May 13, 2008

The last straw: Move away from jocks leaves Mint Jubilee’s future up in the air

When Hall-of-Fame jockey Laffit Pincay learned in February that the Permanently Disabled Riders Fund would no longer be a beneficiary of the Mint Jubilee Gala, held each Derby Eve at the Galt House, he was furious.“He said, ‘They kicked us out and then expect us to come to their event?’” said Kerry Cogan, who helped Pincay put together an alternate event attended by most of the jockeys with mounts in the Derby. Cogan said Pincay’s anger fueled momentum for the first Legends Tour event, organized in a short 90 days and held at Executive Inn West. The jockeys’ party, attended by 400 people, was sponsored by the IEAH Stables, which owns Derby winner Big Brown.And when Chris Thieneman, founder of the Mint Jubilee and owner of the trademark for the event, found out that University of Louisville organizers had decided to exclude the jockeys from the fundraising on Derby Eve, he was more than a little upset. “The jockeys are the true celebrities of the Derby,” said Thieneman, who’s running in the Republican primary for U.S. Congress in Kentucky’s 3rd District. “I called Pat Day to apologize. It was the last straw. There are conditions in our contract that we could get it back.”The dispute puts the future of the Mint Jubilee in doubt. Thieneman wants to take the event away from U of L, and said he’s had serious talks with another charity about taking over the event. U of L has invested time and energy into the Mint Jubilee name, including creating a resource center at its cancer hospital with the event’s name.Keith Inman, U of L’s vice president of University Advancement, said the decision was tied to a speech by the Jockeys’ Guild’s former national manager, Dwight Manley, at the 2007 event. Many attendees, he said, were offended by the length and tenor of Manley’s speech — which focused on the plight of jockeys more than those afflicted with cancer — so Inman sought to limit the involvement of the Guild.And everything went smoothly this year, according to Inman, as the event is on track to match last year’s net profit of more than $350,000. “I don’t understand why (Thieneman) would feel that way,” he said. “We hope to be partners for a long time.”In 2005, Thieneman turned over the keys to the event he and his brother, along with actor and former U of L football player Matt Battaglia, created in the early 1990s. In 2003, Thieneman said, the idea of inviting the jockeys to the Derby Eve party first came up, and each year more jockeys attended. Sponsors loved it, putting in requests to have certain jockeys sit at their tables. The Mint Jubilee also paid to host Hollywood celebrities, from reality TV stars to soap opera actors to NFL players. In 2006, thanks to the burgeoning relationship between the event and the Jockeys’ Guild, nearly every jockey with a Derby mount showed up, along with several jockey “legends” who had won Derbies in the past. The Guild organized the donation of dozens of items for the charity’s auction, and shared in its proceeds, with the money going to the fund for disabled jockeys. Thieneman said he signed a “friendly” five-year agreement with the university in 2005, allowing the school to take over all aspects of the party with the understanding that he’d be involved in any major decisions. He continued to solicit sponsors and helped bring in Southern Wine and Spirits as a $100,000 annual sponsor.But this year, Thieneman said he began hearing from friends within the organization that the leadership was taking the Jubilee in a different direction, not only de-emphasizing jockeys but changing the focus to a University of Louisville event.The decision to discontinue the relationship with the jockeys, and still invite them to attend, was made by Inman. In an e-mail, Heather Falman, the Brown Cancer Center’s assistant director of development, wrote that a U of L internal audit had advised against sharing proceeds of the party with “non-university organizations.” But it made an exception for Gilda’s Club, an organization that provides cancer-related services, so that charity received proceeds from the event’s auction.U of L’s decision so infuriated Thieneman that he began looking into revoking the agreement with U of L and taking the event back.“The jockeys are always second-fiddle, which is why it was so great that they became a big part of the Mint Jubilee,” he said. “Sure, they wanted a piece, but the university was greedy and didn’t want to share it with anyone else.”Thieneman said since the agreement began, the school had wanted him to give up his interest. “They wanted me to give up everything and just give it to them,” he said. “I don’t want a dime for it. It was my baby.” Disclosure: Rick Redding was a member of the Mint Jubilee Committee in 2005 and 2006. He was never in a decision-making role. Contact the writer at citystrobe@leoweekly.com