Kentucky Derby week in Louisville is kind of like a version of the Grammy’s and our very own Independence Day colliding into one masterful celebration. Celebrities and private jets abound, outlandish attire is appropriate, work is basically a suggestion (if that), and we’re guzzling our Kentucky bourbon heritage through a funnel (with a pinky out, of course). Those of us in the bar industry, however, have to capitalize on the madness and can rarely partake in the festivities (aside from the bourbon guzzling, of course), but this year, I decided to take off one evening and get fancy with my man for the sake of retired racing thoroughbreds and an open bar at Ferdinand’s Ball.
Ferdinand’s Ball, a Kentucky Derby weekend gala to benefit Old Friends Equine Retirement, held its sixth and biggest year yet at the beautiful Muhammad Ali Center. Somehow, I managed to get my hands on a few VIP tickets, got gussied up in a ball gown, pounded a chardonnay at Bristol Bar & Grille on Main Street and walked arm and arm into the venue with my suit-clad man morsel next to me. Ferdinand’s Ball carries the feel of an exclusive Derby event with a celebrity guest list along with Mayor Fischer famous jockeys and more, yet the general public can buy tickets and partake in the fancy. Upon entry and check in, there’s a red carpet for photos, an elaborate donation table and an open bar (score!) garbed with a special tasting of Bulleit 10 year (yum!), Bulleit and Bulleit Rye, Ketel One Vodka and more. “We’re some fancy fuckers,” I said, and we tried our best to nonchalantly meander towards the bar.
Founded by sisters Kim Boyle and Aimee Boyle Wulfeck, who felt inspired to plan a Derby-week event when they learned that the fate of many incredible thoroughbreds is often grim, Ferdinand is the namesake of the spectacular event. Warning: this story is a buzzkill. Ferdinand, the 1986 Kentucky Derby winner and 1987 Breeder’s Cup Classic winner, who earned almost four million dollars (what was then the fifth leading money winner of all time), was killed in a Japanese slaughterhouse in 2002 after being sold due to unsuccessful breeding. Kim and Amy visited Old Friends Equine Retirement in Lexington and felt determined to raise significant funding so that more thoroughbreds are provided a “dignified retirement” when their racing and breeding careers have come to an end. Ferdinand’s Ball began as a boutique event six years ago, but now brings in well over $20,000 yearly for Old Friends, which is home to over 100 thoroughbreds currently. So, not only is the event truly decadent, I could feel like a humanitarian while guzzling white wine.
After a cocktail hour, it was time to make our way to our dinner table, which was assigned seating. “We’re at Table 14,” I said out loud and scanned the room for our table number. Apparently, someone thought we were important, because table fourteen was also home to University of Louisville basketball star, Wayne Blackshear, his voluptuous angel girlfriend, Brandy, Miss Kentucky and more. I sat back to back with an adorable Karl-Anthony Towns (Kentucky basketball hero) and being huge Louisville fans, my boyfriend and I tried not to fangirl too hard (which resulted in me power chugging chardonnay, awesome). Mayor Fischer spoke during dinner about the founding sisters as exemplary Louisvillians “doing something and not expecting anything in return,” and introduced jockey Gary Stevens, who rode former Derby winner and Old Friends’ resident, Silver Charm, as the recipient of an award and a key to the city. Post dinner, Wayne was being bombarded for pictures, so I grabbed Brandy and we bum-rushed the bar for tequila shots. We’re basically BFFs now.
After-party guests arrived at the event at 9 p.m., which turned into a club-like dance party on the first floor of the Ali Center, outfitted with a DJ, neon lights, a photo booth – and boy, do drunk people love a good photo booth – and yes, still an open bar. Great for me, not so much for my man, who ended up babysitting a hot mess in a ball gown, bless his heart. And mind you, this ball gown was not without its nip-slips. You’re welcome. Also, my deepest apologies to the staff of The Post, which ended up being our nightcap and possibly on the list of places I am now banned from in Louisville.
When asked about the relationship between Ferdinand’s Ball and Bulleit, the sponsoring spirit of the evening, founder Kim Boyle says that “bourbon ties in so seamlessly with horse racing and the Kentucky Derby,” it’s only natural they would form ties. And how wonderful it is to see a local bourbon supporting thoroughbreds throughout their life, “beyond their careers,” and she raised her Bulleit and ginger for a cheers.