Jen Jeffrey: And They’re Off!

Monday, May 5, 2014 - by Jen Jeffrey

They say that on Derby Day, everyone is a Kentuckian but this year while watching the Kentucky Derby, I was actually a resident of Kentucky. No, I didn’t attend the Derby, but Jason and I did attend a Derby Party hosted by the Gentry House to benefit the homeless.

While living in Chattanooga, I never took the opportunity to attend a Derby party and this would be my first. I knew the ladies would be adorned with hats but after losing a lot of my belongings in a house fire some years ago, I only had ball caps with team names on them. I did have my WEG ball cap from when I attended the World Equestrian Games in 2010, but I knew that hat would not compare with the wide brims and feathers I would see.

During my first week in my new surroundings as Mrs. Billington, there was much to be done at the house in way of unpacking and getting organized. To pack my things at Mama’s house and to move to Kentucky and then elope and honeymoon were enough to make my head spin, but on top of all that to get organized in my new surroundings the last three weeks have been a complete whirlwind.

Needless to say, even though I am not an avid gambler, I still like to take time in choosing my pick for the Derby – which I had not had time to do. So I did the thing a lot of people do and I picked a horse for ‘their name’ at the last minute. Wildcat Red was my pick because red is my favorite color. Jason made a few bets and he also placed a bet for my sister Jill, who wanted “Uncle Sigh” (she liked the name too).

The only thing I had to wear to make me feel Derby-ready was my WEG pin I placed on the label of a hound’s-tooth jacket I wore. Jason bought us a table and we expected his mom and Nelson to show up and whoever else wanted to sit with us. I was pleased to see Martin Tracy and his wife sit with us. I met Martin at the Rotary meeting and we had exchanged emails. He sent me a bulleted email of memories he had with my dad and that blessed my heart so!

It was good to meet his wife and speak with her and a few other ladies who sat at our table. It was good to see Jason’s mom and, when she introduced me to someone as her ‘new daughter in-law,’ it made my heart swell with love. I was correct in assuming every lady would be wearing a hat. I believe only one other female besides me did not have a hat.

After Jason and I got a small plate and beverage, the journalist in me felt my radar go off in which my eyes and ears became alert for a story. I am thrilled that I have a husband who understands when his wife is by his side one minute and then darts across the room for an opportunity to snap a photo or to gather information for a story. My first mission was to snap a picture of a table of ladies wearing great hats! I spotted the lady in the bright green, wide-brim hat first and I introduced myself and asked if I may take their photo. Just then it was time for the judging of the ladies’ hats. Three of the ladies at the table did not go up. I tried to coax them and they shook their head no.

When I went back to my table, I noticed the lady in the green hat finally decided to go up. I think with others' coaxing, she realized she could win. I like when people take chances and live life with a ‘why not’ attitude. I got up from my seat again and hoped to get a picture of all the ladies standing for the judging. There was a Princess Kate look-a-like and I liked a purple hat on a blonde. My green hat lady Mary Phillips won the contest. She really did have a great hat.

Next, was the gentlemen’s contest for the snazziest dresser. Jason always dresses for whatever the occasion, but on this day he didn’t dress in a way to stand out or enter a contest. I think his mind was mainly on the betting and he wore his jacket he wore at our marriage ceremony ‘for luck’.

I had already noticed a few of the snazzy men at the bar. One was decked out in a seersucker suit and it made me think of all my Covenant College friends. My thrill over Covenant started with Jenny (Belz) Gienapp as I learned her story and her family’s history with Covenant. My boss is a Covenant graduate, and I have interviewed others who attended Covenant (as well as the president of the college).This seersuckered gentleman, Matt Bradley who I felt was a shoe-in, was on the board of the Gentry House and he didn’t enter the contest.

The other gentleman who I felt may win was the guy behind the bar serving. He reminded me of the singer/songwriter back in Chattanooga, Lon Eldridge, only he didn’t have the great handlebar moustache and cool spectacles that Lon sports.

As the gentlemen lined up for judging, a ‘tall drink of water’ caught my eye and I was betting on him. I could not even tell you what he was wearing – except he had a great cowboy hat. There is just something about a man wearing a cowboy hat that commands attention. I think he wore a blazer too and possibly western boots. All I remember is – he looked like a winner no matter what the contest.

They guys were good sports as the crowd applauded the winner – “Mr. Tall Drink of Water”. I hate that I didn’t get his name, but while I mentally wrote a story for work, I was also trying to get to know new friends at our table.

