Saturday, May 1, 2004

Day for celebs, parties and - oh yes - the race

By Patrick Crowley
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Derby week is well under way at Churchill Downs. On Friday, Anne Marchal (right) celebrates a winning ticket on a horse named Lydgate with her sister, Mary Woolsey. Both are from Louisville.
The Cincinnati Enquirer/GARY LANDERS
There is an old joke about going to the Kentucky Derby and never seeing a horse.

It happens. Some revelers simply stay deep in the confines of the nonstop Derby day infield party, never venturing - or staggering - up to the rail to catch a race.

Yet most the 150,000 or so jammed today into the historic Louisville track - the infield rowdies, the hard-core grandstand fans, the rich and famous - will at least see a thoroughbred or two galloping by.

"I've done the infield when I was younger and in college, and it was a lot of fun," said Christy Vanover, 28, a paralegal from Southgate. "Everybody's drunk; and the year I went it was raining, so everybody was muddy. It was like Woodstock.

"This year I'm in box seats in the grandstand," she said. "A lot of people just go to party ... but I'm a true Kentuckian. There is something about horse racing that is magnetic, powerful and exciting."

In 1970, Louisville native and journalist Hunter S. Thompson penned his take on the Derby for Scanlan's Monthly.

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"The clubhouse bars on Derby Day are a very special kind of scene," Thompson wrote. "Along with politicians, society belles and local captains of commerce, every half-mad dingbat who ever had any pretensions to anything at all within 500 miles of Louisville will show up there to get strutting drunk and slap a lot of backs and generally make himself obvious."

In many ways, the Derby is no more about horse racing than Cinco De Mayo is about commemorating Mexico's 1862 victory over the French in the battle of Puebla or St. Patrick's Day is about celebrating a Roman Catholic saint.

It's about partying with friends and an opportunity for Kentucky to grab the world's attention, if only for an afternoon.

"It's our day to be front and center on the world stage," said Bob Elliston, president of Turfway Park in Florence, where Derby betting triples the typical Saturday afternoon simulcast handle to more than $1 million.

For those at Churchill, it's a day to let loose; wear a colorful sport coat or fancy hat; rub elbows with or simply gawk at the glitterati from movies, sports and television, and take part in the communal singing of "My Old Kentucky Home."

Deborah Jo and R.C. Durr of Richwood are definitely race fans. He even breeds thoroughbreds.

But Deborah Jo also enjoys the atmosphere on Millionaire's Row, a collection of long and elegant clubhouse skyboxes.

She has a new hat - a staple for many Derby-goers - and looks forward to mingling with the many celebrities who jet into Louisville.

"Last year Sigourney Weaver sat right next to us," Durr said. "She is such a nice lady. And one year I talked to Joan Collins in the ladies room. She also was very nice."

Celebs expected this year include stars from television (Nick Lachey and Jessica Simpson), sports (NFL top draft pick Eli Manning), music (John Mellencamp and Master P) and film (Chris Tucker).

Hanging out with the rich and famous will cost you. Six seats for the third-floor clubhouse were going this week for $21,400 on the Web site of Concert Tickets Direct.

Rick and Paula Meyers are going modest - but memorable - for today's Derby. As a gift, they - along with Paula's siblings and their spouses - are taking Paula's parents, Pat and Neil Bain, to the grandstand at Churchill for their 50th wedding anniversary today.

"Paula's father worked at racetracks most of his life," said Rick Meyers, a Northern Kentucky University assistant vice president and spokesman. "And, like most Kentuckians, they consider Derby Day a religious experience, so they are really looking forward to this."

But you don't have to be at Churchill Downs to enjoy the Derby. Hundreds if not thousands of Derby parties are popular.

The Party Source in Bellevue will have one of its busier days today, said General Manager John Stiles.

"It doesn't rank with the holidays or Super Bowl, but it's definitely a good bump in business for us," Stiles said. The store has stocked plenty of bourbon, superfine sugar and mint for mint juleps.

"But we sell a lot more of the pre-made mint julep mix," Stiles said. "That's what they sell at Churchill. But we'll still get people who want to mix up their own recipes."

Curt and Vickie Clements have been hosting a Derby party at their Fort Thomas home for years.

"It's really a party for our friends and their families," said Clements, 51, a serious horse player.

"It's only two minutes, but it's exciting, and it's a chance to have a good party every year."

Lawyer, businessman and horse breeder Charlie Deters throws one of Northern Kentucky's best-known Derby parties.

It started back in 1973 with just family, farm hands and a few friends and has grown. More than 300 guests will dine on a steer that Deters raised and will roast himself. For dessert, his wife, Mary Sue, has made around 25 Derby pies.

"The Derby is the most prestigious race going in a state that is the horse-breeding capital of the world," Deters said. "But I think for most people, they come to party."

The focus on parties, hats, celebrities and infield depravity is lost on true lovers of the sport.

"To me, there's nothing like the Derby," said Kentucky Speedway President Mark Simendinger, a horse owner and breeder who formerly helped run Turfway Park in Florence.

"There are about 35,000 foals born every year, and three years later 20 are in the starting gate at the Derby," Simendinger said. "Everybody in our business dreams about breeding a Derby winner, or even just racing in the Derby. There's a lifetime of work wrapped up in that one race.

"For those of us involved in the business, it's an emotional situation, a very, very special moment."


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