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Stars Under the Spires
Throughout the years of the Kentucky Derby, the race has had a special appeal to the celebrity set. The rich and famous that mingle among the Derby Day crowd add a unique dimension to the spectacle of the "Run for the Roses."
One of the first celebrity sightings dates to 1877 when famed Polish actress Helena Modjeska attended the third running of the Kentucky Derby. In the 1945 book, Down the Stretch, it was noted that Modjeska was impressed by the Kentucky Derby but even more charmed by the mint julep to which she was introduced by Churchill Downs founder M. Lewis Clark following the race.
Over the years, a stream of celebrities from film, television, music, sports, politics, publishing, fashion and corporate American have been drawn to the Kentucky Derby. On at least one occasion, a celebrity with a more notorious background was the talk of the Derby. The 15th renewal in 1889 brought bank and train robber Frank James to Louisville. The brother of famed outlaw Jesse James and a leader in their outlaw gang, Frank was on hand to watch Spokane take the victory over favored Proctor Knott.
In 2007, Churchill Downs initiated a new Kentucky Derby tradition with a celebrity focus by creating a special Red Carpet entrance for VIP attendees and their guests. Kentucky Derby broadcast partner NBC provided televised coverage of the Derby Red Carpet arrivals, giving fans around the globe a chance to see the rich and famous make their way into the world’s most legendary racetrack for a once-in-a-lifetime entertainment experience.
Although most of the rich and famous who attend are guests of prominent ticket holders, the Derby has also attracted an impressive roster of celebrity horse owners. Since 1990, this group of celebrity owners has grown to include musician Hammer (1992 - Dance Floor, 3rd); composer Burt Bacharach (1994 - Soul of the Matter, 5th & 1995 - Afternoon Deelites, 8th); music producer Barry Gordy (1994 - Powis Castle, 8th); film producer Albert Broccoli (1994 - Brocco, 4th); New York Yankee owner George Steinbrenner (1997 - Concerto, 9th and 2005 - Belamy Road, 7th); University of Louisville coach Rick Pitino (1998 - Hallory Hunter, 4th); and movie director Steven Speilberg (2003 - Atswhatimtalknbout, 4th).
As a direct descendent of England's Epsom Derby, Churchill Downs’ Kentucky Derby has played host to British Royalty on four different occasions. In 1930, Edward George Villiers Stanley, the 17th Earl of Derby, from whose family name the term “Derby” was derived, became the first English nobleman to attend. Prohibition was in effect at the time and Lord Derby stated his disappointment in not being able to sample a mint julep. "You have a great many advantages I should like to copy for England," Derby said, "but prohibition is not one of them."
The Earl of Derby was followed in 1951 by the Duke of Windsor, who had renounced the British throne in 1936 so he could wed the American divorcee Wallace Simpson. The 100th running of the Kentucky Derby in 1974 brought Her Royal Highness The Princess Margaret and her husband Lord Snowden. Princess Margaret, the sister of the Queen of England, took part in the trophy presentation and awarded winning owner John Olin a specially crafted trophy for the milestone victory.
In 2007, Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip attended the 133rd Kentucky Derby and watched Street Sense win the “Run for the Roses.” Her Majesty, who wore a lime green wool coat with a matching silk dress and lime green hat with fuchsia trim, arrived two hours before the Kentucky Derby and enjoyed a view of the race and the spectacle surrounding it from a table in Churchill Downs’ Stakes Room, located within the fourth-floor clubhouse.
Seven politicians who have gone on to become president of the United State have watched the classic race and witnessed the electricity and excitement of the Kentucky Derby. Harry S. Truman was reported as the first and was followed in 1952 by Lyndon Johnson who attended while a Texas senator.
Richard M. Nixon is the only president to have attended while already serving in office. He visited in 1968 as guest of Kentucky Governor Louie B. Nunn and commented that if he were elected president he would return to the 1969 Derby. 1969 also attracted two future presidents, Gerald R. Ford and Ronald Reagan. No other president has witnessed more Kentucky Derbys than Ford. Beginning in 1977, Ford and his wife Betty attended almost every Kentucky Derby for 10 years as guests of longtime friend John Galbreath, a former Churchill Downs chairman of the board.
In 1983, for the 109th Derby, two past presidents and one future president were in attendance. Ford was joined by Jimmy Carter, the democrat who had defeated him in 1976, and Vice President George Bush, who would win the 1988 election. Other vice presidents who've attended include Charles Curtis, 1931, and John Nance Garner, 1937.
The Infield on Kentucky Oaks and Derby Days compares only to Bourbon Street during Mardi Gras, pairing the legacy and history of the Kentucky Derby with that famous all-out party atmosphere. Every year approximately 80,000 revelers pack the infield, hoping to catch a glimpse of the next Derby winner (or just an actual horse), to re-unite with old friends, "party maximus" and to have the experience of a lifetime. (Many Facebook photos to collect here!)
Traditionally, the infield offers two perspectives and two experiences: the third turn party, where the young and the young at heart indulge in all things fun, free wheeling and, sometimes, a little frisky. If you visit the third turn and participate in its madcap antics on Derby weekend, take lots of pictures but think twice about showing them to dear old Mom and Dad!
On the opposite end, the grassy first turn offers a more sedate, family-like picnic setting that’s G-rated and great for all ages. If you’re bringing kids to the infield, this is the place to go – just keep an eye on them.