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Posted at 11:51 PM ET, 01/19/2009

The Greatest [Ball] of All Time

By Fritz Hahn

2660 Woodley Rd. NW -- 9:13 p.m.: For the first two hours of the Kentucky State Society's Bluegrass Ball, the most popular person in the room -- and most easily distinguishable -- was Maker's Mark president Bill Samuels Jr. Wearing a black derby that looked like it had been dunked in red wax, just like his company's trademark bottles, Samuels greeted and posed with a steady stream of well-wishers, many of whom were holding tumblers of his family's bourbon.

The Bluegrass Ball kicked off with a "tour" of the state's Bourbon Trail, and the free samples from eight distilleries, including Four Roses, Bulleit, Wild Turkey and Jim Beam, may have had something to do with the lively atmosphere. Guests in black tie, including one man whose tuxedo studs resembled miniature bottles of Maker's, posed for photos with a statue of a racehorse in front of a backdrop of Churchill Downs' famed spires. People mingled and talked about their favorite whiskeys until Steve Buttleman, the official bugler of the Kentucky Derby, called everyone to dinner with the familiar "Call to Post."

Then it became the Muhammad Ali show.

Kentucky native Muhammad Ali, with his wife, Lonnie, is honored at the ball.(AP/Luis M. Alvarez)

The Greatest of All Time, who celebrated his 67th birthday on Saturday, and his wife, Lonnie, made their way to the front, where Gov. Steve Beshear and special guest Ashley Judd presented him with gifts, including a bust of Abraham Lincoln and a pair of paintings by artist Simon Bull, which depict Ali with president-elect Barack Obama.

At this point, the Temptations entered to serenade the champ with a soulful "Happy Birthday" and, for Lonnie, "My Girl."

All this, and the servers hadn't even brought out the main course: "duo of grilled Kentucky bison fillet and country ham-wrapped Kentucky farm-raised striped bass."

-- Fritz

By Fritz Hahn  | January 19, 2009; 11:51 PM ET
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