LOUISVILLE, Ky. — They stood four deep, hundreds of them, beneath the roof as a steady rain pelted Churchill Downs early Saturday afternoon. What these fans wanted to see up close and personal, but couldn’t, was the parade of celebrities. In a nation addicted to celebrity culture — if it can be considered culture — the red carpet on Kentucky Derby day is the living end.
“Hey, let me know if you see anybody really big coming,” one 20-something man said to another. “Seriously.”
Those special folks were just out of sight, maybe 50 feet away, inside a tent. So near and yet so far, but not for the credentialed media who snapped photos and video and jotted down the words of the rich and famous.
Elbowing through that scrum to get access to the stars was like trying to get position for a rebound in Game 7 of the NBA playoffs.
“Excuse me, sir, but this is our designated space,” said a woman shooting video for a television station.
The reply from a 60-something paparazzi (aka this reporter): “Hey, I’m workin’, too.”
It was a battle, but where there’s a will, there’s a Weir. That would be Johnny Weir, the former Olympic figure skater and a man who embodies flamboyance.
Weir admitted he doesn’t know much about racing but that he was there to honor America’s Race. He was decked out in a full-length beige Indonesian tunic and white boots, and his black coiffure balanced three interlocking silver crowns. Weir was pulling for the Irish colt Mendelssohn because he loves classical music, but said he would root for whoever won the Derby to sweep the Preakness and the Belmont Stakes.
In a semi-exclusive interview with Newsday, Weir said: “I would describe my look as opulence. I just wanted to pay tribute to racing and pay homage to the Triple Crown.”
Weir and his NBC Sports Group partner Tara Lipinski, another former world-class figure skater, headlined a social media blitz. The key prop was Weir’s tweet-powered brooch in the shape of a small horse that he later would affix to his lapel. By using the hashtag WatchMeNeighNeigh, tweeters could illuminate the pony and make it gallop faster. If only bettors could do that when their horses start to fade.
According to an NBC release, Weir’s brooch lit up more than 6 million times at the 2016 Derby.
“I love the Derby because it’s totally unique, and I’m not like everybody else,” Weir told a television reporter hanging on his every word. “And I don’t think anybody should care that they’re not like everybody else.”
The reporter was moved, saying, “Hearing you say that is really beautiful.”
Weir thanked her and moved down the line with Lipinski.
Among the other celebs to do the walk were singers Kid Rock and Joey Fatone, Broncos linebacker Von Miller, former NFL stars Curley Culp and Orlando Pace, and Louis ville mayor Greg Fischer. But Weir’s charisma made him an impossible act to follow, except for late arrivals Tom Brady and David Ortiz. Weir even outshone the 14-karat solid gold Kentucky Derby trophy that’s been awarded since 1924.
Lipinski graciously lets Weir dominate the spotlight. Then again, could she play it any other way?
“Obviously, Derby Day is all about the race,” she said. “But I also love everything about the fashion and the scene.”
So does the rest of America.