- The Washington Times - Friday, May 1, 2009

In a sign of the economic times, the lavish train ride that traditionally ferries VIPs from Kentucky’s state capital to the Kentucky Derby has been scratched this year by Gov. Steven L. Beshear.

Instead, buses will transport the I’m-not-feeling-so-VIP attendees to Churchill Downs for Saturday’s race as the state struggles to handle a $456 million budget deficit.

That’s not all. A free breakfast offered under tents on Derby morning has been cut, with this year’s diners eating on picnic tables and paying for their meals.

Derby corporate sponsorships are off, and the Kentucky Thoroughbred Owners and Breeders Association dinner was canceled this year.

Perhaps most telling of all is news that hat sales are down. A good Derby hat can cost hundreds of dollars, but some are “recycling” to hit the proper style note for the times.

Even as the bonnets remain a key Derby tradition and national fashion fixation, many ladies who sport the event’s outlandish toppers - some adorned with bows, feather and sequins - have retooled and reworked their expensive chapeaux to exhibit restraint in an off financial year.

The 135th running of the Kentucky Derby is expected to be “down 15-20 percent overall,” said Jim Wood, president and CEO of the Louisville Convention & Visitors Bureau. He is nonetheless optimistic that the absence of some Derby regulars presents an opportunity for others who might have always dreamed of watching horse-racing’s premier spectacle. This is the year for them to make their own last-minute run for the track, he said.

“There’s still availability at some hotels. Some are sold out, but others are still taking reservations,” Mr. Wood said.

While profits may be off for local restaurants and other businesses, tickets to the race itself can still be purchased, he noted, making attendance a reality for those who know that by this time in previous years it would be too late and out of reach.

“We’ll see a little more of a regional draw,” he said. “In years past, we’ve been a national draw, so that is scaled down.”

With all of the downsides, what keeps the race tradition alive? Those Derby bonnets, albeit recycled, the hearty Burgoo stew, the chic Barnstable Brown Party and its A-list attendees?

One Louisville resident offers a succinct if cheeky answer.

“Bourbon. Production and consumption. In quantities large and small,” quips Steve Hurst, a local who owns a video-editing company and champions the Derby’s and the state’s historic spirit of choice. That spirit fuels the famed mint julep that is quaffed in private boxes from elegant silver cups by the well-heeled on Derby Day, or by less ostentatious means in the infield, be it flask, paper cup or straight from the jug.

Not that Mr. Hurst will be imbibing this Bluegrass State cocktail. “The mint julep is an insult to the entire bourbon-sipping population,” he scoffed like a hometown purist. “Only out-of-towners enjoy mint juleps.”

Economic pinch notwithstanding, plenty of those “out-of-towners” will be there, including celebrities such as reality TV stars Paris Hilton and Kim Kardashian, country music stars LeAnn Rimes and Blake Shelton, celebrity chef Bobby Flay, along with a contingent of professional athletes including Michael Jordan, Doug Reinhardt, Deion Branch and Tom Brady. Even DJ of the moment Samantha Ronson, fresh off a breakup with actress Lindsay Lohan and a regular of tabloid fodder, will be on hand to spin at a local club.

“Hollywood has fallen in love with the Derby,” Mr. Wood gushed. “There are parties all over town, and the celebrities are made to feel very comfortable here. They can sit in the stands [at the Derby] with everyone else and enjoy without being pestered. Here, they can feel like part of the crowd.”

An estimated 1.5 million people will descend on the city of Louisville - pronounced, the locals will correct, as LOU-uh-vul, not LOU-ee-vil - where fresh roses have been planted, the dogwoods are in bloom and statues of horses dot the downtown landscape honoring the event. About 160,000 are expected to attend the Derby race itself, with the massive party in the infield and a more civilized viewing in the grandstand where exclusive box tickets - some handed down from generation to generation - can run into the thousands of dollars.

For the race itself, oddsmakers have tapped I Want Revenge as a 3-1 favorite with 19-year-old jockey Joe Talemo aboard. Other favorites included Dunkirk and Pioneer of the Nile at 4-1 and Friesan Fire at 5-1.

Those with a heart for the event but without the funds to match also hold Derby parties at home.

“It’s not just confined to those who go. If you can’t, you throw your own party. You watch the race, put together a pool and draw out your horse,” said Ann Latta, who served for eight years as head of the state’s tourism development Cabinet under Kentucky Gov. Paul Patton, and who has seen many a Derby over the years.

She quoted Mr. Patton, who once said: “Kentuckians are the only people in the world who can turn a two-minute horse race into a two-week party.”

For that reason and the heartfelt tradition it inspires, the Derby will always continue - economy be darned, Mrs. Latta said.

“I guess when we sing ‘the sun shines bright on our old Kentucky home,’ we always think it will.”

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