Churchill revelry is going on a budget

The recession's latest victim is Kentucky's signature event, and its reach, just as in good times, extends far from Churchill Downs.

"It's very slow this year," said Joseph Busenhart, owner of Lexington's Thoroughbred Limousine and a 50 percent financial backer of Classic & Affordable Limousine. Those two companies have 14 limos, and in years past, they easily sold out.

This time they still have limos available.

"We have a lot of people looking for just one-day reservations and the best bargains," he said.

Also, he typically requires a two-day rental package, but not this year.

A regular limousine in years past was about $4,000 for the minimum two-day rental, while stretch SUVs rented for between $5,000 to $7,000 for a two-day package. This year, the company is allowing one-day rentals and the cost for two-day packages has dropped about 20 percent to 25 percent lower than a year ago.

Gold Shield Transportation, which provides limos, buses and upscale regular SUVs, said it's seeing more requests for the cheaper vehicles in its fleet.

"People are really not requesting the stretch SUVs," president and CEO George Doyle said.

The company has also seen cuts in how many vehicles groups take.

"One place had five or six limos last year and is doing just two this year," Doyle said.

Lexington's swanky parties also are taking a hit. Earlier this year, organizers, citing the economy canceled the Lexington Derby Ball, which raised money for the Lexington Cancer Foundation.

The Makenna Foundation is proceeding, though, with its Evening of Champions party on Derby Eve.

There have been between 450 and 500 tickets already sold for the party that benefits the Makenna David Pediatric Emergency Center at Kentucky Children's Hospital.

"We are in the black ... and I can't tell you how excited I am," said foundation executive director Sheila David, the mother of Makenna, who died of a rare lung disease in 1998. Attendance might be down from last year's 600. She said some of the difference could be attributed to a change from a buffet that allowed for late ticket purchases to a sit-down dinner that requires early reservations.

David said the foundation decided not to raise ticket prices — $225 a person — because "we felt this was not the year to do so."

It also scrapped the live auction, because "our guests come to have fun, and they don't want to to be nickel and dimed."

Plenty of lodging

In years past, Lexington's Griffin Gate Marriott Resort & Spa typically sold out of rooms six to nine months before Derby Day.

This year, though, the hotel has close to 25 percent of its rooms still available, said Marci Krueger, director of sales and marketing.

"Historically, we would never have any to sell at this time," she said.

It usually caters to businesses that either have horses running in the Derby or are bringing in people to entertain. Krueger said many prefer to stay in Lexington because it's closer to horse farms, the bourbon distilleries and other sightseeing adventures.

The idea of spending lavishly to attend a sporting event when times are so tough scared off some potential clients, he said. Some, she said, just "outright canceled because of the perception of going to a high-profile event."

You need look no further than the Marriott, though, for one business that's still humming: the Fabulous Hats store inside the hotel and owned by Anne Sawyer.

"Things are going pretty good," she said last week, saying that she's had only one major order canceled.

And that, again, was more about appearances than money. The client that canceled was a bank, Sawyer said, that "couldn't really afford the scrutiny of coming" to Derby.

Her business doesn't really heat up until this week, when she sets up shop inside the Seelbach Hilton in downtown Louisville.

But even the sales of fancy hats, a Derby must-have, are affected by the recession.

Customers are choosing a ready-to-wear hat rather than one made to order.

Sawyer said she doesn't expect business to suffer because her typical clients — owners, breeders and celebrities — aren't feeling the financial pain in the same way as others.

They will get the hat they want, she said.

And bad times can be a good thing for some businesses. Buffalo Trace Distillery, a popular attraction during Derby weekend, is already fully booked for Oaks Day, said Meredith Moody, Buffalo Trace's marketing services director.

"It may be because our tours are complimentary, which is a good thing in a down economy," she said.