What would you say if I asked you about a horse race held in Kentucky since 1875? What if I told you said race was founded by Meriwether Lewis Clark, Jr., that it was half of the longest continuously contested sporting event in America, and that it was attended by over 100,000 people each year? What if I told you I wasn’t talking about Derby?
The Kentucky Oaks is held annually at Churchill Downs the Friday before the Kentucky Derby (not, as you might presume, on the first Friday in May, because should the first Saturday in May fall on the 1st, Oaks is held on the 30th of April). While the Derby is (mostly*) for three-year-old colts/geldings (male horses), the Oaks is for the fillies — the three-year-old female horses. They run for a lily garland and a big silver trophy (plus, you know, $600,000 in winnings, which ain’t too shabby). And also, it’s for Louisville.
*Fillies are technically eligible to compete but generally make up a very small portion (if any) of the field. As of 2010, only 40 fillies have ever raced in the Derby, and three have won: Regret in 1915, Genuine Risk in 1980, and Winning Colors in 1988. Girl (horse)Power FTW.
See Oaks Day is at the track is all about the locals (or at least it was until recently). Derby is for the tourists and the B-list celebs (and Her Majesty the Queen), for ESPN and NBC, but the day before the main event, while all the out-of-towners are still en route or settling into their hotel rooms, true Louisvillians head to the track. We get our fill of festivities before the town is completely overtaken, and when the hordes descend on Saturday, we’re safely ensconced at home with a julep, laughing at the news footage of traffic jams and lawns turned into guerilla parking lots. Unfortunately, in recent years, some of the more enterprising tourists have caught on to the Oaks phenomenon. Locals have responded with the cringe-worthy “Thurby” (please, please stop trying to make that happen), or “Thursday before Derby.” But Oaks still remains a city-wide holiday, near and dear to every Louisvillian’s heart.
From the day I was born until the age of 23, Oaks Day was a day off. Growing up, the day before Derby meant no school (which, when you can count the number of snow days you’ve experienced on one hand, is an especially big deal). It wasn’t just schools: Business shut down too, as the whole city seized the opportunity to throw all responsibilities out the window for a day. Carpe oaksem! Now in theory there were practical reasons behind the shut-down; between the tourists and the festivities, traffic was such a disaster that there was no point trying to get anywhere anyway. So teacher or student, boss or employee, the entire city joined forces to hold an officially sanctioned day off.
When I got to college, I was worried this sacred day of respite might be taken away. Somehow, though, the Oaks gods continued to smile upon me. My freshman and sophomore years, my school’s Spring Celebration (known as GIG, or, Get Into Goucher), fell on that fateful Friday, causing classes to be cancelled. Junior and senior year, I managed to avoid Friday classes altogether. And so I came to the spring of my 23rd year having managed to enjoy a responsibility-free Oaks every May of my life.
New York was a different story. My first spring here I was in grad school, and for the first time in my life, I had to go to class on Oaks. It just felt wrong. Cinco de Mayo, people got. Even Memorial Day they could get on board with. But nobody understood why this day had any meaning for me: They laughed when I explained that one should get the day off from school for a horse race. After that first spring, I managed to escape Oaks obligations due to a fluke of scheduling, but it wasn’t the same. I tried to rally my state patriotism (or whatever you call it), queuing up a feed of the race on my computer and sipping a mint julep (or, more likely, straight bourbon, because as anyone will tell you I’m a tad lazy in the kitchen). But despite my best efforts, I was left feeling more isolated and far from home than ever.
I’ve never actually been to the Oaks race itself (something that threatens to strip me of my Louisvillian cred, I know). But Oaks, the day, has always held a special place in my heart. Derby brings the eyes of the nation to Louisville, draws the attention of celebrities and pundits and royalty alike. For two minutes, the spotlight shines bright on my old Kentucky home. And then, just as quickly, it’s gone. But the thing about Louisville is, while we enjoy our annual minutes of fame, we also understand how fleeting and, in the end, unimportant they are. The two minutes may be for the world, but the other 525,598 of the year are for us. And so is Oaks.
I think this is why I love this day so much. That one day before the full-blown mayhem is just for our little city, and for the people who call it home. People usually nod along knowingly when I talk about Derby, but Oaks is something I have to explain, and that’s part of its charm. Even as the out-of-towners have started to catch on, I still think of it as the locals’ day. It’s for the people who claim Derby, the season, as part of their identity and cultural heritage. Sometimes we love it, sometimes we love to hate it, but it’s always part of us. The more time you spend away from home, the more you come to appreciate those little quirks — like taking the day off for a horse race — that make your home special. Some years you may have to go to work. Some years you may have class. But you always observe the day for what it is — a holiday — in your heart.
This year I’ve got the day off, and Zelda does not. So Friday will pass quietly, as we reflect on what Derby means to us and how to share it with the people we love, even far from home. Saturday we party, with friends Kentuckian and (mostly) otherwise. And then the countdown begins until spring comes again. Next year at Churchill.