Pitch a tent, invite 1,500 or so of your friends, and voilà: Derby party. That's the way Bill Morgan has been doing it since 1972. But it didn't start out quite so big.
While Morgan was a student at the University of Kentucky, he decided to throw a party for his friends who couldn't afford the exclusive Derby parties. The Poor Man's Harlan County Derby Eve Party was born.
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Now it's the biggest party of them all.
And just like the more expensive parties, this bash is for charity. Morgan, wife Elizabeth Morgan, brother Bryan Morgan and friend James ”Smitty“ Jones — a onetime maitre'd at Columbia's Steak House on North Limestone — were the hosts.
The charity benefiting from this gathering was The Bluegrass Farms Chaplaincy Inc. There were silent auctions for other charitable causes as well.
When Miller Combs, a student from Sayre School assigned to shadow me for a school project, and I arrived at B&B Morgan Tire on North Broadway, Bill Morgan's business concern, a thunderstorm had just started.
”It rains every year,“ Morgan said.
But the party had barely begun. As I walked through the first tent, a woman approached me with open arms. Good Lord, it was Renie Ann Murphy. I hadn't seen her since childhood. Her family owned West Wind Riding Center on Grimes Mill Road, where just about everyone in Fayette County learned how to ride a horse. Her uncle, the late Pat Murphy, was a huntsman at Iroquois Hunt Club. She was at the party supporting the Blue Grass Farms Chaplaincy and introduced me to its director, Mary Lee-Butte. She told me about the wonderful things the chaplaincy does for farm workers across the Bluegrass. It serves the spiritual, physical, social and educational needs of all people in the Central Kentucky horse farm community. They also throw the annual Nags, Bags and Rags benefit in October. Can't wait.
This party was also kind of bittersweet. It was dedicated to ”Mr. Wildcat,“ the late Bill Keightley. Many UK sports celebrities, including former basketball coach Tubby Smith, current coach Billy Gillispie and the staffs of the basketball and football programs were scheduled to be there, but I had to leave so early and cover other parties that I didn't get a chance to see any of them. Several of the silent-auction items, including a signed football by UK football coach Rich Brooks, a basketball signed by Gillispie and lunch with former UK quarterback Tim Couch, were slated for the benefit of UK football player Kio Sanford, who has bone cancer.
Before I left, I noticed that some patrons were dining on barbecue, fried green tomatoes and fried catfish. But there was a whole lot more.
"Oasis' at the Radisson
We had to dash to the Radisson Plaza Hotel for the Evening of Champions: Midnight at the Oasis, a benefit for the Makenna Foundation for Kentucky Children's Hospital. The hotel's second floor had been transformed into an Egyptian oasis, with Cleopatra, King Tut and Ramses II waiting at the gate.
This party was a bit more elegant than the Poor Man's party — some party-goers were in formal attire, while others were comfortable in cocktail attire — but then patrons paid dearly for the invitations. In the crowd was Miss Kentucky, Kaitlynne Postel. A dance with her was to be auctioned later.
Patrons sipped champagne and nibbled on hors d'oeuvres before dining on lamb, beef tenderloin, and beef and pork kebabs.
I got to chat briefly with Greg and Sheila David of Jessamine County, the catalysts for the Makenna Foundation, which was named for their late daughter, Makenna David.
”We're expecting 525 tonight,“ Sheila said. ”It's really big for us, but I think this is the topper.“
Among the party's diversions were silent and live auctions and gaming.
”This year we have a huge project in the Pediatric Emergency Center here at UK,“ Sheila said. ”So it's really important that we get that built.“
I have no doubt that, with the energy they displayed, they will get it done.
From Egypt to ... Egypt
It was déjà vu when we drove out to Donamire Farm on Old Frankfort Pike for the Lexington Cancer Foundation's Derby Ball. The theme was similar, The Golden Age of the Pharaohs, but it didn't matter. I suppose Miller and I were the only people who went to both.
This was a lavish black-tie fund-raiser in a huge tent decorated with palms and pyramids and dripping with gold.
But first we were delayed getting into this affair. When we entered the tent complex, we had to stand in line to register. Wayne and Susan Masterman were in line, too, so it was a good time to chat. Wayne is the owner of Portofino in downtown Lexington and Serafini in Frankfort, and I learned that he will be opening a new restaurant, Summit, in ”a week or two,“ he said. The steak-and-seafood restaurant will occupy the space that used to house Emmett's at 1097 Duval Street.
The line we were in wasn't moving, and I didn't have much time before I had to leave. Then I heard a guy say that this was the line for getting your picture taken. For Pete's sake.
We ran into the big tent, where most of the patrons were dining. Meg Jewett-Leavitt and Trish Truesdell — they're everywhere — stopped me.
”I was stuck in that line, too,“ Jewett-Leavitt said.
I've got to scoot.