“And unlike most of the others in the press box, we didn’t give a hoot in hell what was happening on the track. We had come there to watch the real beasts perform.”
- Hunter S. Thompson, The Kentucky Derby Is Decadent and Depraved
- Hunter S. Thompson, The Kentucky Derby Is Decadent and Depraved
As Delta flight 1624 taxied along the tarmac at the Louisville Airport on the evening of Friday May 4, its occupants craned to get a glimpse of the conditions.
It had only recently stopped raining, and some rays of sunlight were now peeking through the remaining shreds of cloud.
“Oh my, did you see that big rainbow over there?” an older woman asked her twentysomething son. Their journey to the Derby had begun earlier that day in the Florida Keys. “Wonder if there’s a pot of gold at the end of that rainbow.”
“Look at all those private jets,” replied the son, Jake, now gazing out the window. He had missed a prime weekend of wake boarding with friends in Orlando to make the trip.
Indeed the giant rainbow had ended in a mass huddle of private jets, no doubt the mode of transport for the rich and famous who now descend on Louisville each year on Derby Day.
“You know the Queen’s gonna be here,” said the mother, who spoke in a thick southern accent.
Mother and son had not come down solely for the star-gazing.
“I’m going for Scat Daddy,” said Jake.
“Kid love the slop? Mother was mudder? Father was mudder?” offered the Observer, referencing an episode of Seinfeld, and the bad weather.
“What?” came the response.
“What the hell did you leave a small town like New York to come down to a big city like this for?” joshed a portly cab driver on the drive into downtown Louisville, pronounced “Loo-a-vul” by the locals. “Don’t make a lick of sense,” he said. “That’s an expression.”
The cabbie’s joke belied an obvious—if increasingly senseless—truth about his hometown on Derby weekend: for two long days, Louisville, population 256,231 at last count, is converted into an international city.
At its core, of course, the weekend is about a horse race. The Kentucky Derby, billed as the oldest sporting event in the South (date of birth: 1875), has almost since its inception drawn racing fans from across the country and the world. The typical crowd at Churchill Downs is around 155,000. This year 156,635 fans would pack the stadium – a good turnout, but nothing extraordinary.
What does appear to be changing is the crowd populating the boxes of “Millionaire’s Row”. While the Run for the Roses has always drawn big names – Presidents Bush and Nixon, Babe Ruth, John Wayne, Jack Nicholson – the arm’s length list of famous faces clogging up the choice seats this year included the likes of O.J. Simpson and celebrity inseminators Larry Birkhead and Kevin Federline.
More notably the weekend is overrun with celebrity-driven parties and events — the types of orgies of cross-promotion and celebrity protectionism that tends to invade any and every annual event these days, especially the ones larded with jet-setting young folks.
“Ladies and gentleman, Nick Lachey,” said a man in a tuxedo from a stage out in front of Cyb Barnstable Brown’s mansion later that evening. Local gawkers, crammed in a pen adjacent to the red carpet, began chanting, “Nick, Nick, Nick, Nick.”
“Ladies and gentlemen, Vanessa Millo,” said the announcer, butchering the last name of Mr. Lachey’s girlfriend, MTV personality Vanessa Minnillo.
A long pathway leading up to the sprawling house was lighted by various stages on either side of it—each with a different makeshift backdrop in the theme of a Broadway musical, and a different troupe of young girls singing and dancing their little hearts out. The house itself was adorned with Christmas lights. The party’s theme this year was “That’s Entertainment.”
“I remember the first year we had it Buck Henry was the only celebrity,” said Dale Barnstable, of the weekend’s most prestigious event, the Barnstable Brown Foundation gala, hosted by his daughters Cyb and Tricia. “Now so many celebrities want to come, they have to cut off the list.”
“I’ve been doing this for 19 years and it gets better every year,” said Cyb Barnstable without moving her collagen-enhanced lips. The former Wrigley’s “Doublemint Twin” wore a gem-encrusted turquoise strapless gown, which eventuated her impossibly youthful bust.
“The celebs keep coming back and they sing and they pitch in, and they know the routine,” Mrs. Barnstable Brown labored on.
This year Eddie Money and the rapper Run DMC had performed. Among those who had attended were Gene Simmons, Kid Rock, Jenny McCarthy, footballers Peyton Manning and Tom Brady.
Did all the focus on celebrity and money take away from the authenticity of the gala, as a representation of Louisville society?
Mrs. Barnstable Brown’s eyes seemed to glaze over. “The Derby is an international event,” she said.
Adorning her arm was Mr. Birkhead, a native Louisvillian. Four years ago, at this very party, he had met Anna Nicole Smith.
“It’s kind of weird to be back at this party,” he said. “Kind of full circle.”
He said their child Daniel-Lynn was “doing great. She’s teething. Everything’s great. She got a Derby outfit with a pink
hat. It’s great.”
He wasn’t planning to bet on the Derby, but he had bet on a horse earlier that day.
“There was a horse called 'Dreaming of Anna,'" he said. “I bet on it for sentimental reasons.”
Larry Florman, a Louisville doctor, and his wife, were observing the crowd under the giant tent in the backyard.
“It’s been celebrity-driven ever since I’ve been coming,” said Dr. Florman, who’s been in attendance for over a decade. “But I have to say this year we really don’t recognize anybody here, whereas in years past I did.”
