Race of a different color Derby revelry makes Preakness seem tame

May 09, 1991|By Ross Peddicord | Ross Peddicord,Evening Sun Staff

LOUISVILLE, KY. — THERE is nothing quite like the Kentucky Derby.

It has a mystique all its own, something akin to the World Series, the Masters golf tournament, the Indianapolis 500 and a couple of johnny-come-latelys like the Super Bowl and the Final Four.

Compared with Louisville during Derby week, Baltimore and the Preakness are downright sedate.

"This is one the slowest Derbys ever," a Louisville judge was quoted as saying after presiding over 200 arraignments in district court in one hour.

In contrast, Baltimore gets into a lather over a couple of teen-agers arrested at the Hunt Cup.

Louisville's bars never close during Derby weekend -- the atmosphere is a mixture of Mardi Gras, Saratoga, the Democratic National Convention and Wrestlemania.

Although "brawling, bashing and bleeding" were said to be out this year, there were still two deaths, at least 365 arrests and 219 runs by the Rescue Squad, and that was just in one 24-hour period -- from 6 p.m. Derby Eve to 6 p.m. Derby Day.

A seminary student choked to death on a hot dog at the Chow Wagon, one of three outdoor eating enclaves set up for Derby visitors. Another man died of a heart attack in the grandstand at Churchill Downs.

On Derby Eve, an estimated crowd of about 20,000 jammed into center city for the Central Avenue block party. There was only one shooting and one stabbing, and police reported that they only broke up 22 fights.

Last year, the party was described as "a contained riot" when "revelers hurled bottles at each other and the police."

Of course, there is the social side to Derbymania. The mayor of Louisville went to 56 parties in 10 days, everything from breakfasts, brunches, corporate dinners, dances, black-tie galas, ribbon-cuttings and steamboat races. He turned down nearly 70 other invitations.

Aside from the activity at the track, civic-minded citizens formed Kentucky Derby Festival Inc. in 1956.

The group started with a $640 budget 36 years ago and put on the first Derby parade.

This year, with a staff of 15 full-time employees, a 67-member board, 3,750 volunteers and a $2.6 million budget, the Festival group staged 77 events over a two-week period. The economic impact from just Festival-related activities, not including the track, hotels or tourist-related expenditures is $34.2 million, according to Donna Bynum, the Festival's public relations director.

In contrast, Maryland Preakness Celebration Inc. has a three-person staff, about a $600,000 budget, lists 170 Preakness events from Ocean City to Garrett County and claims an economic impact of $19.1 million.

The Derby Festival pulled off its greatest coup this year -- getting Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf to serve as Grand Marshal of the Pegasus Parade. Nearly 400,000 people turned out for the parade and Schwarzkopf stayed on another two days for the Derby.

In the interim, he made appearances all over town, at the Philip Morris Festival of Stars, a country music jamboree at the civic center that featured Lee Greenwood and Tanya Tucker and Louisville's glitziest Derby eve party, the Diamond Derby Celebrity Gala.

In Maryland, much of the Preakness social scene revolves around the track. There is just one big private bash. Instead of its former Preakness brunch, the Bill Boniface family now throws a Breeders' Cup party. The Frank Hopkins family has switched to the Maryland Million. What's left is the Pons family party, a tradition since 1962.

It now competes with the Comcast Triple Crown Ball, held at the Hyatt Regency Ballroom the Thursday night before the race.

"People that come to our party, the horse people, aren't really the same crowd that goes to the ball," Mary Jo Pons said. "I'd change to another night if the ball was held for a racing charity, but it isn't. I've only had three people decline, who said they were going to the ball."

Mrs. Allaire duPont will host a yacht party for about 80 people Monday as a benefit for Greener Pastures, a horse retirement home, and there will numerous smaller dinner parties arranged by such hostesses as Phoebe Berman, wife the late Edgar Berman.

Other than that, it's the Triple Crown Ball at $400 per couple for the benefit of the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation, the Alibi Breakfast and a track-sponsored Preakness eve gala aboard a cruise ship.

Aside from Schwarzkopf, the Derby attracted its share of celebrities such as actors Patrick Duffy and Ken Kercheval ("Dallas"), John Spencer ("L.A. Law"), Morgan Freeman ("Driving Miss Daisy"), Tom Hulce ("Amadeus"), Jennifer O'Neill ("Cover Up"), Dixie Carter ("Designing Women") and her husband, Hal Holbrook, John Goodman ("Roseanne").

Bob Hope is the honorary chairman of Maryland's Triple Crown )) Ball, but will be a no show.

Preakness celebrities? Hockey star, Wayne Gretsky, who has a horse in the race, comedian Tim Conway, and Miss America 1991.

While Louisville has a big edge over Baltimore for hype, there are more than a few people who prefer the slower Preakness pace.

Baltimore after all has the Orioles, the Inner Harbor, the 'u symphony.

What has Louisville got? Just a horse race.

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