Throughout the history of the Kentucky Derby, the race has had a special appeal to the celebrity set. The rich and famous that mingle among the Derby Day crowd add a unique dimension to the spectacle of the "Run for the Roses."
One of the first celebrity sightings dates to 1877 when famed Polish actress Helena Modjeska attended the third running of the Kentucky Derby. In the 1945 book, Down the Stretch, it was noted that Modjeska was impressed by the Derby but even more charmed by the mint julep to which she was introduced by Churchill Downs founder M. Lewis Clark following the race.
Over the years, a stream of celebrities from film, music, sports, politics and wealth have been drawn to the Derby. On at least one occasion, a celebrity with a more notorious background was the talk of the Derby. The 15th renewal in 1889 brought bank and train robber Frank James to Louisville. The brother of famed outlaw Jesse James and a leader in their outlaw gang, Frank was on hand to watch Spokane take the victory over favored Proctor Knott.
Although most of the rich and famous who attend are guests of prominent ticket holders, the Derby has also attracted an impressive roster of celebrity horse owners. Since 1990, this group of celebrity owners has grown to include musician Hammer (1992 - Dance Floor, 3rd); composer Burt Bacharach (1994 - Soul of the Matter, 5th & 1995 - Afternoon Deelites, 8th); music producer Barry Gordy (1994 - Powis Castle, 8th); film producer Albert Broccoli (1994 - Brocco, 4th); New York Yankee owner George Steinbrenner (1997 - Concerto, 9th); University of Louisville coach Rick Pitino (1998 - Hallory Hunter, 4th); and movie director Steven Speilberg (2003 - Atswhatimtalknbout).
As a direct descendent of England's Epsom Derby, Churchill Downs has played host to British Royalty on three different occasions for the running of the Kentucky Derby. In 1930, Edward George Villiers Stanley, the 17th Earl of Derby, from whose family name the term Derby was derived, became the first English nobleman to attend. Prohibition was in effect at the time and Lord Derby stated his disappointment in not being able to sample a mint julep. "You have a great many advantages I should like to copy for England," Derby said, "but prohibition is not one of them." Derby was followed in 1951 by the Duke of Windsor, who had renounced the British throne in 1936 so he could wed the American divorcee Wallace Simpson. The 100th running of the Kentucky Derby in 1974 brought Her Royal Highness The Princess Margaret and her husband Lord Snowden. Princess Margaret, the sister of the Queen of England, took part in the trophy presentation and awarded winning owner John Olin a specially crafted trophy for the milestone victory.
Seven politicians who have gone on to become president have watched the classic race and witnessed the electricity and excitement of the Derby. Harry S. Truman was reported as the first and was followed in 1952 by Lyndon Johnson who attended while a Texas senator. Richard M. Nixon is the only one to have attended while already serving as president. He visited in 1968 as guest of Kentucky Governor Louie B. Nunn and commented that if he were elected president he would return to the 1969 Derby. 1969 also attracted two future presidents, Gerald R. Ford and Ronald Reagan. No other president has witnessed more Derbys than Ford. Beginning in 1977, Ford and his wife Betty attended almost every Derby for ten years as guests of longtime friend John Galbreath, a former Churchill Downs chairman of the board. In 1983, for the 109th Derby, two past presidents and one future president were in attendance. Ford was joined by Jimmy Carter, the democrat who had defeated him in 1976, and Vice President George Bush, who would win the 1988 election. Other Vice Presidents who've attended include Charles Curtis, 1931; and John Nance Garner, 1937.
Celebrated attendees, by year
||Anna Nicole Smith, William L Golden, Nick Lachey and Jessica Simpson, Lynn Redgrave, Kid Rock, Carson Daly, Brooks and Dunn, Taylor Dayne, Shelly Morrison, Nicole Richie, Travis Tritt, Rob Thomas, Chuck Woolery, Jermaine Dupri, John M Montgomery, Boys II Men, Macy Gray, Dennis Hopper, George Strait
||George Strait, Tobey Keith, Travis Tritt, LeeAnn Womack, Bo Derek, Kid Rock, Uncle Kracker, Slash, Meatloaf, LaToya Jackson, Tim Allen, Sela Ward, Pamela Anderson, Stephanie March, Dan Aykroyd, John Lovitz, Joe Pesci, Steven Speilberg, Gary Ross, Frank Marshall, Robert Altman, Warren Moon, Troy Aikman, Tom Brady, Alan Houston, Derek Anderson, Larry King, Bob Costas, Prince Albert of Monaco, Anna Nicole Smith, Michael McDonald, Josh Groban, Sigourney Weaver, Susan Lucci, and Tara Reid.
||George Strait, Kevin Richardson, Howie Dorough, Alice Cooper, Dennis Hopper, Bo Derek, Melissa Joan Hart, Jerry O'Connell, Robert F. Kennedy Jr, Sean "P. Diddy" Combs, Francis Ford Coppola, Angelica Houston, Rachael Leigh Cook, Tobey Keith, Brad Paisley, Jessica Simpson, Nick Lachey, Joan Rivers, Wynton Marsalis, Jason Alexander, Gregory Hines, and Ashton Kutcher.
||Shannon Elizabeth, Joe Ugly, Tony Bennett, Chris Redman, Peyton Manning, Courtney Cox, Warren Moon, French Stewart, Wendie Malick, Mellisa Joan Hart, Pamela Anderson, Kid Rock and Bo Derek
||Current President George W. Bush and his father, past President George H. W. Bush, Kid Rock, Bo Derek, John Michael Montgomery and two members of the Back Street Boys
||Muhammad Ali, Donald Trump, Bo Derek, Eriq LaSalle, Ed Asner, Jennifer Tilly, Al and Tipper Gore, Luke Perry, Rush Limbaugh, Joan Rivers, Fran Drescher, Travis Tritt
||Teri Hatcher, Robert Duvall, Rick Pitino, Jack Nicholson, Mikhail Baryshnikov, Prince Albert of Monaco, Sylvester Stallone, Bo Derek
||General Norman Schwarzkopf, Lee Iaccoca, John Goodman, Morgan Freeman, Michelle Phillips
||Steve Garvey, Bobby Knight, Julius "Dr. J" Erving, Jerry Lewis, Zsa Zsa Gabor
||Walter Cronkite, Armand Hammer, Stan Musial, Dan Issel, Waylon Jennings
||John Wayne, Telly Savalas, Robert Goulet, Howard Cosell
||Princess Margaret and Lord Snowden, Bob Hope, David Brinkley
||President and Mrs. Richard M. Nixon
||Prince Ranier of Monaco
||The Duke and Duchess of Windsor, Greer Garson
||Bob Hope, Claudette Colbert
||Admiral "Bull" Halsey
||Lana Turner, Don Ameche
||Babe Ruth, Jack Dempsey, Gene Tunney, J. Edgar Hoover