On the surface, the Kentucky Derby party scene looks as glittery as ever, with a celebrity guest list that includes Tito, Marlon and Jackie Jackson from the Jackson 5; skier Bode Miller, who won a gold medal at the Vancouver Olympics; actress Jaime Pressly; and baseball legend Barry Bonds. But behind the scenes is a much different story in this deeply troubled economy.
Two Derby events were canceled this year, and the economy was said to be the culprit in both cases. Organizers who will host parties in Lexington, Louisville and elsewhere say they placed a special emphasis on holding down costs this year while producing quality events.
"Every move we made was with a real budget in mind," said Charla Young, Louisville event planner for The Gala, a new party. It will raise money for the Jefferson County Public School Education Foundation, the University of Louisville and Kentucky State University.
"Extravagance and luxury were not options for us," Young said. Organizers want the 600 guests who will pay $400 a person to attend the Saturday night party at the Galt House "to have a great time," she said. "But we want to raise money."
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The Grand Gala, a Louisville party that attracted the likes of Michael Jordan, Jamie Foxx and Mo'Nique since it was first held in 2002, was scrapped this year.
The Lexington Derby Ball. last held in 2008 at Donamire Farm, was put on hold for a second year. Instead, the Lexington Cancer Foundation has shifted its efforts to a wine auction, a smaller black-tie event with less expensive tickets. It will be Thursday night at Keeneland.
"We adjusted to fit the economic times," said Kristi Martin, executive director. Last year's auction was "extremely successful," she said, with less work and lower overhead. It raised $650,000, according to the foundation's Web site.
Organizers of Evening of Champions, Lexington's only remaining black-tie Derby Eve gala, say Friday night's party will be its usual quality, but the budget was cut 15 percent.
"I challenged board members and the people we work with to try to make it work," board president Marty Tucker said of the belt-tightening. Vendors who provide decorations, food, entertainment and lighting were asked for discounts. "Almost every one we asked was accommodating, trying to get the event in under budget."
When Evening of Champions' presenting sponsor for the past two years, a local orthodontics firm, had to drop out, board members made "a concerted effort in late summer" to find new sponsors. "We really went out and shook the trees," Tucker said.
Those efforts were not successful, but Tucker said he hopes new relationships were made with individuals and businesses that will produce future support.
He said he expects about 500 guests who will pay $225 each to attend. The event raises money for Kentucky Children's Hospital. The money is channeled to the hospital through the Makenna Foundation.
One large party that seems immune from economic hard times is the star-studded Barnstable-Brown Derby Gala in Louisville, organized by twin sisters Patricia Barnstable Brown and Priscilla Barnstable. Celebrities coming Friday night include Olympic skater Johnny Weir, Bonds and the three Jacksons.
Barnstable Brown said the troubled economy has had little effect on this year's party except "it's easier to get accommodations for celebrities, it seems like."
This will be the 22nd year for the party, which has raised millions of dollars for diabetes research at the University of Kentucky and the University of Louisville. She expects to raise "over a million dollars for charity" this year.
High overhead is not the secret to a good party, insists Bill Morgan of Lexington, who expects 3,000 guests at his Poor Man's Harlan County Derby Party at B&B Morgan Tire and Sales, 851 North Broadway.
The menu includes barbecue and tamales prepared by Maria's Kitchen. Comedian Carl Hurley will entertain, and there will be about a dozen bands and singers.
Morgan's party is by invitation only. Guests will pay $25 at the door. Proceeds benefit Riding for Hope and Boy Scout Troop 1789.
The Poor Man's Party might not be the most glamorous, but it is "the most fun you can ever have," Morgan said.
Tonya York Dees, co-chair of the Julep Ball in Louisville, said even though party organizers have struggled, she thinks the events are "very important" to the success of the Kentucky Derby.
With any major sporting event, she said, "You have the athletic event, but there's the social scene. Parties create more ambience, more fun, more memories. They're part of the whole scene."