Kentucky Derby’s little sister has her own style

May 3, 2014

140502KyOaks0020A giant, new video screen at Churchill Downs emphasizes the feeling that the 140th Kentucky Oaks on Friday is like one big reality television show.  Photos by Tom Eblen


LOUISVILLE — Whenever friends from out-of-state complain about how Kentucky Derby tickets are expensive and hard to get, I tell them about the Kentucky Oaks.

Both races have been run for 140 years, but until a few years ago, the Friday event for 3-year-old fillies was a secret Kentuckians kept to themselves.

The Oaks is no longer a secret. The crowd of 113,071 that saw the favorite, Untapable, win by 4½ lengths Friday, was the third-largest ever. But the Oaks is still a less costly, less crowded and less crazy day at the races.

Neither Oaks nor Derby may be the same again, though, thanks to Churchill Downs’ newest addition. The Big Board is a 90-foot-wide video screen that rises 170 feet above the backside and is visible throughout the track. When the sound is cranked up on its 750 speakers, the multimedia experience can almost rival the human and equine circus that surrounds it.

Several months ago, my younger daughter called wanting advice about getting Derby tickets. Shannon lives in New York now but was coming home to meet up with Lisa Currie, her pen-pal of 20 years, who was flying in from Australia.

Lisa wanted to go to the Derby, but was easily persuaded that the Oaks might be more fun. It is the same with Australia’s famous Melbourne Cup, she said. She and other locals prefer to go on one of the preliminary race days.

Walking around Friday, I found a lot of people who have discovered the Oaks’ charm.

“I like the Oaks better, although we’ll be here tomorrow, too,” said Denise Needham of Long Island, N.Y., who was here for her fourth Oaks-Derby weekend. “It’s just as much fun, but less crowded. And it’s for a good cause.”

She was referring to Churchill Downs’ partnership with the Susan G. Komen organization, which has made Oaks Day an annual celebration of breast cancer survival and awareness.

Before the big race, there is a parade down the track of breast cancer survivors chosen from all over the country. Almost all of them wore pink. But, anymore, almost everyone wears pink to the Oaks.

“I get to wear pink and not get judged,” Rickey Spanish of Des Moines, Iowa, said with a laugh. He was wearing a pink shirt, pants and feather boa, and his Iowa friends were similarly attired.

“Today is all flash,” Spanish said. “Tomorrow, I’ll just wear a regular old suit to Derby.”

All of that pink has helped make the Oaks as good a people-watching event as Derby Day.

“The horses are OK, but the people are more interesting,” said Kitty McKune of Louisville, who stood people-watching as her husband, Mike, filmed the paddock crowd with a small video camera.

“Derby weekend brings out the best in everybody,” said Mike McKune, who shocked his wife by buying and learning how to tie a bow tie to go with this suit.

Frequently overcast skies and temperatures that barely broke into the 60s caused many men to lose their suit coats to women who draped them over their fancy dresses. Gusty winds had many women keeping at least one hand on their big hats.

“It was supposed to be warm!” said Katie Daniel of Louisville, who walked through the paddock wearing Daniel Nusbaum’s suit coat.

The weather definitely put a dent in beer sales, said Andre Williams, who said he has been hawking cold ones at Churchill Downs on Derby weekends for more than 10 years.

“They keep saying it’s too cold to drink cold beer,” Williams said, noting that his fellow vendors selling champagne and vodka “Lily” cocktails seemed to be doing better. “But it will pick up some the later the day goes.”

Judging by all of the crushed beer cans I walked over after the big race, he was right. By Saturday morning, though, they will all be gone so an even bigger, crazier crowd can leave many more beer cans. Derby Day is supposed to be much warmer.

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Kentucky Oaks goes pink for breast cancer awareness

May 6, 2011

LOUISVILLE — The Kentucky Oaks has grown from Louisville’s day at the races into a spectacle almost as big and colorful as the next day’s Kentucky Derby. And the color of the Oaks is most definitely pink.

