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Galas: A Derby Dance Latin Style

The saying goes: There are two seasons in Louisville — Christmas and Derby. The Kentucky Derby Museum Gala is just one of many events that take place during the three weeks of nonstop festivities surrounding the famed horse race. But for the world's largest equine museum, the event is the only annual opportunity for raising the funds required to maintain exhibits of Derby memorabilia and thoroughbred racing history.

This year, Museum Gala chairman Suzi Christofferson, a volunteer chosen by the museum's board of directors, coordinated volunteers and skilled vendors to produce the April 28 event, for which she selected the theme: Hot, Hot, Hot — The Derby Gala with the Latin Beat.


“It was a year in the making,” Christofferson says of the $200,000 dinner-and-dancing gala. During that time frame, she met with museum board members, selected committees — including an invitation-writing team charged with producing 3,500 elaborate invitations — and hired event designers, production coordinators, entertainers, a tent company and a caterer, many of whom come back year after year to do the museum's event, according to Christofferson. Museum employees contributed to the effort by corresponding with potential sponsors and securing this year's underwriters, which included Delta Airlines, Prime Energy Systems and Wynn Starr Foods.

Ten days before the event, vendors began to descend upon the infield of historic Churchill Downs, home of the Kentucky Derby. Christofferson calls the catering company's huge food-tent setup “an amazing feat” and says the culinary staff worked as “an incredible team” to prepare a colorful Latin menu, which included jerk chicken, lime-smoked salmon canapes and gazpacho. A local landscaping company donated all foliage to the event, taking two entire days to load in “thousands of plants” including palm trees, lilies, azaleas and a variety of shrubberies.


When guests finally arrived at the tent on the evening of the gala, they encountered a space filled with bright colors and lush, tropical decor. “It ended up becoming a very South Beach thing,” Christofferson says, noting the flamingo gobos lighting up the tent walls, a black-and-white checkered dance floor, and tent poles camouflaged as enormous, hot pink palm trees.

The Churchill Downs bathrooms, once “disgusting” according to Christofferson, appeared as elaborately decorated cabanas on the night of the gala. “Everybody who came to the gala — first they looked at the tent, then they went to see the bathrooms,” she says, adding that an entire committee devoted itself to bathroom decor during the gala's year-long planning phase.

A Latin band that just wouldn't quit gave the event a longevity that far exceeded past galas, according to Christofferson. “The main band never took a break,” she says. “Normally, the gala is over at one and you'll have maybe 20 people still dancing. This year there had to have been about 600 people left on the dance floor. Music was a vital part of making this event a success.” And a success it was, according to Lynn Ashton, executive director of the Kentucky Derby Museum, who says the event pulled in an amount well within its goal of $150,000 to $200,000, after costs.

Tropical Temptations


Curried Mushroom Purses
Jerk Chicken Strips
Lime-Smoked Salmon Canapes


Island Gazpacho
Tropical Caesar Salad with a Creamy Citrus Dressing
Orange Beef and Shrimp with Mango-Ginger Chutney
Sugar Snap Peas with Cashew
Mashed Potato Caribe
Rolls and Butter


Kahlua Praline Cake with Chocolate Rum Sauce

Kentucky Derby Museum
704 Central Ave.
Louisville, KY 40208


The Silver Spoon, 502/584-4379

Triangle Talent, 502/267-5466;

Floral and landscape:
Korfhage, 502/267-0001

Axxis, 502/568-6030;

Production design and decor:
Production Studio, 502/778-9100;

Ballou's Rent-All, 502/895-5421

Academy Tent & Canvas, 800/228-3687;

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