Positing a reason why, he said, “It’s become very expensive.”
A ticket for this year’s ball ranged from $850 to $2,000, depending on whether or not you wanted a seat.
Dr. Florman was planning to attend and bet on the Derby. “Curlin all the way,” he said.
Kid love the slop?
“What?” he said.
Next stop: the Stuff magazine party!
Back downtown out front a loft space on Market Street, Stuff magazine had unfurled its red carpet.
“It’s all about the big ass hats,” said the actress Regina King, looking forward to the big event. She said she intended to bet on the horse with the best name. So far IMAWILDANDCRAZYGUY was her frontrunner.
“I would say half our list is New Yorkers tonight,” said Stuff’s publisher John Lumpkin. “We bring that national attention from New York, you see a lot of young people down here from New York that love horses. It makes it that much more of a national event.”
Mr. Lumpkin recalled that a few years back there had been some uproar from Derby traditionalists concerned about Taco Bell and Long John Silvers signing on as sponsors to the Derby. “I mean, if you look at our title sponsor it's Polaroid. Every celebrity that comes here tonight is gonna walk out of here with their own new Polaroid camera so they’ll all be ready to make their own photo finish, which is great!”
Allan Houston, just having walked the red carpet, said he was surprised to see so many New Yorkers in town. But, said the Louisville native, “Overall I think the Kentucky Derby has an identity that’s attached to Louisville.”
The party happening just down the street was trying hard to be all New York. Stereo, the hipster nightclub with its main incarnation on New York's West 29th Street, had set up an outpost in the V.I.P. section of the Louisville nightclub, Felt.
Inside—it was around 2 a.m.—Star Jones, clad in a black mini-skirt was getting freaky with her husband Al Reynolds, as Adam “DJ AM” Goldberg burned up the turntables. Mr. Reynolds was gyrating up against Mrs. Jones’ backside, his hand positioned oddly on top of her head, while hers clutched the back of his thigh.
Nearby Nick Lachey and Vanessa Minnillo shared a table with fallen Miss America Tara Connor.
“Did you hear?” gushed a reveler. “Vanessa just tried to have Tara Connor removed from their table. Ha!”
Moments later, Mrs. Jones’ publicist Brad Zeifman handed his client five dollar bills. He had bet her that Paris Hilton would not get jail time. Mrs. Jones, who had just that weekend—right there in Louisville!—inked her new contract with Court TV, threw the bills up in the air. “Spread it around!” she said, making a spreading motion with her hands. “Spread it around!”
Later that night Kevin Federline arrived with a harem of nine blonde girls; Kid Rock took a turn on the turntables.
“I felt like it was a good forum for us to showcase our New York City vibe,” said Stereo owner Michael Satsky the next day, outside the Churchill Downs entrance, which was also equipped with a red carpet. “And when a brand like Pama”—it’s a liqueur!—“comes to the table and they believe in what we do…”
Once inside the gates, however, in the general access areas surrounding the paddock and grandstand bleachers, Mr. Houston’s statement about the event’s Louisville identity began to ring true. Women in big fancy hats and low cut blouses exposing large, low hanging breasts abounded in every direction. Men wore various shades of seersucker and other forms of preppy attire. There were also those without shirts, Mardi Gras beads only.
The stadium itself was like a giant labyrinth, requiring a different shade of access bracelet at every turn. With each ascending floor of the giant many-leveled track came brighter wrist bands, a better view and a more dapper crowd.
Security had reportedly been heightened to accommodate the attendance of Queen Elizabeth II.
By hook and crook, the Observer managed to get up to the famed Millionaire’s Row. The Queen was nowhere in sight, but O.J. Simpson was there in full force. The horses were running; the Juice was on his feet.
“Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah!” he screamed. “Hey, Chris! Chris!” he called out to a friend in a neighboring box. “I’m hot today, boy.”
The next race would be the Derby. Mr. Simpson said he was betting on Dominican. He signed an autograph.
A tunnel running underneath the track opens up onto what is known as the infield, a muddy arena packed with revelers more concerned with partying—keg beer, wacky hats, bare feet!—than old-fashioned Derby proprieties. From here, with a good pair of binoculars, the box seats and Millionaire’s Row can be spied directly. No one appeared remotely concerned about who might be enjoying air conditioning and champagne or which blue hat belonged to the Queen.
At roughly 6:15, the horses break out of their gates and for those two exciting minutes—it’s a Louisvillian crowd wearing the same color access bracelet.
There ensues the horrendous struggle to get the hell out there.
And indeed, that mood prevails over the city thereafter.
The turnout to the Grand Gala at the Galt House hotel was significantly more B-list than that which attended the parties the night before.
At the “chocolate waterfall” table in the desert room, Kevin Sorbo— otherwise known as “Hercules”—had just speared a wedge of pineapple and was getting ready to dip.
“Excuse me, what show are you on?” asked a fellow partygoer.
Standing nearby was New York Giant Michael Strahan.
“Up in the box—I was in there with a lot of millionaires—and a few billionaires a well, which was interesting,” he said. “We had a good time and I’ll definitely be back.”
His mind was already elsewhere. “I can’t wait to watch the fight,” he said referring to the De La Hoya-Mayweather fight airing an hour from now.
Mr. Strahan had not done well that day at the track. Like many, he had his money on Scat Daddy, who placed 18th.
Kid didn’t like the slop.