Social Scene At Derby Time
By Kelly Coughlin
The Kentucky Derby and horse racing are, to some extent, just the pretext for one of the world's most spectacular pageants, raucous and refined, gross and gorgeous, ludicrous and heart wrenching. Many people come for the party, never see a horse and leave happy.
There is a long tradition of wild and strange parties around Derby time, going back at least as far as the days when high rollers from the East would come down in their private railroad cars. In their book Kentucky Derby: The Chance of a Lifetime, Joe Hirsch and Jim Bolus tell about one Derby Eve party at the Brown Hotel that included a live pony as a guest. They also mention a custom of the 1950s and 1960s: Post-midnight hotel parades in which revelers roamed the halls of the city's hotels pounding garbage can lids and other improvised instruments.
Among the hundreds of parties that follow in that tradition, two stand out. The most notorious is Anita Madden's Derby Eve blowout at her family's Hamburg Place farm in Lexington (her husband's grandfather, John E. Madden, bred five Derby winners there). The party, which benefits a Lexington charity called the Bluegrass Boys' Ranch, always has a fanciful theme. A sampling -- Rapture of the Deep, complete with mermaids and mermen and a figure of an octopus surrounded by a dry-ice fog; The Ultimate Odyssey, with young people togged out as Greek gods and goddesses while the Trojan War was reenacted under the gaze of a sixteen foot statue of Zeus clutching a neon thunderbolt.
Louisville's brightest bash is the Diamond Derby Celebrity Gala, a fund-raiser for the American Diabetes Association, thrown in a big old house overlooking Cherokee Park in Louisville. The hosts are David Brown and his wife, Patricia Barnstable-Brown (a former Doublemint twin and UK cheerleader). In 1996, the theme was A Nite on the Nile and featured pyramids, live camels and a lounging woman impersonating Cleopatra.
But those are merely the most prominent of a set of formal and informal gatherings throughout the city and state, and even over in Indiana. While the Derby's reputation was made through cultivating those wealthy enough to own thoroughbreds, its appeal cuts across class lines. Even those whose best chance at seeing the race is a black-and-white television set implore out-of-town friends to come down for the excitement.
It's also a big time for music, drawing national acts from George Jones to Veruca Salt and showcasing nearly every local band worth seeing.
And for once in its otherwise star-unstudded life, the city swarms with celebrities. Imagine an episode of "Love Boat" or "Murder, She Wrote" with a racetrack setting.