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Horseplayers, Celebs Take Posh Digs for Derby Day

Goshen
Goshen

Half the fun of watching the Kentucky Derby is watching the people: the swells who pack Millionaire’s Row atop Churchill Downs’ grandstand, the ladies in their hats, of course, and the visible tension on the faces of the thoroughbreds’ “connections”—their owners, trainers, and horse-world hangers-on.

If you’re a real-estate minded New Yorker like me, you’re also probably thinking, “Where do all those people stay?”

That’s where Dana Marcum comes in. The owner of Event Home Leasing, Marcum has been arranging short-term home rentals for Derby-weekend visitors to Louisville since the mid-1990s, and making sure her corporate and private customers have everything they need, from caterers to tee-times at local golf clubs.

The full Derby experience begins on Thursday before the Saturday race, when the weekend starts with a round of benefit galas, cocktail parties and old-fashioned carousing in the restaurants and nightclubs along Bardstown Road southeast of Louisville’s city center. During the day, says Marcum, “the men like to play golf and the women like to shop.”

While she counts corporations among her customers, Marcum deals mainly with families. “Most people who come from out of town are traveling as a group, and they want to be together,” says Marcum. “Private-home accommodations let them maximize their time together.”

The prime Derby weekend real-estate is found in the Highlands, a neighborhood featuring large Victorian-style homes within walking distance of the Bardstown Road corridor. A three-bedroom Highlands home in Marcum’s portfolio was going for $2,000 a night late this week, but Marcum says accommodations can be had for as little as $1,300 a night if you book early.

At the high end, a seven-bedroom a short walk from upscale Derby events like Friday night’s Barnstable-Brown Gala can run to as much as $10,000 per night. (Most houses have a three-night minimum.) If you want to spend the Derby weekend imitating a bluegrass land baron, Marcum can rent you Goshen Crest Manor, shown above, a six-bedroom Tudor on 42 acres in Oldham County, about 25 miles from the track.

A room at the posh Galt House hotel, by comparison, costs approximately $3,200 to $3,500 for three nights.

Even at those prices, Marcum has few vacancies. After a down year in 2009, attendance at the Derby bumped up in 2011 for the second year in a row; last year’s crowd of 164,858 onlookers broke a 37 year-old record. After scaling back her offerings in recent seasons as fewer horseracing fans made the trip to Louisville to see the Derby in person, Marcum had a bidding war on one property. “The Derby is more of a craze than ever. I could have used more in the portfolio,” she says.

She’d have no shortage of stock to draw from. The Derby’s boisterous out-of-town crowds force many natives out of the city every Spring. (Last year, Frontier Airlines ran a special “Escape from Louisville” packages for fleeing Kentuckians.) They are happy to compensate themselves for the inconvenience by renting. Other homeowners vacate simply for the purpose of making some extra cash, spending the weekend at relatives.

Most do their best to make their visitors feel at home, arranging a day of golf, for instance, at an exclusive club where the homeowner is a member. “Everyone tries to help each other out,” says Marcum.

Marcum, who is also a broker for Sotheby’s International Realty, keeps her traffic to better homes. Discretion is her hallmark; some of her best properties, she says, are not listed on her website but are handed out to her return clients, among whom are several celebrities. (Marcum wouldn’t say which celebs were on her client list, but country star Miranda Lambert, Ashton Kutcher and skier Lindsey Vonn were all spotted at parties this week.)

Though she gets calls as late as this week from people trying to find deals, Marcum says the first surge of interest comes in the days after the Derby. Which means if you didn’t get to this year’s 138th running of the Kentucky Derby, you’re just in time to start planning your trip for the 139th.