Ah, horse racing-the sport of kings. Broke, bitter, loser kings.
If the Kentucky Derby is the most exciting two minutes in sports, anyone who’s witnessed it is bound to wonder, “what’s the least?”
Or, put another way, what if you threw a party and nobody came? Or even worse, what if you threw a party and a bunch of nobodies came? Unfortunately, the festival planners of the 123rd running of the Kentucky Derby (1997) know the answer to that question all too well. (Don’t ask though-it’s probably still too painful to talk about.)
The Derby celebrity scene has always been a bit of a dirty little secret-something of a refuge for has-beens, also-rans and never-weres (and we’re not just talking about the horses), drawing primarily from a stable of actresses/actors/performers who simply can’t get work now that the Love Boat and Fantasy Island have been canceled.
Now that the Love Boat has been resurrected, and is apparently running on the WB network (if anyone can find it), an ill wind (literally-for those seated anywhere near the Porto-Sans) is surely blowing for the Ghost of Derby Future. “Love (exciting and new),” poses some fierce competition, “come aboard we’re expecting you…”
Even Kato Kaelin was a dim memory, (but word is he and Dennis Cole are both packing their tuxes even as we speak for this year’s event).
Beware of all enterprises that require new clothes.
-Henry David Thoreau
But these assertions, of course, aren’t entirely fair. The Derby has had its share of glory days, and quite naturally, some years have been better than others. Who can forget, for example, that famous AP photo of Sam Shepard and Jessica Lange, impeccably attired as they gazed out across the Derby track from their table in the Turf Club? Their appearance provided an oasis of good taste and dignity amid a den of fuschia-infused wretched excess-and it fairly made one proud to be a Kentuckian.
Alas, Derby 123 was not destined to boast such moments, and one can only pray that it was not a sign of the times-the end of an era in general.
Of course those who don’t live here (like columnist Jim Mullen) can afford more vicious bon mots, but even natives were forced to admit that, for hopeful stargazers, the galaxy was a little bit smaller than usual in 1997. All the usual Derby traditions were in place-bourbon, horses, and tobacco (the reek of cigars filled the air)-but where were the stars? Where was HAMMER when we needed him?!
The “regrets” filtered in all week long prior to the big race. According to a Weight Watchers spokesperson, Sarah Ferguson would be in Poland around post time (probably shilling for Ocean Spray). Magic Johnson was tied up. Jerry Hall (an attendee at 122) apparently wasn’t impressed enough to make a repeat performance. Various cast members from Friends, ER, and Melrose Place were invited, but could not attend (not even George Clooney-a Kentucky native). No word on what happened to Marcel-Friends’ ill-fated monkey-his agent did not return calls for comment.
Just when festival planners thought things couldn’t get any worse, insult was added to injury. As hosts and hostesses around the state struggled to maintain a stiff upper lip (from Lexington’s Anita Madden to Louisville’s Patricia Barnstable Brown to Susan Davis, organizer of Louisville’s Nightcap Affair), the death knell arrived. DENNIS COLE, perennial Derby guest (for the past 23 years to be exact) declined. Surely this constituted the fourth sign of the coming apocalypse.
The celebrities who did show up (for the party scene, and less importantly, for the race itself) fell into three basic categories: the parentheticals (stars who required lengthy hyphenated information detailing exactly why they were stars); country music singers; and sports figures.
A fourth category of regular, pop culture household names seems hardly worth the bother-Roger Ebert, Kim Alexis, Huey Lewis, Bo Derek, and Don Rickles comprised that “crowd.” Rickles summed up the situation when he told reporters, “Clint Eastwood couldn’t get the attention I’m getting.” The accuracy of his statement marked a poignant and sad day for the River City.
A fifth category on “70s blonds” could also have been added, but the appearance of Barbara Eden and Loni Anderson was noteworthy primarily for the fact that it provided credible evidence that they are not, in fact, the same person.
As for the politicians (mostly Kentuckians), they hardly added much in the way of glitz. Although Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott was in attendance, probably because his son and daughter-in-law live in Lexington (where they own a few Domino’s pizza outlets).
It’s been three years since Hollywood Squares would hire [these people] to sit in a box.
-Pike county attorney, Larry Webster
Of the genuine Hollywood types who did show, most were from television and most required an explanation or introduction. Movie stars were in short supply unless you count the fact that Diedrich Bader was once Jethro in the film version of The Beverly Hillbillies (but he seemed so nice, why would we want to bring that up?). Randy Quaid was supposedly in attendance-though visual confirmation was not possible.
Examples from the television galaxy, along with their parenthetical explanations, included Tonja (Alex on One Life to Live) Walker, and Julie (the now-former-Nadine on Grace Under Fire) White. Gail (NYPD Blue) O’Grady was also present, and by now has added a few screen credits (not to mention made-for-USA movies) to her resumé.
David (Baywatch) Chokachi was overdressed and anonymous without his skimpy regulation lifeguard-togs.
