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Romance thrives on Derby day at Keeneland

Derby Day at Keeneland featured thousands of people, much wagering, tons of food and drink under gray skies that were more than offset by hot romance.

Just before noon Saturday, George Tyler Allgeier of Lexington got down on one knee in the paddock to ask Kelly Higgins of Ashland to marry him. Higgins said yes.

Before that, Brigitte Brice and Rodney Denson, both of Jacksonville Fla., were married in a ceremony conducted next to the paddock by the Rev. Stanley Simms of Detroit.

Higgins, who met her fiancé at the University of Kentucky, said she was totally surprised by Allgeier's proposal. Allgeier said he'd carefully planned it for two months, including inviting his parents and Higgins' parents to Keeneland to be in on the big moment.

Brice and Denson got engaged in January, soon after she returned from a yearlong tour in Iraq with the Navy Reserve.

"I immediately knew exactly where we were going to get married," Brice said, explaining that she and her new husband have been Derby regulars for years. They plan a honeymoon in Hawaii.

Other folks at Keeneland spent their Derby Day in somewhat more conventional fashion, but they had plenty of fun nevertheless.

Well before 10 a.m., dozens of vehicles were lined up, waiting at Keeneland's 12 drive-through betting windows, drivers perhaps hoping to win enough to pay for all the gasoline they were burning while they waited to wager.

More than 16,000 people came to Keeneland to watch the Derby, and they placed more than $1.5 million in bets. This was the 17th year Keeneland has hosted Derby fans.

James and Fannie Coffey of Lexington found a way to save on gas. They rode to the betting windows aboard their Honda Goldwing motorcycle, with a small trailer hooked on the back.

"If you're going to lose some money, you've got to cut back somewhere," James Coffey quipped. "I usually go to Louisville on Derby Day, but I don't know about the weather this year. So we are here."

Skies over Keeneland remained cloudy much of the day, with chilly breezes that kept everybody on the lookout for the showers that slipped into the area about mid-afternoon.

But Linda Moran of Lexington and her longtime friend, Angela Fox of New Orleans, weren't worried. They waited in the drive-through line in Moran's van.

"As soon as we place our bets, we'll probably go back to my house and make margaritas," Moran said. "This is our big fun thing that we do every year."

As always, the Derby Day atmosphere at Keeneland was family-friendly. Small children ran and whooped, or pulled out crayons and worked on coloring books while parents studied betting forms. For many around the paddock, the day was a chance to renew old friendships.

Near the center of the paddock, a large group of women had set up several tables that groaned under the weight of all the food they'd brought. The members met over the years through college or work.

"It's a girls' get-together that we've been having here at Derby time for years, just to eat and make a few bets," said Mary Jo Kyser of Munfordville. "We're expecting 20 or 25 people today before it's all over."

Ken and Heather Lee of Mount Sterling arrived at Keeneland at 6:30 a.m. Saturday, and by a little after 9 a.m., they were grilling burgers with their friends Lawrence and Kendall Hines, also of Mount Sterling.

"This is just a snack. We brought ribs that we'll put on later and have right before the Kentucky Derby," Ken Lee said. "We've been planning this all year. This is the most exciting day of the year in Kentucky, and we like to spend it right here."

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