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Oh, yeah," said George Strait, grinning and lighting a cigar. "I'm a big winner."
George -- along with a host of other stars -- was in the stands at Churchill Downs for the 128th Running of the Kentucky Derby. George had reason to be confident -- he'd been picking winners in the day's other races left and right. But when it came to the big event, the Derby race itself, he didn't meet with much luck.
Lee Ann Womack didn't fare much better for her first time at Derby Day. "I can't pick a thing," she fretted. Still, she insisted, "This is the most fun I've ever had, being here with friends like George and having a good time. It's great!"
The fun had actually begun the night before, with the Derby Eve bashes. At the $500-a-ticket Barnstable-Brown black-tie party, fans went wild as limousines carrying George, Lee Ann, Toby Keith, Travis Tritt and John Michael Montgomery pulled up. Inside, country's finest cut loose with other celebs -- including 'N Sync's Joey Fatone and Chris Kirkpatrick, rocker Meat Loaf, TV star Dixie Carter and Prince Albert of Monaco. (Other stars, including Hollywood's Bo Derek, Dennis Hopper, Elliot Gould and Angelica Huston, Seinfield TV star Jason Alexander, rap musician P. Diddy and pop songbird Jessica Simpson, joined the festivities the next day.)
John Michael took to the stage to deliver some of his biggest hits, while wife Crystal looked on with a smile and chatted with Travis' wife, Theresa. But the evening's highlight was a one-of-a-kind jam session featuring George, Travis, Meat Loaf and pop singer Taylor Dayne teaming for a bluesy rendition of Creedence Clearwater Revival's "Proud Mary."
"You do know this one, right?" Meat Loaf asked George, who politely tipped his hat and grabbed a microphone, launching into the number.
At another party in town, Brad Paisley and his girlfriend, actress Kimberly Williams, were expressing regret that they'd miss the Derby. "I have a concert to attend," he explained.
And even though she went home empty-handed, Lee Ann was ready for next year: "I'll definitely be back."
-- Larry Birkhead