FRANKFORT — Gov. Steve Beshear pulled his wallet out of a back pocket and ordered two biscuit sandwiches for a buck each to join a smaller-than-usual crowd for this year's scaled-back Kentucky Derby Breakfast on the Capitol grounds.
Gone from the Derby Day kickoff event was the free traditional buffet of country ham, eggs, cheese grits, biscuits, pastries, juices and coffee. Also absent was the large tent on the parking lot near the Governor's Mansion where visitors could rest and enjoy their meal out of the elements.
Replacing the free food and the tent were two booths where food items — sandwiches, muffins and juices — could be bought for $1 each and several picnic tables on the back patio of the Capitol for diners. Coffee was still free.
"This is a poor man's Derby," said longtime attendee Bobby Rorer of Lawrenceburg.
Digital Access For Only $0.99
For the most comprehensive local coverage, subscribe today.
The Derby Day breakfast started in 1936 as then-Gov. A.B. "Happy" Chandler's private get-together for a few friends and since has become a public spectacle, with 10,000 to 15,000 people in attendance in recent years.
Maybe a third of that number showed up Saturday.
Patrons blamed the small turnout on a range of causes, from the changes Beshear initiated to try to save the state about $200,000 in tough financial times, to fear of the swine flu.
The most frequently mentioned reason was the weather. Rain fell during the early hours of the breakfast, and although the sun did pop through about 9:30 a.m., the morning remained mostly gray and cold.
Several people were surprised by Beshear's changes.
"Where's the tent and food?" asked Betty Loyd of Frankfort, as someone in the crowd taking care of a chicken biscuit urged her to try the "finger food."
"I'd be willing to pay more to get the cheese grits," she said.
Beshear said the changes were proper.
"We felt like with the tough financial times that folks are going through, we also needed to be economical and cut back some," Beshear said. "Paying a buck for a country ham biscuit is certainly not out of line."
Asked if he will bring back the traditional breakfast if the economy improves, Beshear said, "We will monitor the situation, see how things go and plan the breakfast celebration accordingly."
Despite this year's cuts, most people didn't seem to object too much and had fun with the activities that included two stages of free entertainment, arts and crafts exhibits and games for children.
Henry Lyon, a retired state worker from Frankfort, found shelter under a front door of the Capitol Annex where he could munch on his sandwiches.
"I miss the free meal and the big tent, but I understand with the way the economy is," Lyon said. "It's just good to get out and see the people."
Chelsea Wilson, 16, and Meagan Dyer, 14 — both of Lexington — had to deal with wet stringy hair and soaked Southern belle dresses as they distributed free candy and book markers to the crowd.
"We're having a good time," Wilson said. "Everybody is nice. It's Derby Day."