Many women at Churchill Downs on Friday wore pink hats and dresses. Men wore pink jackets and ties. The track bugler and outriders traded their red coats for pink ones. Balcony railings below the Twin Spires are wrapped in pink fabric. Even the tractors that pulled sleds to smooth the dirt track were pink. All for a good reason: breast cancer awareness.

For the third year, the track donated $1 from each Oaks Day admission to Susan G. Komen for the Cure and $1 from the sale of each Oaks Lily beverage to Horses for Hope.

More important than raising money, though, was raising awareness of breast cancer, the second-leading cause of death among Kentucky women. About 3,000 new cases are diagnosed in the state each year.

Oaks Day is ladies’ day, after all, where fillies run for the lilies in the featured race. And before Plum Pretty held off St. John’s River to win the 137th running of the Oaks, there was a special parade in front of the grandstand.

A crowd of 110,100 spectators, the third-largest in Oaks history, cheered as 137 breast cancer survivors walked with a friend and family in symbolic victory over the disease. The survivors were chosen by the public from nominees whose stories were posted on the Kentucky Oaks’ Web site. More than 30,000 votes were cast.

“It’s very emotional,” said Gina Robinson of New Albany, Ind., who was diagnosed 15 months ago and was there with her husband, Dan. “He looks good in pink, doesn’t he?”

Robinson participated in last year’s parade, too, and found it deeply emotional. “I thought I had it all together until everyone started cheering and I lost it,” she said.

“It’s a big responsibility to represent so many people,” said survivor Angie Brown of Shelbyville, who said she was there to show that young women can get breast cancer, too. “It’s not just your mom’s or your grandma’s disease.”

Brown, 36, was diagnosed and began aggressive chemotherapy when she was 24 weeks pregnant with her third daughter. It was a scary time, but she recovered and her daughter, now 20 months old, wasn’t harmed by the treatment

Hugh Campbell of Louisville, the only male breast cancer survivor in the parade, was nominated by his daughter, Emily, who walked with him. He wore pink pants and, like the women, carried a lily.

“I try to keep it out there that men get this disease, too,” said Campbell, who was diagnosed in December 2007 and has had five recurrences. “I have met several other men with it in the Louisville area, but most men don’t want to be out front about it.”

Like many women, Campbell first noticed a lump in his breast. But unlike many men, he went to a doctor to see about it. He knew what it might be. Campbell’s mother had survived breast cancer, and he had been active in the Komen organization on her behalf since 1997.

“I knew it was out there for both women and men,” he said. “I just didn’t want it to be me.”

Cheering them on was P.J. Cooksey, the all-time leading female jockey until Julie Krone surpassed her number of victories. Cooksey won 2,137 races and overcome a lot of hardship during her 25-year career in a male-dominated sport. But her biggest challenge and victory was over a breast-cancer diagnosis almost 10 years ago.

“It’s no longer a death sentence, especially with early detection,” Cooksey said. “It means a lot to me to see racing get behind this cause in such a big way, because you reach so many women in this state when you connect women and horses.”

Besides, she said, “I love all the pink!”

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The infield gets fancy, but keeps its spirit

May 1, 2009

I first came to the Churchill Downs infield as a college student working for The Associated Press. My story described it as “a place where you are liable to see almost anything – except perhaps the Kentucky Derby.”

I’m sure that by Saturday afternoon parts of the infield will look much as they did on my first visit 30 years ago.

A few thousand rowdy college students and good ol’ boys and girls will get liquored up, lose some of their clothing and, if the weather forecast is accurate, slide around in the mud between thunderstorms.

But some things have changed.

For one, you can actually see the races, thanks to several giant video screens.  For another, the infield is smaller than it used to be – and seems to be getting smaller every year.

A big chunk disappeared when Churchill Downs built a turf track inside the dirt oval. Then temporary tent-topped buildings were put up along the track’s front side for big-ticket corporate entertaining.

This year, yet another chunk of territory has been claimed for high rollers with the creation of the Infield Club.  Tables with folding wooden chairs are arranged beneath tents on grass or brick pavers. There are many bars and food stands, a long line of betting windows and a fancy stage for the band.

