her sights set on when it comes to combating human trafficking.

"We have to hold buyers accountable," she said.

"People aren't picking cotton or building railroads like back in the day when slavery was legal and going on. Now they're in hotel rooms being tortured.

"If I buy you, that's slavery.

"It is what it is, no matter how you dress it up."

'Esther's House' residents share the chores to keep the place in good shape. Photo / news.com.au
'Esther's House' residents share the chores to keep the place in good shape. Photo / news.com.au

'IT'S ABSOLUTELY EVERYWHERE'

Human trafficking involves third-party control and is defined as a commercial sex act induced by force, fraud, or coercion, or in which the person induced to perform such an act has not attained 18 years of age, according to the Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000.

It's also "the recruitment, harbouring, transportation, provision, or obtaining of a person for labour or services, through the use of force, fraud, or coercion for the purpose of subjection to

involuntary servitude, peonage, debt bondage, or slavery".

Cindy McCain, who chairs the McCain Institute's Human Trafficking Advisory Council told the Women in the World summit in New York last month that trafficking was "not only a dominant issue, it's an epidemic issue".

"It's also something that is hiding in plain sight," she said.

"It's everywhere — it's absolutely everywhere."

US President Donald Trump has previously claimed that his proposed wall at the Southern border would have a flow-on effect of ending human trafficking. But Ms McCain said the problem was within North America's borders.

"He's living in Disneyland," she said.

"These kids that are being trafficked are domestic. They are within the United States and they're going from state to state."

Speaking at the summit, founder and chief executive of Developmental and Forensic paediatrics, Dr Sharon Cooper said vulnerable children were major targets for traffickers.

"They are really groomed, sometimes by society, by the advertisements, by what they see on social media, and therefore we have to be very proactive to make this stop," she said.

"We've seen cases where girls were taken to farms and sold to migrant farmers, drugged in order to become compliant.

"We've seen girls who have been living in homeless shelters, and who come out of the homeless shelter just to walk down the street, but that homeless shelter has been cased by traffickers who will then drive down the street and say, 'Hey I have a job for you and you can get the tips'."

After the derby, a 28-year-old local woman driving an Uber inquired as to what brought news.com.au to town. It was explained we were there to report on human trafficking.

"Oh, that's really good that you're doing that," she said.

"That happened to me.

"It's kind of hard getting out of that life once you're in it … my story is still being told."