By Megan Ingros
University of Kentucky School of Journalism and Telecommunications
When you think of Kentucky Derby Eve events in the Lexington area you may think of Anita Madden, but her last extravagant event was in 1998. In the past 17 years no event has come close to being a rival to the pre-Derby celebrations in Louisville. However, on Friday, May 1, a new event emerged: Derby Eve Lexington. Hosted by Saxony Farm, in the Scott County part of greater Midway, it is an attempt to restore the big party scene to Lexington.
Event coordinator Donna Sturgeon said in an interview, “We would love to break $100,000 after the bills are paid and distributed to charity.” Five days after the event, she said no official figure could be given since deposits were still coming in, she said, but “Tons of folks have been calling us that were not involved this year but want to be next year. The outcome is looking very good for next year.”
|A pioneer-dressed greeter from a beer tour welcomed guests.|
(Photo by Rashad Bigham, UK School of Journalism)
As guests arrived at the party their pictures were taken on the red carpet sponsored by Park Equine Hospital. Stationed on the red carpet were three models hired by Images Model and Talent Agency, wearing dresses from Bella Rose.
Inside seven tents and two structural barns, and under 18 chandeliers, three bands entertained. Opening acts were the Cainlands, a funkadelic and blues band, and Payback, a James Brown tribute band. The headliner was The Spazmatics, an ’80s cover band from Fort Lauderdale.
Victor Espinoza, vice president of sales and operations at Equibase Co. in Lexington, one of the event’s corporate sponsors, summed it up: “It’s close, three bands and bourbon. What more could you ask for?”
|Horses were the toast of the evening. (Photo|
by Rashad Bigham, UK School of Journalism)
Proximity and a sense of community seemed to be key assets of the event. Sturgeon estimated that more than 500 tickets sold, some to people who made last-minute calls saying they had heard about the event and wanted to pay at the door. She said, “We were not prepared originally to do that but we thought ‘why not’, so we made ourselves prepared so we are now over 500.”
Amy Willis of Lexington said, “I think it’s a great event. I used to come to the Anita Madden parties way back when, and they were wonderful, so I’m glad they’re bringing something similar back.”
Several volunteers from the Woodford County Humane Society, of which Sturgeon is vice president, worked the event. Sturgeon has been on the group’s board of directors for the last nine years and worked with them for the last 11 years on the philanthropic committee. In the past, the humane society has relied on Freedom Fest, a huge, two-day, philanthropic event, Sturgeon said.
|Organizer Donna Sturgeon enjoyed the event.|
“They do it the same old way every single time; they do a high ticket price and have a silent auction and a live auction; music doesn’t start until 10 or 11 at night,” Sturgeon said. “There had to be a way that we could bring philanthropic people to a party, entertain them, without dipping in their pocket every ten or fifteen minutes. They’re just getting tired of the same old boring fundraising parties, so this is it I think, I think we’ve struck gold, I hope.”
Al Young, brand ambassador for sponsor Four Roses Bourbon spoke in the same vein. “I think it’s the best thing that’s happened in a long time,” Young said. “It should happen every year.”
General admission tickets were priced at $200 and VIP tickets at $350, which included access to the Hagyard Equine Medical Institute VIP lounge, with better food including asparagus and beef brisket. Attire was cocktail, and admittance was limited to those 21 or older. The party was equipped with multiple open bars, a cigar bar and food catered from Dupree’s Catering.
|Midway's Damselfly Artisan Gallery had a display at the Derby Eve gala.|
The event had 20 sponsors and benefited five charities including the humane society; Horses and Hope, committed to breast cancer prevention; Horse Aid Live, which promotes humane treatment for all equines; the Race for Education, for academic development programs; and The Calipari Foundation, which focuses on improving quality of life with an emphasis on children.
University of Kentucky basketball coach John Calipari attended a party in Louisville instead, but Sturgeon said he did tweet about the event the day before, and with 2.1 million followers, “It was amazing the last minute ticket sales we had yesterday after that one tweet.” Sturgeon guessed about 80 tickets sold within two hours after that tweet was sent out. Sturgeon joked, “Maybe next year he’ll hear about it and say ‘I got to go there first’.”
Sturgeon, the marketing director for Jack Kain Ford in Versailles, said the total amount of sponsorships was almost $60,000, aware that “For a party this size it is extremely low. We should have done twice that.”
Sturgeon remained hopeful, saying it is just a first-year event and folks have to be sold on it.
She said the committee invited a lot of people who said no. “Actually, my committee has spent a lot of our own personal money to make this happen because the businesses wouldn’t do it. So, nothing against them; hopefully . . . we will wow them enough tonight that they say yes” next year.
Keith Yarber, owner of TOPS in Lexington magazine, said, “I feel terrific about this event. It’s very much needed … and Kentucky’s all about horses, the horse capital of the world, and we need a party in Lexington. We need a big party with glitz and glamour and it looks like this one is it.”
One celebrity spotted at the event was Grant Wilson, co-founder of SyFy Channel’s “Ghost Hunter” & “Ghost Hunter International”. The provided list of celebrities who were scheduled to attend was modest, but included Lana Parrilla, star of ABC’s Sunday night show “Once Upon A Time.”
TOPS was a media sponsor, as were WKYT, WDKY, iHeartMedia, QX.net, and Secrets of Bluegrass Chefs.
Other party sponsors and partners included Traditional Bank, Old 502 Winery, Jake’s Cigar Bar, Clark Beverage Group, Dillard’s, Tito’s Handmade Vodka, the Breeders’ Cup, Keeneland, Office Depot/Office Max and Blue Grass Tours.
Sturgeon said the event started out with the humane society as the only beneficiary. When the Breeders Cup came on board, “their sponsor of choice is Race for Education, so they said ‘We’ll do it if you give back’ so of course, that’s a no-brainer,” Sturgeon said. “That’s how the other charities came on board, as sponsors came on board we had to donate a little bit to their charity, which is fantastic.”
Attendees interviewed were all complimentary. “It’s nice not to have to drive out to Louisville and I can stay home and have a good time,” said Christian Motley of the Governor’s Office of Early Childhood.
The breeders of Derby horse Far Right, Patrick and Jason Crowley, said, “This event needs to be done every year. It’s great.”
In a post-event interview, Sturgeon said she was “ecstatic for a first-year event. I could not have been more pleased.” As for next year, she said, “Planning begins Tuesday, May 12, for 2016.”