The tunnels going into the infield are no longer filled only with people in jeans and shorts carrying tents, folding chairs and coolers. Now, they share the space with men in coats and ties and women in pretty dresses, fancy hats and shoes that wouldn’t last anytime in a drunken mud slide.

Even on the infield’s wild side, around the third turn, the decadence and depravity seems like it will be, well, more organized. There’s an activities area called the CPO — Chief Party Officer — with a dunking booth, twister games and loud music.

(Still, just in case, National Guardsmen on Friday carried a stack of riot shields marked “military police” to a nearby bunker.)

There’s no view of the track from the new fenced-in Infield Club, although you can see the back of the tote board and the top of the grandstand’s famous Twin Spires.

Infield Club admission cost $50 on Oaks day, $150 on Derby day or $175 for both. That’s steeper than infield general admission ($25 on Oaks day, $40 on Derby day), but still a bargain compared to other seating options.

“It’s very nice in here; very comfortable,” said Eileen Hughes of Trenton, N.J., who was here with her husband Douglas for their eighth-straight Derby weekend.

In many past years, the Hughes joined the infield masses and hoped it wouldn’t rain. On this Oaks day, as the clouds kept getting darker, they were feeling good about their investment.

“We looked at clubhouse seats and bleachers with no backs,” Hughes said. “But this is much nicer – and less expensive.”

When they were “young and wild” and growing up in Louisville, sisters Doreen Cornelius and Kena Diggins spent several Derby days in the infield.  They were back Friday for the first time in many years, this time wearing their Oaks day best.

Diggins, who now lives in Pittsburgh, was here for the survivors’ parade that is part of an event by Susan G. Komen for the Cure and Horses and Hope to raise money for breast cancer research and awareness. Churchill Downs is donating between $100,000 and $135,000 to the effort, based on attendance.

“The facilities are wonderful for being outside,” said Cornelius, who was clearly most impressed with the Infield Club’s fancy restroom trailers, with their hardwood floors and real ceramic facilities.  “For women, that’s a major thing.”

But I had to wonder: will the traditional infield crowd someday be squeezed out by creeping gentrification?  Will average joes be able to keep coming to the Derby?

Ken Hanvey of Belleville, Ill., thinks so. He and two buddies have been coming with their canopy and lawn chairs to the same infield spot since 1992.

That was the same year they formed a partnership, SMF of Southern Illinois, to renovate and sell a house.  “We decided the ‘S’ would stand for either smart or stupid, depending on how well we did,” Hanvey said. “For the record, it was ‘stupid.’”

But while the house renovation venture may not have made them much money, it created a Derby tradition they don’t see ending anytime soon.

They said the crowd in their corner of the infield hasn’t changed much in 17 years.  “We have a good time every year we come,” said Gerald Todd.

And why shouldn’t they?  From their spot along the back fence, they can actually see part of the track. If they look beyond the portable toilets, they have a good view of a video screen.

“And we’ve got security right here,” Todd said, pointing to the police and paramedics’ bunker nearby, “just in case things get ugly.”

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Kentucky Oaks: Rain doesn’t dampen the fun

May 2, 2008

What started out as a beautiful day for the 134th running of the Kentucky Oaks soon turned into the flood for the fillies.

The heavens opened four hours before post time Friday, and the track was beyond sloppy when Proud Spell, with Gabriel Saez up, sprinted to victory in the traditional scene-setter for the Kentucky Derby.

Not that anyone really seemed to mind the rain.

Earlier in the afternoon, Beth Taylor stood with friends near her seat not far from the finish line. She held down her hat to keep it from becoming airborne as the wind picked up and the skies grew darker.

“One of the military guys just showed me the Doppler radar, and it’s just awful,” she said.

Taylor, a Louisville native who lives most of the time in Shanghai, China, has been to 25 Derbys and about 20 Oaks.

Oaks Day has always been special for her – “The girls always have to come out for the girls” – and she has seen a lot of changes over the years.

