Woodford Mansion welcomes urban horse riders all the time

If you’re a thoroughbred bettor, the Kentucky Derby is a chance to win some dough.

If not, the event known as “the most exciting two minutes in sports” is a great excuse for a spring weekend party — and the one coming together at Woodford Mansion could be the most Philly horse-racing celebration around.

Like the annual festival that takes over Churchill Downs in Louisville, which has hosted the race since the late 1800s, Derby parties around the country have a few longstanding traditions, like mint juleps to drink and a dress code of elaborate hats.

The Fairmount Park soiree on Saturday will have those and more, but with lots of only-in-Philly touches. The $35 entry fee is a fair price for the introduction to the criminally under-visited 18th century estate, plus there’ll be local food, drink, live music — even a contest for best headwear.

For a local infusion to the derby festivities, the famed “urban cowboys” from the Fletcher Street Riding Club in North Philly will be putting on a horseback show, as will jockeys from the park’s own Belmont Stables.

Those riders were part of the inspiration for the party in the first place, said John Sigmund, the 41-year-old schoolteacher who became caretaker of the historic mansion with his boyfriend Jaime Davenport last summer.

“Woodford is located right where people cross over from East Park into West Park,” Sigmund said. “We get a lot of horse traffic. I always invite them into the property — what a good look for the visitors!”

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Inviting Philly to visit

Most of the people who tour the house come from out of town, Sigmund explained. Getting locals to realize the 1765 estate is open to guests isn’t easy, and was another driving force behind the idea to host the Derby shindig.

“We want to expand our audience and be more known around the city as a place to come visit,” he said, adding that it’s the first event of its kind for the mansion. Events at the house have previously been community or family-oriented; this’ll be the inaugural one with booze.

Which highlights another Philly twist: Instead of bourbon from Kentucky, the juleps at the May 4 party will feature whiskey made in nearby Pottstown by Manatawny Still Works. “You’ll notice our invitation doesn’t even have ‘Kentucky’ in the name,” Sigmund said.

Also on offer will be beer from appropriately-named Workhorse Brewing in King of Prussia, plus regular mint iced tea. The spread of Southern-style fare will come from local outfit Eatible Delights — which operates out of the Strawberry Mansion neighborhood right next door.

Scoring a caterer who works just a few blocks away was extremely important to Sigmund, he explained.

“I had this Venn diagram,” Sigmund recalled, describing the process of selling the mansion’s stakeholders on the Derby Day event. The estate is owned by a nonprofit trust set up in 1926, and managed in collaboration with the Fairmount Park Conservancy and the Philadelphia Department of Parks and Recreation.

“We wanted to bring together these three disparate audiences,” he said. “The historic crowd, the hip city dweller and the local community.”

Woodford Mansion was built in the 1700s Credit: M. Fischetti / Visit Philly

‘Woodford After Dark’

Woodford had never before hosted a ticketed event, either. Regular drop-in tours, which run 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Wednesday through Sunday, are entirely free. So setting a price was a challenge, Sigmund said.

Organizers settled on $35 per person, food and drink and live music included, with an early-bird discount that was highly publicized in the surrounding area.

“This ‘Woodford After Dark’ thing is a whole new territory,” Sigmund told Billy Penn, “but it’s what these houses need to stay relevant.”

A Chestnut Hill native, Sigmund had never heard of the Fairmount Park mansions until he moved away and then returned as an adult. The apartment he and Davenport rented together was at 29th and Poplar, and their strolls led them to what would become a life-changing discovery.

After attending a few historic house events, Sigmund made inquiries about how the live-in caretakers were chosen. He was told the waiting list was long, but applied anyway.

Serendipity worked in his favor. The couple left their Poplar Street apartment because of a giant rent hike — “Someone must have told the landlord the area was gentrifying, because all of a sudden the gig was up” — and one week later Sigmund got a call that the Woodford position had opened up early. He and Davenport jumped at the opportunity.

After going through a rigorous interview process he described as being vetted for an “America’s Next Top Caretaker” reality show, the duo moved in July 2018.

They fell in love with Woodford’s grounds and its impressive collection of antiques, and decided to make an effort to try to spread the word about its charms: “People don’t realize that when you’re on Kelly Drive there’s this magical world that’s just over the hill.” They founded a young friends committee and set about creating their first fundraiser.

Thanks to timing and the horse connection, the Kentucky Derby proved a perfect opportunity.

Danya Henninger is director and editor of Billy Penn at WHYY, where she oversees the team, all editorial decisions, and all revenue generation — including the membership program. She is a former food...