EAST MANATEE -- The horses got out of the starting gate, and so did the parties to celebrate Kentucky Derby day, the official start of thoroughbred racing's quest for the Triple Crown.
Though Bradenton's version of a track was wet and damp on Saturday following a weekend onslaught of severe rain and storms that pelted the area, that didn't stop the locals from donning traditional Derby hats and southern attire to enjoy the 140th annual Run for the Roses.
In the easternmost part of Manatee County, what more befitting a place to hold a Kentucky Derby party than the SMART Stables on rural County Road 675. Amid the dark but cool skies, 200 guests spent the late afternoon and evening outdoors enjoying the race on widescreen TVs, then dining on elegantly-decorated, Candelabra-adorned tables and dancing to live music for the first Mint Juleps & Roses fundraiser.
All the money raised will help support the Sarasota Manatee Association for
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Riding Therapy, a volunteer nonprofit that helps enrich the lives of children with special needs, wounded war veterans, disabled adults, and women fighting breast cancer through therapeutic programs that pair them with 19 horses housed in SMART stables. Donations to the SMART program have provided scholarships for many area individuals in need of a natural form of therapy.
"The thing about horses is they live in the moment, and they react in the moment. So for kids with disabilities, the horses will expect you to lead. The connection with horses makes the magic happen," said Gail Clifton, SMART's volunteer executive director who proudly attended the party with many of her students and their parents.
Before the big race began, some of the students with special needs who have benefitted from the organization's scholarship program invited the guests to join them for a Parade of Champions around the track while they performed their horseback riding skills decked out in colorful jockey outfits.
Laura Blanchard-Brown, mother of 12-year-old Dwight Brown, a student who has Down syndrome, says the SMART program has been very beneficial in the short time her son has been in therapy.
"When Dwight comes home after riding, his speech is clearer where otherwise it's muffled. It has given him a lot of self confidence,"
Guests of the Derby party were friends, patrons, corporate sponsors, and SMART volunteers, as well as a few local dignitaries and officials, like Manatee County Commissioner Vanessa Baugh of Lakewood Ranch.
"How can you not support an organization that works with disabled children and our wounded warriors?" said Baugh, who was wearing a colorful orange dress and straw hat. "There is such a need out there, and they do such a great job. I feel really blessed I have this in my district."
Nick Drizos, past president of the SMART board of directors, was pleased with the enthusiastic turnout and the weather, which cooperated.
"When we saw the weather forecast, we thought we would have to go to a Plan B, but it's worked out, and there are so many people here. It's beautiful," Drizos said.
Of course, no Derby party could be complete without a "Best Hat" contest, because wearing a hat to the Kentucky Derby is considered good luck, and the more outrageous the hat, the better. Lisa Sutherland of Bradenton certainly was a contender, dressed in a beekeeper hat adorned with little bees that she made from poms poms and pipe cleaners.
"It evolved beyond what I anticipated," Sutherland said. "I won a hat contest before wearing chocolates on my head and bribing the judges."
Kathryn Moschella, Lakewood Ranch reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7010. Follow her on Twitter @MoschellaHerald.