A gal named Faye Dodd was the MC and she had on a pretty flamboyant hat as well. She began the trivia part of the evening in which our table joined together as team players. I was only part of the team in spirit. I was busy taking notes on my cell phone to have for my column as everyone else was trying to come up with answers to write down on the quiz sheet.

Faye kindly reminded everyone, “We are going by the honor system here, so please do not use your phones.” I was still entering my notes, “…tall drink of water… green hat… Mary…” when I realized that to everyone else, it may look like I was researching the answers. I loudly spoke out with a smile, “I am taking notes for my story – not cheating.”

One of the questions was, “Who won the very first Kentucky Derby?” in which my husband chided his stepdad, “Nelson… you know this… you were there.” Jason likes to rib Nelson at times, but it is always in an endearing way.

Aside from the trivia, the ‘Best’ contests and the actual watching of the Derby was an auction of donated prizes in which to bid. Jason and I both liked the hand-carved wooden horse racing figurines and he had placed his bid on them before the trivia game began. As the night went on, people were free to outbid each other.

In between trivia games, I saw someone with a mint julep served in a collector’s glass. I had recently co-mingled mine and Jason’s Kentucky Derby glasses we had collected – his from actually being there and mine from my dad being there. I wanted to add to our Derby display with a glass the Gentry House had specially made for the party so Jason ordered a mint julep even though neither of us were fond of bourbon.

We also got to know the people at our table better. I was sitting next to a second grade teacher at Murray Elementary, Theresa Garcia-Jones, and enjoyed conversing with her, as well as a Facebook friend I got to meet, a gal who works at Land between the Lakes. Everyone is so welcoming and friendly in the community.

There was also a gentleman named John who came up to the table and spoke to Jason. He was smiling so big and had such a wonderful personality – it reminded me of my Papa. I knew he had to be about Mama’s age and so the wheels inside my head were turning. I noticed there was no ring on his hand and, when he told Jason that he recently came back from a trip, I conveniently asked “…did your wife go with you?” Jason nudged me under the table… with the same ‘warning tone’ as when he whispered under his breath on our honeymoon (when I tried speaking Spanish to the couple in the next cabana). But THIS time I knew what I was doing.

He let me know his wife had passed away and, after giving a genuine “I’m sorry,” I asked him if he knew my parents and he said yes. I let him know that Mama is ‘still living’. I know… clumsy… but who knows? I think after people have grieving time (his has been three years) that God just may do something wonderful in their lives again no matter how old they are. I’m no match-maker, but I am a willing conduit if needed. I let him know that when Mama visits us, we would invite him to lunch and he seemed pleased.

With the Kentucky Derby race lasting such a short time, it was pretty neat to have two hours of games and socializing as well as gathering a little info for a story. The trumpet sounded and we all stood for our anthem “My Old Kentucky Home.” It meant more to me this year because I was truly back ‘home’.

While watching the horses run on the wide screen, I noticed my Wildcat Red wasn’t doing so well, but then I was just enthralled by all of the beautiful horses running! One of the most amazing sights! I love to see horses run and that is what Jason feels with the Greys. We let them run in the backyard often and their gate is so beautiful! Ol’ Spec likes to have his daddy run too though and, when he is off his leash, he will take off just enough to get Jason to come after him and get a little exercise (Spec and I had a talk previously and set that deal up).

As my sister’s pick took the lead I was excited for her, but then the other horses came around and took the race the rest of the way and California Chrome won the Derby. Jason’s horse came in third, but the way he bets I think he won a little something. I don’t understand it all the way he does and I don’t have any desire to bet. I just like watching them. When Jason and I were on our honeymoon we watched the greyhound races and together with our picks we won the trifecta. Jason got his winnings and handed me the large portion, but I didn’t take it. I just enjoyed the experience.

Going to the actual Derby is a ‘bucket list’ item for me, but most Kentuckians feel it is a hassle to go each year and say it is better to watch on television. That was how I felt watching the Titans game in Nashville last year – but I still needed to go just for the experience. For now, I am happy with my Daddy’s collector Derby glasses co-mingled with Jason’s, along with the Gentry House Derby glass, our new wooden horses (Jason’s bid won) and my first ‘Derby party’. I even painted my own version of the Derby a few years ago that is hanging on our wall.

I’ll get to the Derby one year - just for the experience… and another collector’s glass.

jen@jenjeffrey.com


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