Trying to pry information out of professional chauffeur T.J. Doyle is harder than wrestling a winning trifecta ticket out of a poor man's hand.
Doyle will tell you that he's been driving the same people to the Kentucky Derby for the past eight years. Will he say who they are? "Can't do it," Doyle says. How about off the record? "Can't do it. We don't disclose any of our clients' info to anybody. Sorry."
After further grilling — Are they in the horse industry? "No." Are they in show business? "No." — this much has been ascertained: Their names are very familiar; they're on the Forbes list of richest business people, and on the evening of Derby, there's a good chance, "knowing them," they'll be watching Floyd Mayweather fight Manny Pacquiao on pay per view or ringside in Las Vegas.
Hmmm. Richard Branson? Oracle CEO Larry Ellison? Or is Doyle playing bluff the listener?
Doyle, 32, is not only a chauffeur but is the son of the owners of Gold Shield Transportation. For Gold Shield, and every limousine service in the area, this time of year, with Keeneland, proms, graduations and weddings, is by far the busiest — like a Valentine's Day for florists that goes on for weeks.
And the Derby is the yearly marathon that is the highlight of the season.
What's it like ferrying the one percent, and the one-percenters-for-a-day, to Churchill Downs? Turns out that depends on who's doing the driving.
Charles Thompson, Gold Shield's most senior driver and a Louisville native, has been doing it for 33 years.
"There's a lot of excitement," Thompson says. "A lot of celebrities." During the long Derby afternoon, while his clients hobnob on Millionaires Row, Thompson hobnobs outside. He'll wager a little on the ponies, but mainly, "I eat ... sleep ... eat ... sleep ... eat ... sleep ... ."
Passing the driver's test
If you're a chauffeur, you can't be chomping at the bit, especially on Derby Day. For Thompson to have kept at it so long means he's almost certainly blessed with what Doyle says is the most important quality for a chauffeur: patience.
"A client may tell you they'll be ready at 9, and they may not come out until 10:30. You can be sitting there for an hour or more, but they're paying, so you're at their disposal."
And as a driver you always have to find a way to get to "yes."
"Sometimes you tell a client 'no' and they don't like the word," Doyle says. "So you figure out a way to make it happen, if possible. The biggest thing is, 'Hey I need to be there in 10 minutes,' and you know there's no way with traffic you can be there, and ultimately it's because the client ran later than they were supposed to. But usually they understand."
Doyle's regular Derby assignment includes meeting clients at the airport Friday afternoon. He and another driver will pick up the party of 12 in two SUVs and take them to a private home where they'll spend one or two nights. Some years the clients will get festive into the wee hours at the Barnstable-Brown and Maxim parties, other years they'll turn in early and Doyle will head to a hotel room. Derby Day starts at 8 a.m. and includes bringing morning snacks and helping in group photos before setting off for Churchill Downs. After parking, "there's a lot of down time," says Doyle. Sometimes he'll get a ticket to go inside, sometimes he'll watch the race on the TV in the vehicle. Hopefully the clients will pick winners, because tips for each driver can run from $1500 to $3,000, depending on Lady Luck.
Every vehicle in Gold Shield's fleet of 45 carries the company name on the outside — a billboard on wheels. In contrast, a white stretch limo often seen around Lexington advertises "$1 a minute" on the back.
"Everybody needs a hook," says Scot Ward of Lexington Limousine, formerly 360 Limousine, a relative newcomer in the market. "For a dollar a minute, you can't beat it." Where Gold Shield has a corporate-heavy clientele, Lexington Limo's fleet of one caters year-round to more of the college crowd.
"I'm like the big brother," says Ward. "About 50 percent of clientele can get in the car and say, 'Scotty, take me home.' And I know where they live."
Ward, 40, is the company's only driver since his brother, "Fast Eddie," went back home to Florida. (Full disclosure: This reporter rode with Fast Eddie to a wedding once and had no complaints.)
The company has been in town about seven years, but Ward's experience as a chauffeur began more than 20 years ago in Beverly Hills, where he and his brother drove the likes of Steve Martin, Tony Curtis, John Travolta, Oprah, "Pamela Anderson of course," and a slew of other A-, B- and C-listers. He has an album of photos to prove it.
It was a high-flying lifestyle for the grandson of a man who once swung through the air as Tarzan's stunt double. "You've seen those movies where limos are racing through alleys with the boxes flying? I've done that to escape the paparazzi."
So it's safe to say the celebrities of the Derby don't faze Ward — who, by the way, also likes to blaze trails through the woods on 18-month hikes and has a slew of books he's written to prove it.
Ward has driven to a few Derbys — it's the one day he has to change from the by-the-minute charge to a set fee.
"The great thing about Derby is there's fun inside and outside," he says. "Everybody's got cookouts. It's kind of like a big tailgate party for blocks around Churchill Downs. Or if a client gives you a ticket you can go in."
He pulls out his phone and shows a picture of his view of the track from a recent year. Not bad. Not bad at all.