Derby Galas on the Cheap

As a Louisvillian by choice, I love Derby time. Glorious spring weather.  Free-flowing bourbon. “My Old Kentucky Home” nostalgia. Spring planting. But I hate Derby itself – a cruel bloodsport that results in hundreds of trackside deaths a year and a surplus of unwanted Thoroughbreds, tens of thousands who are destined to slaughter.

While I can’t stand horse racing and would never set foot in Churchill Downs, I love the parties. Particularly the Derby Eve parties. Full of B (and C and D) list celebrities, ice sculptures, amazing booze and fabulous fashions, you can’t get more over-the-top in Louisville than this.

Admission prices to these galas are over the top too. Most start at $500 a person, and some are over $1,000 each. Many offer dance tickets for $150-$300, which allows folks who can’t afford full fair (or who don’t want to sit through tabled dinners and live auctions) to come imbebe and dance after dinner is finished and the real party begins.

Mr. Tisdale and I, you won’t be surprised to hear, have never paid to attend a Derby Eve gala. For years we get “comp” tickets from a friend who owed me favors. But that ended when I left my previous job. So we decided to volunteer instead.

Our favorite gala to volunteer for is Unbridled Eve, hosted by Tonya York Dees and Tammy York Day. The York sisters put on a crazy-ass event. It’s truly exceptional. And they treat their 100+ volunteers extremely well. In exchange for two and a half hours of checking guests in, Mr. Tisdale and I get to join the party at 9 p.m. Open bar. Specialty drinks. Dancing till 1 a.m. And at Unbridled Eve, volunteers are expected to dress up too, so once your shift is over, you can blend in with the much better heeled. At this gala, volunteers are even allowed to bid on auction items (not that we do, but it’s nice to know we’re not treated like hired help).

If you’re into celebrity watching (particularly of the reality TV and minor sitcom type), the Derby Eve galas are great. We’ve seen Ice-T and Coco (my favorites) and Meredith from The Office (sorry, Kate Flannery, I only know you as Meredith), one of Mr. Tisdale’s favorites, among others. Frankly, I’m relieved I don’t have to work the Celebrity Check-In table, as most of them I’ve never heard of. My fault for not having a TV.

So if you’re Derby Eve gala curious, we recommend you butter up to some of Louisville’s gala creators. Start 5 months in advance and see who is looking for help. And check out their boards and volunteer captains. If you’re lucky, you might know one, or you might know someone who knows them. Getting picked as a volunteer that first time can be a bit difficult, as lots of folks want to volunteer too. But it’s absolutely worth the effort. And once you’re in (and don’t get so smashing drunk you try stealing the glassware), more than likely you’ll be in for years.

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