Going to The Kentucky Oaks
I felt like I was going to the prom all over again. This time, however, I loved my date enough to have been married to him for 21 years, my dress size was a wee bit different, and I had used spray tan instead of sunburning with foil. I also got to wear a large ivory hat, with a flowering peony perched on the side.
After unsuccessfully trying on department store hats, and even venturing into some beyond-budget boutiques, I finally stumbled upon Rosie’s Consignment Store. The owners put nearly every hat on my head until we settled on the perfect vintage hat. Walking in high heeled sandals, I was excited, as our long-time Louisvillian friends guided us through throngs of people, all dressed up, on a sunny Kentucky day at Churchill Downs.
The Kentucky Oaks, called simply “Oaks” by folks who live in Louisville, is the first major race of Derby weekend, always on the Friday before the Kentucky Derby. Oaks is a Grade I stakes race, with a purse of $500,000, but the power of the race lies in its stars: the three-year-old fillies who run it. In 1991, the strong and beautiful hot pink stargazer lily became the official flower of the race and is woven into a magnificent garland for the winning filly. For the second year, race organizers have staged a “pink out” honoring breast cancer survivors and linking the race with its partner charities, Susan G. Komen for the Cure and Horses and Hope. Pink ties, pink shoes, pink hats, pink pants, all honoring the women who walk in the Survivors’ Parade, just before the running of the Oaks race.
The guys who yell “cold beer” at baseball games walk around at Oaks, selling traditional mint juleps and the signature drink, the “Oaks Lily.” Gently pale pink in color, the Lily is far too smooth for safety:
The Oaks Lily
- 1 oz. vodka
- 1 oz. sweet and sour mix
- 3 oz. cranberry juice
- splash Triple Sec
Shake ingredients, and serve with crushed ice. Garnish with an orange wedge and a cherry.
Impressive as this beverage was, fancy fruit drinks are only part of the fare offered. For exclusive tickets buyers at the top price range, lovely plates of chef-prepared food honoring local farmers, lobster rolls, kielbasa, and plenty of fair food, pretzels and beer. In an effort to attract a diverse group of horse racing fans, Churchill Downs offers many different ticket categories from exclusive Millionaires’ Row to the Infield bleachers, so everyone has a chance to attend.
Settled into metal chairs for the day, watching every hat go by, I couldn’t imagine what we would do all day until the official Oaks race ran at 5:45, though smaller races ran throughout the afternoon. Somehow, though, just like prom (but without music and awkwardness), connections with friends mask the passage of time, and before we knew it, we were all shouting for our selected horses to finish first in the one and 1/8 mile run. In the end, chestnut-colored Blind Luck, her face full of dirt kicked from the track, barely pulled through, and soon bowed her neck for the spectacular stargazer lily garland presentation.
The Galt House located in the middle of downtown Louisville is the official hotel of the Derby weekend. For race weekend they offer a “Pinkout Package,” which includes room, special Derby reception, and roses.
Louisville is deservedly proud of many eclectic local restaurants. The edgy Proof on Main, located in the highly regarded 21c Museum Hotel, offers a special Derby menu, with particularly good bar food. The more traditionally southern Corbetts, is in a beautifully restored historic house and offers fresh blankets to those sitting outside under the trees of the patio bar. One of our more famous restaurants, the lively Lynn’s Paradise Cafe, celebrates throughout Derby weekend with a full schedule of events. The day after the big race Lynn’s hosts the annual “Frenzy at the Finish,” when many establishments are closed following all the excitement.
I may keep the peony on my hat, or perhaps I’ll take it off and tie a scarf around the brim for the beach. Whatever I do, I’ll fondly remember laughing with the women of Rosie’s store, and the fun of trying on all those hats. I’ll recall that for one day, in the life of a woman who is folding the whites, making spaghetti casserole, attending graduate school, waiting in the carpool line, and chaperoning the school dance, I still had a little prom queen left in me.
* photo of winning horse with garland courtesy of Craiglduncan
* photo credit: Peter Dedina