How does it feel: Crashing the Barnstable Brown Gala [Kentucky Derby]

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This article appears in the March 2011 issue of Louisville Magazine. To subscribe, please visit loumag.com.

As told by Lena Ness, 25

To my recollection, high school prom was not the magical night many girls dream of. No, for me, the excitement and giddiness that prom spurs for most, was reserved instead for another evening: the Barnstable Brown Gala during Derby Weekend 2003.

Our first year — yes, I’ve crashed the thing more than once — went like clockwork: I donned my not-yet-worn senior-prom dress, and my friend Amy slipped on her only dress. We grabbed our tuxedoed hot dates and headed through Cherokee Park’s winding roads to the home where the former “Doublemint Twins” throw their annual Derby party. We cruised past the lines of screaming fans on Spring Drive, then strolled through the mansion’s back gate. Easy as that.

The relief of settling in faded to disappointment upon observing that the “Louisville elite” were the oldest and gawkiest fuddy-duddies I’d ever seen at a party. Clearly we didn’t belong among this crowd, the old men smiling and waving when their wives left briefly to refill their appletinis. We decided to spend the evening in the roped-off celebrity section.

Striding past the velvet ropes, I held my breath a minute until I realized a gigantic bouncer was not going to tackle me. From this area I heard Kid Rock perform, slurring his words. Carson Daly, of TRL fame, demanded a high-five as if I were the famous one. This is also where I kissed Anna Nicole Smith on her red lips. After much futile coaxing, Anna Nicole’s son, Daniel, refused to accompany our foursome to post-party dive bars.

At one point, Amy tapped me on the shoulder. “Lena,” she said, “I want you to meet my friend Janet.” I shook Janet Jackson’s hand and for the life of me couldn’t think of anything to say to her. As they continued their conversation about the importance of a good Derby hat, I approached La Toya Jackson with a newfound idea about how to relate: flattery. “Oh, I love your fur,” I lied. We left about midnight, before we became the obvious youths in a thinning crowd. I was discreet enough to walk off with the half-drunk bottle of Hpnotiq that La Toya had left on her table

The magic and suspense and mystery had faded away by the following year, which was my last at the gala. It was good to see Anna Nicole again, this time skinny and drenched in light from the television cameras that followed her. She wore a sparkling TrimSpa necklace and still gave out free kisses. A couple of years later, Daniel Smith had died, and his mother passed away several months after that. I think of them every Derby and know the party will never be the same without us.

Photo:  John Nation