The aforementioned Diedrich (Oswald on the Drew Carey Show) Bader might have garnered more attention had he worn his sitcom’s 1997 season-finale costume spoofing The Rocky Horror Picture Show. This Derby crowd might’ve actually benefited from a house call by Dr. Frank N. Furter. Somewhat regrettably, Bader was, instead, tastefully attired and accompanied by his equally tasteful fiancée (who might or might not still be Mrs. Bader, if she ever was, by the time this goes to press).
Other recognizable television personas included Lea (Caroline in the City) Thompson, which seems to be hanging on by a thread at press. At least one hopes.
Jere (star of the should’ve-been-canceled-by-now Something So Right) Burns was there, and incorrectly identified by the Courier-Journal the next day as “Jesse Burns.” That’s how famous he was.
Although the appearance of such guests did give the press something to do as everyone took odds on how many of these shows would still be on the air a year later.
Such embarrassing episodes could easily be avoided if Downs staff would simply cave in to the suggestion that they issue credentials to the Hollywood-types the same way they do with the press. Their laminated badges could read CELEBRITY, and their name and explanation of status could be typed neatly on a laser-generated label just above that.
Because yet another recognition problem (in addition to anonymity) quickly surfaced among female Derbygoers-the fact that many were unidentifiable (practically missing in action) underneath their de rigueur, regulation chapeaux. These brims were so wide they influenced the tides every time these women turned their heads.
The most popular headgear of the day (aside from those beer hats in the infield) were cheap knockoffs of the extravagant hats made briefly popular (so excruciatingly long ago) in Four Weddings and a Funeral-although it’s a safe bet that wasn’t Andie McDowell or Kristin Scott Thomas peeping from beneath the brims. Which probably means that wasn’t Hugh Grant with those two hookers in the Eclipse Room. Or maybe he just looked like Hugh Grant and they just looked like hookers-in their strappy slip dresses and trowel-grade makeup. (No one actually observed money changing hands, so it almost seems unsportsmanlike to report their presence.)
A Taste of Country
Delta Dawn, what’s that flower you have on? Could it be a faded rose from days gone by?
Tanya Tucker huddled in an out-of-the-way corner of the Eclipse Room, but even from a distance, her appearance seemed to confirm the cosmetic surgery assertions made by critic (and Louisville native) Alanna Nash in her review of Tucker’s memoirs, which had been published just prior to Derby. Nash had admired the book’s forthright attitude, but wondered idly why Tucker made no mention of the plastic surgery that had rendered her virtually “unrecognizable.” This “surgical incognito” approach might have been the reason Tucker was allowed to enjoy the Derby in mostly unencumbered peace. Of course, it might have also been due to the fact that she managed to refrain from flashing her breasts at anyone in one of those oh-so-popular self-professed “Tanya moments.” It would be useless to speculate as to whether Delta Dawn’s out-of-character reticence/modesty was motivated by a sudden attack of good taste, respect for her tony environs, or good judgment brought on by the sudden chill of Derby 123’s spring squall.
No wonder fellow country stars George Strait and John Michael Montgomery kept asking her, “Is it cold out or are you just glad to see us?” Actually, they didn’t (at least not within earshot)-but it might’ve lightened things up if they had.
Without the benefit of obfuscating plastic surgery, both Strait and Montgomery were easily recognized and fairly consumed alive by the carnivorous, unsatiated press. Although had it not been for his cowboy hat, one editor swore she would’ve confused the latter with a college football player whose name she couldn’t quite recall.
Country singer Lorrie Morgan arrived in a wide straw hat and dark glasses, making her very nearly as anonymous as Tucker.
Wide World of Sports
Mud is not one of the four food groups.
Surveying the muck from their vaulted perches atop Skye Terrace were Yankees owner George Steinbrenner and retired Yankee first baseman Don Mattingly who lingered in the same neighborhood. San Antonio Spur Avery Johnson made his first (darn stylish) Derby appearance. And golfer Fuzzy Zoeller chose the Derby to emerge from the self-imposed seclusion he’d endured after insulting (and subsequently apologizing to) Tiger Woods (who did not attend).
But the undisputed star of the moment, sports or otherwise, was very clearly Rick Pitino. Even if Woods (the flavor of that month) had appeared, he would’ve been quickly eclipsed by Pitino.
Momentarily putting aside the ancient Red vs. Blue rivalry, all eyes were on the then-UK Coach, who’d just led the Wildcats to a respectable runner-up slot in the March Madness national tourney. (In Kentucky, close doesn’t only count in horseshoes; it counts in basketball too.)
Pitino graciously deflected all questions about his (now ancient history) decision to leave behind big blue for the lure of Beantown and the Celtic tradition. He stayed resolutely and safely on the topic of horses.
This left an extraordinarily bored press corps to stand around interviewing each other about what Pitino’s decision might be. Seemingly oblivious to the fact that they were in Cardinal Country, this journalistic strategy led to some fascinating televised exchanges along the lines of, “What do you think, Brad? Will he stay or will he go?” followed by, “I don’t know John. Maybe. Maybe not.”
