Have you ever wondered who the mayor invites to the Kentucky Derby?
For years under the last mayoral administration, the city kept the identities of the mayor’s guests at Louisville’s marquee event secret, despite using taxpayer money to foot six-figure bills wining and dining VIPs invited to town for the Run for the Roses.
But thanks to documents obtained by LEO Weekly under Kentucky’s open records law, this year we know who some of new Louisville Mayor Craig Greenberg’s invitees are (though we don’t necessarily know if they will all be joining the festivities in May).
Among those Greenberg has invited to the 149th Kentucky Derby are British billionaire Richard Branson, WNBA Commissioner Cathy Engelbert, and the CEOs of LinkedIn and UPS.
In direct emails to prospective guests and messages passed through intermediaries, Greenberg highlighted Louisville’s “Southern Hospitality” and hyped the Derby as a “one-of-a-kind experience.”
“My wife Rachel, and I, would like to invite you and a guest to be our guests for the Kentucky Derby, the weekend of May 5-7,” reads an email Greenberg addressed to WNBA Commissioner Cathy Engelbert, which uses language similar to other invites seen by LEO. “As I’m sure you’ve heard, the Kentucky Derby and its weekend activities are an amazingly fun and one-of-a-kind experience. You just need to arrive in Louisville and our Southern Hospitality will take over from there. You’ll meet interesting people, drink some hometown bourbon and see beautiful horses compete in ‘the fastest two minutes in sports.’”
According to emails obtained by LEO, LinkedIn CEO Ryan Roslansky and Donna Orender, a sports executive who served as a past president of the WNBA, have been the only people to accept the invites so far. However, the emails provided to LEO only span January and early February, and several prospective guests indicated they would check their availability to see if they could come.
For instance, in a response to Greenberg, a personal assistant of Branson, the Virgin Group mogul and the first person to fly to space on their own spaceship, wrote that Branson’s “plans for the first few months of this year are currently on hold due to some family and business matters that he is dealing with.” However, the assistant invited Greenberg to send an invite so long as “there is no urgency for an immediate response.”
Responding to an inquiry from LEO Weekly, Greenberg spokesperson Kevin Trager did not say whether invitees LEO identified had accepted Greenberg’s invitation, noting “not all individuals who have been and will be invited will attend.” Breaking with the practices of the last mayoral administration, Trager said Greenberg would make the identities of his guests public and that his office would “share more information about the Mayor’s guests and his plans closer to the Kentucky Derby.”
Greenberg’s message to Engelbert, the WNBA commissioner, hinted that he may be trying to lure another professional women’s sports team to Louisville or otherwise boost investment in women’s sports in the city.
“Louisville already has some of the best collegiate women’s basketball and I’d love for you to see first-hand how Louisville is on its way to becoming the Women’s Sports Capital of the World!” he wrote.
While Louisville does not have any major league men’s sports franchises, it is home to Racing Louisville FC, which plays in the National Women’s Soccer League.
Greenberg also invited Donna Orender, a past president of the WNBA who also served as a senior executive at the PGA, again highlighting women’s sports in Louisville in his invitation. In an email reply indicating that she would like to attend the Derby, Orender wrote: “I am delighted to return [to Louisville] as your guest to an event I have always wanted to attend. I look forward to speaking with you and finding out [if] I can support your initiatives.”
According to the emails, Greenberg also invited Bloomberg Philanthropies CEO (and former first deputy mayor of New York City) Patti Harris, UPS CEO Carol Tome, and Bloomberg LP global head of external relations (and former Mike Bloomberg 2020 presidential campaign manager) Kevin Sheekey.
In emails sent by Greenberg, he passed along his personal cell phone number, inviting potential guests to call him to discuss the Derby plans further.
While Louisville regularly spends more than six figures hosting Derby guests each year, the city has long been tight-lipped about who those guests are.
According to reporting by the Courier Journal, last year the city spent nearly $140,000 hosting a dozen guests of Mayor Greg Fischer’s administration at the Derby. According to the CJ, that price tag included more than $76,000 spent on tickets, more than $38,000 on rooms at the luxurious Omni Louisville Hotel, and $782 on drinks on Derby Day.
However, the city refused to say who the guests were.
Under Fischer, the city repeatedly defended its secrecy surrounding Derby guests, saying disclosing their identities would have a “chilling effect” on the ability of Louisville to attract new businesses.
In 2018, a Metro Council ordinance that would have forced the administration to disclose its Derby guests was narrowly shot down in a 3 a.m. vote. That ordinance was brought forward by Councilman Brent Ackerson, who argued taxpayers deserved to know who they were spending money on when the city hosted guests at “lavish parties and events such as Derby.”
Trager, the Mayor’s Office spokesperson, told LEO the city’s Derby guests will be publicly identified under the Greenberg administration.
“The Greenberg administration has always planned to and will publicly share the names of our annual Kentucky Derby guests,” he said in an emailed statement. “The mayor is inviting individuals in the philanthropic, workforce development, economic development, and sports industries. The Kentucky Derby is a one-of-a-kind event that provides us with the opportunity to attract people to Louisville who might otherwise not be here and allow them to see first-hand the opportunities to join our efforts to make Louisville a safer, stronger, and healthier city.”