May 11, 2011

All access

The perks of a press pass at Derbytime

 There was a time when the common man could afford to do the Kentucky Derby in style. Sadly, those days are gone, leaving thrifty revelers like myself to choose between mingling with the drunken, huddled, general admission masses or whiling away the day sipping mint-infused bourbon in a friend’s backyard.

Given my chosen profession, it should come as no surprise that I fall into the common man category. But what journalism lacks in fortune it makes up for with access.

So this year, I set out to celebrate Derby with the crème de la crème. Armed with a press pass, new dress and four-inch heels, my first stop was Ferdinand’s Ball, a high-priced charity gala benefiting retired racehorses rescued from slaughter.

Accompanied by my husband (who gained access as this lowly journalist’s plus-one), I arrived at the Frazier International History Museum via a shiny black Grand Marquis driven not by a white-gloved chauffeur, but by my sweat-suited father-in-law. We bypassed the red carpet and headed straight to a rooftop VIP cocktail hour.

As the elevator doors opened, a roving server offered me a glass of champagne.

We staked out a table on the perimeter, where I shoved a mushroom-stuffed puff pastry into my mouth. As if on cue, a photographer approached and began snapping pictures; I’m fairly certain there was parsley in my teeth.

At the behest of my husband and a few top-shelf libations, I attempted awkward chitchat with a few celebrities, including former Kentucky basketball star DeMarcus Cousins, a giant man who skulked and scowled most of the night, and Kate Upton, a Victoria’s Secret model who, despite being annoyingly tall, thin and beautiful, was too bubbly to hate.

As the night progressed and people packed the dance floor, I felt as though I’d crashed an extravagant wedding reception. We hopped in a cab and headed for a friend’s house, where I regaled them — bottle of beer in hand — with tales of my night at the ball.

After a day of rest and recuperation, I embarked on the second and final leg of my elite Derby circuit. This time, my destination was Churchill Downs. More specifically, the Jockey Club Suites on Kentucky Derby Day.

With a cumbersome press pass draped around my neck (and, I must say, detracting from my ensemble), I ascended to the sixth floor, once again accompanied by my husband, who had scored a coveted invite from a friend.

I was one sip into a bloody mary when we inadvertently began chatting with a former cast member of “Survivor,” who introduced herself as such. She shared stories of festering wounds and parasites and tribal alliances. This would be the first in a string of sliding-scale “celebrity” encounters: former SNL cast member Cheri Oteri; UK basketball coach John Calipari; state Senate president and Republican gubernatorial candidate David Williams.

And then there was Martha.

One of the bartenders slyly informed me Martha Stewart was just down the hall. I set out on a mission, peering past two officers posted outside her suite. I momentarily felt like a celebrity stalker, but managed to quell that thought in the name of journalism. Just then, the domestic goddess exited her suite and approached me, or more accurately, the nearby dessert spread. Martha: “What’s good?” Me: “Uh, the cookies … cupcakes are good … you like ice cream?”

Without saying another word, Martha walked away empty handed, bringing my bourgeois Derby experience to a close.

I then ordered a beer and headed for the loud, crowded, cigar smoke-filled Paddock, where I felt at home mingling with the drunken, huddled, general admission masses.