THE FIRST TIME I attended the Kentucky Derby was in 2001, a year before I moved from Michigan to Louisville. For the first time in my life, I donned a hat that wasn’t a ball cap or winter beanie and enjoyed the hoopla, but it wasn’t until I saw the now-late actor James Avery — who was best known as Uncle Phil from “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air,” starring Will Smith — seated at a table near where I walked that I realized whatever this was, it must be kind of a big deal.
Several years later, I worked as the entertainment columnist for The Courier-Journal and soon was also hired by Churchill Downs Racetrack to interview celebrities on the red carpet on Derby Day.
The week leading up to the first Saturday in May was hellacious (in terms of workload), amazing (thanks to the people I worked with and for) and awe-inspiring, because no matter how many celebrities came to town or how many parties I covered, I fell in love with the spell that seemed to have been cast over the community for that brief time and occurred at the same time year after year. I also quickly saw that the real stars are locals who go out of their way to ensure everyone, whether from near or far, feels like they’re part of something special during Derbytime.
My job, back then, was to dish about the glitz and glamour, and the occasional mishap.
[For the record: Hugh Hefner was always very kind and sweet, though one of the gals from his former trio of girlfriends was most definitely not; Adrian Grenier of “Entourage” fame was, let’s just say, one of my least favorite interviews ever; Brooke Shields is as beautiful inside as she is out; Martha Stewart is hilarious…and imposing; Bill Belichick does smile; both Rick Pitino and John Calipari are a lot of fun but definitely remain on your toes when they’re in the vicinity; Travis Tritt should be given a key to the City of Louisville, as should Joey Fatone formerly of *NSYNC; Danica Patrick is fierce and fun; Darryl McDaniels of Run-D.M.C. treats people like they matter; so does Diane Lane, who starred in “Secretariat,” and happily took a pic of partygoers at Churchill Downs when I watched in awe as they didn’t recognize the acclaimed actress but instead asked her to take a photograph, which she did; and the first year Louisville’s own Larry Birkhead was invited to attend the Barnstable Brown Gala as a guest, he received the loudest applause from onlookers and has remained an oft-silent but incredible father to his daughter, Dannielynn (her mama is the late Anna Nicole Smith) and is as good of a person to those around him as he has been philanthropically (and quietly) to our Louisville and Southern Indiana community.]
As fun and interesting as the glitz and glamour was, year after year, I always left the track by myself – utterly exhausted – before the Running of the Roses and would drive to a neighborhood bar to watch the Kentucky Derby with those who made Derbytime so special: those who live here year-round and love our community regardless of the season. Sometimes, I’d drink a beer at the bar surrounded by a throng of individuals. Other times, I sat by myself as torrential rains poured outside and the staff and I watched the race in near silence.
Then, on Sunday, I’d meet up with friends and enjoy brunch, a Bloody Mary or two and rehash the past week before heading to bed well before the sun went down.
Times have changed, for me at least.
I’m married now, my professional obligations are different and I have a daughter who isn’t yet old enough to understand what it means to Do Derby.
This year, I’m going to emcee the Boys & Girls Haven Oaks Day Brunch – featuring Linkin Bridge – with my husband and our daughter, Olive, in tow. After that, we’ll most likely return to our home in New Albany and, weather permitting, do yard work and enjoy the day until watching the Kentucky Oaks on TV. The following morning, we’ll probably get up, eat breakfast, maybe attend a Derby party for a bit, watch the race on TV, and then rise on Sunday morning, gather together for brunch and prepare for the week ahead.
This is how we — it’s no longer just about me — do Derby SoIN style, at least in 2017. Here’s to a winning Derby season, no matter how you spend it.
Editor in Chief