Maybe the reporters will have better luck this year with Pitino’s replacement, “Tubby.”
The Food Chain in Action
Nobody outside Nelson County and skid row drinks bourbon any more.
With such a slim crop of celebrities and a mostly-mum Pitino at Derby 123, a Darwinian struggle among the press corps was bound to erupt. As the cheap juleps (in taste only, not price) flowed freely, there were only so many stars to go around, and it quickly came down to survival of the fittest. At times, things got ugly, as every journalist there jockeyed (pardon the expression) to be the next in line to ask Gail (NYPD Blue) O’Grady what she thought of Kentucky in general, and Louisville, specifically. Answer: She “likes it.” She “has family nearby.” She “used to spend summers here.” Really? Riveting.
By 9 a.m., every reporter there had scent-marked his or her territory. Badges and credentials had been issued and designed to ensure nothing less than an all-out class war among the assembled journalists.
The obvious victors were the bearers of laminates emblazoned with the godlike “ABC Sports.” Residing just beneath them on the food chain were the slightly less deistic “Television” badge wearers. Everyone else was relegated to the status of generic “press” pass sucks-and were treated accordingly (i.e., to be grudgingly tolerated by the staff as slightly less valuable than the dirt on the track beneath the horses’ feet, and slightly more valuable than the steaming salutary piles the horses had left behind in their stalls). One helpful hint, for example, would be to re-label the “Press” box the “television” box.
It’s difficult to comment with any degree of accuracy on the perks the TV crews actually received (one can only imagine that they were supplied with everything from hot cocoa to thermal underwear to palm fronds)-because they were so quickly spirited away to loftier perches-the better to survey the unwashed masses below. It’s safe to say, however, that all new heights of obsequiousness were reached. They crawled unimpeded over every centimeter of Churchill Downs, stopping just short of boarding a horse and ambling onto the track (which probably could’ve been arranged too).
Although all the major state newspaper commented on how “tight” security was, they neglected to mention that it could also be quite “rude.”
For example, pants (even if they’re part of a Calvin Klein suit) were severely (and verbally) frowned upon by the gatekeepers at the Turf Club, when worn by female members of the press corps. George Steinbrenner probably would’ve looked smashing in them, and been duly fawned upon.
It was unfortunate that most of the real action centered on the Terraces-which was fine if you knew the secret password, the secret handshake, and had the appropriate tattoo engraved at the nape of your neck (probably featuring a tasteful rendering of the trademarked twin spires). If you didn’t, you were none-too-politely ejected from the premises by the Downs Gestapo-as one hapless photographer colleague quickly and unceremoniously discovered.
Here Comes the Rain Again
…falling on my head like a tragedy.
Of course, weather is always the great equalizer. Celebrities were no better equipped for the Big Chill of Derby 123 than the mere mortals. Big-haired nouveau-riche types huddled deep within their pastel, spaghetti-strapped Easter-egg confections-right alongside the Lea Thompsons and Barbara Edens of the world.
And everyone struggled not to mention the unmentionable-the fact that the whipping 30 mph winds served to permeate the entirety of Churchill Downs with an unspeakable combination stench of designer imposter perfume, cigar smoke, and raw sewage (probably from the infield’s portable toilets). One hates to cover Derby from a scatalogical angle, but by the end of a long hard day, it was all that was left.
It fairly left one longing for the simpler environs of Keeneland, which is designed to feel more like an English “day at the races,” whereas the Downs could leave no one (within smelling distance) in any doubt that one had spent a “day at the Track.”
Another tip: exit showers for everyone to zip through prior to departure, because otherwise, it would take a rearview-mirror-air freshening-fir tree the size of a REDWOOD to get that stench of the Track out of one’s car and clothes and hair.
Post-Derby parties left everyone sniffing the air gingerly and asking, as politely as possible, “Is that…no, no it’s not me…did you step in something?…”
The Sound and the Fury
I don’t hate it. I don’t hate it. I don’t hate it. I don’t hate it. I don’t hate it…
–William Faulkner, Absalom Absalom
This was not William Faulkner’s Derby-the one he covered in 1955 for Sports Illustrated-the one boasting the drama of Swaps beating Nashua.
His essay began “This saw Boone: the bluegrass, the virgin land rolling westward wave by dense wave from the Allegheny gaps, unmarked then, teeming with deer and buffalo about the salt licks and the limestone springs whose water in time would make the fine bourbon whiskey; and the wild men too…the dark and bloody ground.” There was no such literary romance to be had at the 1997 Derby-although if there had been, it surely would have taken no less than a Nobel-prize winning author to find it.
As one shivering non-celebrity at the Governor’s Derby breakfast put it (somewhat reluctantly), “Well…you get to see a lot of people…and it’s better than Shoney’s.” Perhaps the same could be said of the entirety of the 1997 Derby. But just barely.