By Donna Ison


Thoroughbred racing has long been known as the “Sport of Kings,” so it is only appropriate that the newest event of this year’s Derby season will be held at the Kentucky Castle. However, the affair will forego pomp and circumstance for a party for the people…with a purpose. The Second Chance Celebration will be an authentic Kentucky experience that hits close to home—raising awareness around the many communities that struggle with addiction and incarceration.

“During Derby season, you see a lot of celebrities, and you see a lot of privilege, and it’s very beautiful,” said Holly Harris. “But there is another side to that coin, and our goal is raise awareness around people and places that are equally beautiful, but in desperate need of reforms that can expand opportunities and offer second chances.”

Harris is the executive director of the Coalition for Public Safety, which will both sponsor and benefit from the celebration. The 501(c)(3) non-profit is dedicated to bringing about comprehensive reforms to the justice system at both the state and federal level. Prior to heading up the organization, Harris, a self-described “reformed politico,” graduated from the University of Kentucky College of Law and served in politics as a litigator, chief of staff, and General Counsel to the Republican Party of Kentucky.

Simply put by Harris, the Coalition’s goal is “to ensure that people who have made mistakes have alternatives to incarceration, and if they do serve time, have a pathway home where they can find jobs, secure a place to live, and take care their families. Because ultimately that makes us all safer.”

Last year, these issues rose to national prominence with passage of the First Step Act, a federal bipartisan prison and sentencing reform bill focused on improving current conditions for prisoners, reducing recidivism, addressing substance abuse, and reforming unduly harsh sentences. Harris gives credit for this accomplishment to states like Kentucky, who have already passed similar pieces of legislation.

But there is still much work to be done. Luckily, these issues bring together leaders from across the political spectrum. And Harris adds that, at this celebration, “You will certainly see lawmakers from the far right to the far left. And how many events do you go to lately where you see very progressive Democrats mingling with very conservative Republicans?”

Harris was first approached with the idea for this event by Beth Hourigan, who owns the local Hourglass Lash & Skin Bar, and her husband Dr. Jon Hourigan, a surgeon. They had seen some of Harris’ national events, and urged her to “come back home, and bring back the Lexington Derby party.” The couple suggested an iconic landmark, the Kentucky Castle, as the venue. The Castle, which was recently named by Architectural Digest as “The Most Beautiful Hotel in Kentucky,” features impeccably decorated indoor areas, such as a bourbon hall, dining room, music room, ballroom, as well as a stunning space on the rooftop.

The Hourigans connected Harris to the owners of the Castle, who include Brian Adkins, Danny Bramer, Matthew Dawson, Ryan Dawson, and Jody Elliott, all of whom hail from areas afflicted by the drug epidemic. They were honored to be the venue for The Public Safety Coalition to host “a party for the people” at the Castle in support of criminal justice reform.

When planning the party, Harris was keenly aware of Lexington’s rich Derby eve history, steeped in tales from socialite Anita Madden’s legendary fetes, which she attended in college. Recalling the star-studded parties wth lavish costumes and celebrities, Harris says, “There will never be another Madden party.”

With no illusions of recreating that era, Harris worked with the Castle team, and tapped Harbinger, a nationally-renowned events and experiences firm that has managed White House events and the Pope’s stateside visits, to create an evening filled with incredible entertainment, authentic Kentucky food, and educational experiences.

From start to finish, the event is packed full of world-class musical acts, featuring performers from an array of musical genres, ensuring there is something for everyone.

Multi-platinum entertainer Sara Evans will be one of the headliners. With five No. 1 Country singles including “No Place That Far” and “Suds In The Bucket” and “Born to Fly,” Evans thrills audiences across the country. Her eighth studio album, Words, debuted at #2 on Billboard’s Top Country Albums Chart, and was named among Billboard and Rolling Stone’s favorite country albums of 2017. Evans’ “stunning, country voice” (Rolling Stone) has earned top accolades, including the Academy of Country Music’s Top Female vocalist, numerous American Music Awards, Billboard Music Awards, Country Music Association, CMT and Grammy Awards nominations.

The event will also be headlined by singer/songwriter Pat Green. With three Grammy nominations and over two million albums sold, Green’s signature Texas Country sound has sold out major venues, including the Houston Astrodome. Fifteen of Green’s singles have charted on the Billboard Hot Country Songs charts, perhaps the most famous of which is "Wave on Wave" from his gold-certified album of the same name.

Reception guests will have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to hear John Carter Cash and wife Ana Cristina Cash sing family legacy favorites such as “Folsom Prison Blues” and “Ring of Fire.” The only son of Johnny Cash and June Carter Cash, John Carter Cash is an award-winning record producer, garnering six Grammy Awards. Also an accomplished author and singer-songwriter, he released a new album last year, We Must Believe In Magic, featuring an astounding host of musical guests.

The event will also showcase popular acts well-known to this area. The Local Honeys, made up of the duo of Linda Jean Stokley and Montana Hobbs, will bring the Bluegrass. By adding their special brand of R&B, local band MISC. JONES, led by Michelle “Emtre” Hollis, will round out the evening with a cool Caribbean feel.

And if the music draws you into this celebration, the food will keep you there. In the farm-to-table tradition, guests will enjoy authentic Kentucky drinks and delectable dishes utilizing ingredients sourced from local gardens and farms. Underscoring the mission of the event, the baked goods will be provided by DV8 Kitchen, a Lexington restaurant and bakery recently featured in the New York Times for training and hiring recovering addicts, most of whom also are formerly incarcerated.

But at its core, the Second Chance Celebration is about promoting a dialogue that will change hearts and minds. To this end, the night will also include videos telling powerful stories of redemption, interactive experiences that raise awareness around challenges in our justice system, and recognition of well-known advocates, philanthropists and lawmakers from the left to the right.

Harris wants the event to be inclusive. Event pricing will begin at $250 per person, and will also include higher level sponsorship opportunities for companies and groups. Keep in mind, this price includes food, drinks, interactive educational experiences, and an incredible concert at a venue many Kentuckians have dreamed of visiting. Further, guests are encouraged to express themselves in their attire, whether they choose “sequined finery, or a cocktail dress with cowboy boots,” Harris says, “We want people to feel comfortable.”

The Kentucky Castle's gates are being thrown open for a Derby Eve event to change hearts and minds.

Proceeds from the evening will help the Coalition for Public Safety continue their work, including right here at home. “No state has been more affected by our broken justice system than Kentucky,” states Harris, “We’re already having an impact here, and not just through the legislation.”

Last year, the Coalition provided funds to finish the Ball-Quantrell-Jones Women's Recovery wing of the Hope Center in Lexington, and contributed $50,000 to the Life Learning Center in Covington, which provides an alternative to jail and helps “at-risk” individuals reach their highest potential. The Coalition also supports the Henry Clay Center for Statesmanship which, in partnership with the University of Kentucky and Transylvania University, hosts a student-Congress made up of promising students from all 50 states that promotes civility in political debate, and last fall, the Coalition announced funding for criminal justice fellowships at the University of Louisville Brandeis School of Law.

When the Second Chance Celebration is over, Harris hopes people leave with unforgettable memories, and a powerful mission. “We want to reach a whole new constituency, and inspire people to get more involved.” She adds with a smile, “And what better way to work to remove the stigma of incarceration than to celebrate second chances in a castle?” •

For tickets, visit: CoalitionForPublicSafety.org

Photos by Mark Mahan