Celebrities at Churchill Downs

By Ryan Alessi and Beverly Fortune of the Lexington Herald-Leader

Stars of sports and screen alike were chatty on the red carpet of an overcast Derby Day.

Among the first celebs to walk down Churchill Downs’ VIP walkway shortly before noon was Food Network chef Bobby Flay and his wife, actress Stephanie March, most recently on Law and Order: SVU.

Flay has more than a passing interest in horses. He owns six thoroughbreds, now in training, and has a couple of broodmares at a farm in Lexington. On their way to Louisville, the couple stopped in Lexington on Friday “to see the babies,” Flay said.

Having a horse in the Kentucky Derby is not really a dream, Flay said. He wants an entry in the Kentucky Oaks, run on Friday before the Run for the Roses. “I’m a fillies guy,” he said. “I really like a well-pedigreed filly.”

Flay has been to Keeneland many times and said he looks forward to taking his wife to the October meet.

Derby holds a special place for the couple. Their first out-of-town trip while they were dating was to Louisville in the 2001 Derby. March placed a $20 bet on Monarchos and collected $200 when he won.

“It was truly a case of beginners’ luck,” she said. She hasn’t picked a winning Derby horse since.

Country music singer Travis Tritt and his wife, Theresa, have the Flay-March duo beat when it comes to Derby trips. Saturday marked their 11th Derby.

“I’ve stopped picking horses,” he said. Instead he resorts to getting a “feeling” when they wave their hand over the Derby program. He said one reason they like to come is, “It’s a great weekend away from the kids.”

While Larry Birkhead didn’t bring 2-year-old daughter Dannielynn, whom he had with the late Anna Nicole Smith, he did take Dannielynn’s suggestion for a winner. She liked No. 6, Friesan Fire, Birkhead said.

“I don’t bet a whole lot because we’re in a recession,” Birkhead said. “I use the money for toys.”

Birkhead, a photographer and a Louisville native, said he’s settling into fatherhood and loves being back in Kentucky, where paparazzi don’t follow him to the playground.

He’s building a house in Louisville, which isn’t done yet, so he and Dannielynn have been spending their time in the two finished rooms. Friday night, Dannielynn knocked a paint can over, spilling white paint on Birkhead’s tux.

“So I had to forego the black-tie party,” he said.

NFL running back Warrick Dunn made his fifth trip to Derby. He said the pageantry of Derby is unique but a much different experience from the intensity of the Super Bowl.

“I’m happy to be affiliated with both,” he said.

Dunn, who starred on the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ Super Bowl XXXVII championship team, isn’t sure where he’ll play next season or where.

Other football stars making their trip down the red carpet included free agent safety Will Demps, an eight-year veteran who said he’s looking to play for a “big winner” next year; New York Giants quarterback Eli Manning and his offensive line; and retired quarterback Warren Moon, who was with his wife, Mandy.

Actress Marg Helgenberger of CSI: Crime Scene Investigation made her first Derby trip. Friday she visited a local cancer hospital and got a tip for her Derby pick from a patient there: Friesan Fire.

Another actress, Kathryn Joosten, was representing Easter Seals at the Derby. She battled lung cancer eight years ago and has been raising money and awareness for the cause.

Joosten, a skilled character actress, is known for memorable roles as Mrs. Landingham on West Wing, a loveable patient on Scrubs and most recently Karen McCluskey on Desperate Housewives.

She said while Mrs. Landingham, the president’s secretary, was her “sentimental favorite” character, McCluskey is “the most fun.”

Donna Richardson Joyner, wife of radio show host Tom Joyner, is a fitness expert. She was wearing a huge silver hat that she bought at a small shop in Dallas.

“It looks like $1 million, it cost $79,” she said.

Tom Joyner arrived much later because he had given the commencement address at Fort Valley State University, a historically black university in Georgia, at 9:30 a.m. Saturday.

“Have you ever been to a black graduation?” he asked. “They take a looooong time. There’s lots of shoutin’ and screamin’.”

What advice did he give to the graduates? “Get a job,” he said.

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