Smithfield Herald

Derby Day in horse country

Rhonda Jewell, left, and Sandra Thompson watch Judy Hadley ride a Tennessee walking horse during a demonstration at Derby Day.
Rhonda Jewell, left, and Sandra Thompson watch Judy Hadley ride a Tennessee walking horse during a demonstration at Derby Day.

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

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

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

For the second year in a row, the Clayton Rotary Club hosted Derby Day at the Portofino Equestrian Center. The event is the club’s largest fundraiser.

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

Horse exhibitions

The afternoon offered several types of horse events, including dressage, a type of graceful horse dance that some refer to as a horse ballet. Other arenas played host to a Tennessee walking horse, a cross-country jumping event and an exhibition in which a horse performed 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.

Traditionally, Tennessee walking horses carried a family’s buggy from farm to church, plowed fields or carried riders on horseback, in style.

Throughout the day, people dressed in heels and hats, bowties and blazers came up to pet laid-back Cooper. 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 thought it would be great to do so in their neighborhood. The Magnos moved to Portofino from a 100-acre farm in New York 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 shared by the residents but only have to keep up their nine acres.

Inside the newly opened horse stable in the equestrian center, the Jockey Club, an exclusive area with special food and drinks, poured mint juleps generously.

There was also some mild horse betting that 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 bet on No. 12, Itsmyluckyday.

When the Derby came on television at roughly 6:30 p.m., everyone gathered inside the stable to watch it on flat-screens.

The big hats

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

A Clayton businesswoman, 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 enter last year because her hat wasn’t handmade.

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

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