Local Derby celebration in Johnston County

ajames@newsobserver.comMay 4, 2013 

— While onlookers at the real Kentucky Derby endured rain drops to watch the race, a crowd of several hundred people sipped mint juleps, dressed in hats, and watched their own dry version of the derby at a classy fundraiser open to the public in Clayton.

About 10 minutes outside of downtown Clayton, off of N.C. 42, there are gates that lead to a community of 400 acres of property, complete with a newly opened stable, community center, and 8 miles of horse trails. The gated community, Portofino, was developed in 2008, and has attracted residents from across the country who either own horses or who are looking for a peaceful, upscale life in the country.

“It feels like you’re in horse country out here,” said Lyn Austin.

Derby Day was hosted by the Clayton Rotary Club for the second year in a row at Portofino Equestrian Center. The event is the group’s largest fundraiser of the year.

Unlike other local derby events, Derby Day was more than just a gathering to watch the race.

Horse exhibitions

In the afternoon, there were several types of horse events, including dressage, a type of graceful horse dance that some refer to as a horse ballet. There was also an arena with a Tennessee Walking Horse, and one with a cross-country jumping event, as well as a horse reining in exhibition that involved a horse doing tricks such as spinning.

“The big cheeses today are the thoroughbreds because that’s what’s in the Derby, but here we wanted to give people a glimpse at different breeds and different disciplines,” said horse trainer Judy Hadley.

Hadley wore a traditional horse trainer’s long jacket and top hat and showed her horse, Cooper, in the Tennessee Walking Horse event.

“The walkers were bred to walk in between rows in a plantation because they can walk at a slow pace for hours at a time, so the rider wouldn’t get worn out,” Hadley said.

The horses do not trot and they were traditionally used to carry a family’s buggy from the farm to their church, to plow a field, or to ride down the road in style.

Dressed in heels and hats, and bowties and blazers, several people came up to pet laid-back Cooper throughout the day. Meanwhile, in a nearby arena, children sat atop ponies and went for rides.

Horse owners Joe and Kate Magno said they came out to the event because they always watch the Derby, and this was taking place in their neighborhood. The Magnos moved to Portofino from a 100-acre New York farm in in 2010.

“This allowed us to have the same kind of lifestyle we had there, but not the same amount of maintenance you have when you have to keep up with all of the land yourself,” Kate Magno said. As part of the Portofino community, they can enjoy the wide open land, and miles of trails that are shared by the residents, but only have to keep up their nine acres.

Betting on horses

Inside the newly opened horse stable at the equestrian center, there was a Jockey Club, an exclusive area with special food and drinks, where mint juleps were poured generously.

There was also some mild horse betting, which did not involve money. People placed their name in three jars for the three horses they thought would be the top racers.

“The most popular horse bets were on No. 6, Mylute, because a lot of women wanted to vote on the one with a woman jockey,” said Art Holder, a Rotary Club member who oversaw the horse bets.

He said a lot of people also bid on No. 12, Itsmyluckyday.

When that other race came on television at 6:24 p.m., everyone gathered inside the stable to watch it on flat-screens.

After the big race, the day’s second biggest competition began – the ladies hat contest.

A local businesswoman in Clayton, Joyce Blackley, said that last year several people told her to enter the contest because her bright orange, wide-brimmed hat stood out above the others. But, Blackley said she didn’t want to win last year because the hat wasn’t handmade.

“I knew several people had gotten handmade hats because they wanted to win the contest,” Blackley said.

But this year, she came with a handmade hat that matched her black and white dress. The taffeta and ribbons on the hat soared at least 6 inches above her head.

Blackley’s sister-in-law, Betty Blackley, also entered the contest, with a furry pink hat with a 1-inch brim. The hat and her appearance matched Queen Elizabeth, and people kept telling her that, she said.

Last year’s Derby Day event raised $10,000 for the Clayton Rotary Club and Stewart McLeod, Rotary Club President, said the fundraiser this year raised about the same, though they had not calculated the total yet.

Proceeds from the event go toward scholarships for students at Clayton High, as well as to the nonprofit Stop Hunger Now, to the Ryan Epps Hope for Haiti children’s home in Haiti, and to a nonprofit that supports military veterans.

James: 919-553-7234

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