Inside the Kentucky Derby, America's greatest racing party

Kentucky Confidential

House Party: Oaks Day, Derby Eve

Celebrities posed at the Barnstable Brown Party: Miranda Lambert and her bachelorette party, Olympians Sarah Hughes, Bode Miller, Lindsey Vonn, Super Bowl-winning quarterback Aaron Rogers and even the wonderful ESPN sideline reporter Erin Andrews.

On 4th Street, the Bare Naked Ladies took their Canadian antics to the stage to thousands of onlookers.

Tucked away from the pomp and glitter, Canons and Nikons, a house party erupted with bands comprising musical friends paid for with bottles of Budweiser and bourbon — Kentucky’s age-old currency.

The man on the fiddle launched into a short solo of “My Old Kentucky Home.” This was Off-4th Street Live.

Standing to the side, a man no taller than a jockey, put it all together, a man who would rather his name not be used, drew these people here as he does most every year. He’s Jay Gatsby.

“I always consider it a badge of honor when the cops show up at one of my parties,” Gatsby said.

These people are friends and celebrate the Derby on Gatsby’s most epic two-tiered deck, the “Taj Ma-deck” as one person called it.

Sherri Keeler, 52, invented her own Derby Drink for this occasion. Take all the white liquors, mix them blue curacao, orange juice, pineapple juice and serve. Her friends call it pond scum, but it symbolized the mixing of friends with bluegrass and folk music to celebrate Louisville’s most famous two minutes.

This is the Derby,” said Keeler. “I don’t want to walk in six-inch heels and have my toes hurting for days after. To hell with glitz and glamor!”

“We’d go around to all the turns and see how many guys we could kiss.”Susan Wilson, 45, recalled her first Derby experience while sitting at a patio table, listening to the music and nursing a beer, “When I was 16 we snuck liquor in a box of Triscuits. We stuffed it with booze down there. I think it was Jack Daniels. It was the best time.”

She continued, “We’d go to the infield. It was a ball. We’d go around to all the turns and see how many guys we could kiss. Now you couldn’t pay me.”

Her Derby story didn’t end there. In 1993, the year Sea Hero took the roses she abandoned the infield for the clubhouse.

“This guy, he would create these badges and get into the box. Well, the people whose box that was came back. The people let us stay. Those are the best Derbies, sneak around, we weren’t scared to do anything.”

Gatsby’s guests passed around pint glasses full of bourbon and slammed back bottles of Bud. His party bridged generations, 22-year-old kids to 60-year-old vets.

“This is real Louisville!” Kevin O’Connell said.

O’Connell’s band, Los Luddites, took the stage around 10:30 p.m. O’Connell strummed his acoustic guitar or mandolin.

“This deck was built for this,” he’d later say. “Nice people, Louisville people.”

Meghan Roos, 30, a middle school teacher was a newbie. She moved to Louisville four years ago from Dayton, Ohio. Most of Gatsby’s guests are longtime Louisville lifers.

“Anyone can find their niche,” Roos said of Derby Week events. “There are the parties everyone talks about. Tonight we’re listening to bluegrass. Tomorrow we’re going over to a friend’s house for a Derby Party. Everybody has their own Derby experience. I prefer this one for myself.”

Women, and sometimes men, danced, sometimes tripping on the floor of the deck in front of Los Luddites. Heels clonked and clicked to the beat of the drums, the strum of three guitars, and the wail of the fiddle. One woman, speaking from experience, learned of a remedy to cure any hangover. Drink one tablespoon of olive oil to coat the stomach, chase with two aspirin and get back to work come Monday.

“Everybody’s drunk,” O’Connell said. “But it’s a good drunk. Good vibes. If we could bottle it and pass it around…. Be kind. No obligation of any kind; just be kind.”

Spotlights from the distant glitz sliced across the skyline. It was as if they were in search for this group of 50 or so Derby celebrators. But they hid, far from sight, under this canopy of trees across the train tracks.

“This is Randy Newman’s Old Kentucky Home,” O’Connell pointed out, now sitting in the front row. “This is why I’m in Louisville. Happy Derby, son!”

“Oh, the sun shines bright on My Old Kentucky home/And the young folks roll on the floor. Oh, the sun shines bright on my old Kentucky Home/Keep them hard times away from my door.”

There was a slamming, a fist-crunching rattling on Gatsby’s screen door. The Louisville Metro Police had arrived. They said they loved the music, but the neighbors didn’t, it being 2 a.m.

“You can quote me on this,” Gatsby said. “They said that an old lady said, ‘You’re rocking my house.’ You can quote me on that!”

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Brendan, thanks for coming to the party and for your article. We will be on the look out for your upcoming book and I was sorry Shackelford didn’t win the derby! Susan Wilson

Posted by Goldiecat on May 9, 2011 @ 11:06 am

Susan, you got it. The hospitality at Gatsby’s was world class. It was—and I mean this—my best night in Louisville (followed very closely by Dale Romans’ place right after the Derby). There was something about that whole atmosphere that struck a chord with me. I thank you and all the others for a wonderful time. I’ll never forget it!


Posted by Brendan on May 9, 2011 @ 10:29 pm

Gatsby’s parties are lengendary! It was fun meeting you and glad you took the time to come to it.
The nerve of the neighbor who questioned your credentials as a journalist when you answered Gatsby’s door. Gatsby thought it was funny. I hope your book on Rachel Alexandra is great success. So here is to a little pond scum, bourbon and olive oil. Susan

Posted by Fleur on May 10, 2011 @ 11:24 pm

Author PhotoBrendan O'Meara is a contributor to Horse Race Insider where he blogs at The Carryover 2.0. He is the author of the forthcoming book "Six Weeks in Saratoga: How Three-Year-Old Filly Rachel Alexandra Beat the Boys and Became Horse of the Year" (SUNY Press 2011). His work has appeared in the Paulick Report, The Blood-Horse, Brevity, SN Review, and The Good Men Project. Visit his website or follow him on Twitter. More by  ›