“It used to be that the Oaks was the local day,” Taylor said. “But now all the out-of-towners have discovered it.”

Indeed, they have. Churchill Downs’ official attendance Friday was 100,046. While the Derby has long been the best-attended horse race in America, the Oaks regularly comes in second.

When the Churchill Downs gates opened Friday morning, the sun was shining. Spectators poured in, many of the women dressed to the nines. There were plenty of big hats, high heels, tight dresses and cleavage looking for a sunburn. By the end of the day, the hottest fashion accessory was poncho plastic.

If the Kentucky Derby risks being taken over by high rollers and celebrities, the Oaks is a little less crowded, a little less expensive, a little less crazy – but just as much fun.

“It’s awesome,” said Wanda Gilliam of Greensboro, N.C., who was attending her first Oaks-Derby weekend. “I haven’t won a thing yet, but that’s OK. This is just such an awesome scene. It’s overwhelming.”

Holly Brown, a Lexington attorney, agreed. She was here with friends, one of whom had managed to get them choice seats on the rail near the finish line. It was Brown’s Derby weekend in style. “We’ve been to the infield, but that doesn’t count,” she said.

Friends Amy Burkart, Victoria York and Kelli York came to the Oaks and Derby last year from their homes in California and Arizona, and had such a good time they had to come back.

“There’s something for everyone,” Burkart said. “For the men, it’s the racing; for the women, it’s the fashion. It’s just so much fun, especially after you’ve had a few of these mint juleps.”

Chris Cassidy and Jack Morgenstern, friends from Chillicothe, Ill., have been coming to both races on their way to a fishing trip in Tennessee every year since 1995. When the storms hit, they just put on ponchos, took shelter under the grandstand and continued studying their Daily Racing Forms.

“Look around,” Morgenstern said as people packed tighter and tighter to avoid the rain blowing under the grandstand and widening puddles. “See all the smiling faces despite the rain? It’s all good.”

The Oaks’ growing popularity also is good for the hundreds of locals who see Churchill Downs’ big weekend as a good payday – even if they never cash a ticket. Debbie Jones of Louisville has been selling wager tickets for several years, working both Oaks and Derby days for $375, plus tips.

It was a hot, tiring job, but nothing like the gig Joey Rayan of Lexington had.

Rayan spent Oaks Day walking around in a big plastic mint julep suit, promoting the Early Times version of the Downs’ signature drink while a sidekick passed out mint-colored Mardi Gras beads.

“I love it,” he said. “All the women want to come up and hug and kiss the suit.”

Photos, top to bottom:

Holly Brown, left, a Lexington lawyer, chats with friends Kristie Alfred, front, and Margaret Scherrer, both of Louisville.

Cherie Edwards of Louisville, left, and Angela Bumphus of Atlanta wore just the right fashions for Kentucky Oaks day — fancy dresses, fancy hats and ponchos.

Chris Cassidy, left, and Jack Morgenstern, two friends from Chillicothe, Ill., didn’t let the rain distract them from studying their Daily Racing Forms.

Vicki Maya of Louisville takes a photo of, left to right, Rosa Maya and Ruth Gonzalez of Louisville and Patty Duenas of Miami. Inside the mint julep suit is Joey Rayan of Lexington. Photos/Tom Eblen

Storms dampen picture-perfect Oaks Day

May 2, 2008

Hold onto your hats, ladies, a storm is blowing in. After a picture- perfect morning, the clouds started moving in about 1:15 p.m. It got darker, and windier, and darker still. Then a big rain hit Churchill Downs at 1:50 p.m. The weather radar shows more on the way. Post time for the Oaks is 5:45.

Well-dressed ladies with one hand holding a drink suddenly needed the other to keep their hat from going airborne. And when rain started falling, those with the expensive seats huddled with the masses underneath the grandstand for shelter.

But the rain didn’t seem to dampen spirits. “I haven’t won anything yet, but that’s OK,” said Wanda Gilliam of Greensboro, N.C., who was at her first Oaks. “It’s awesome. It’s overwhelming. I just can’t put it into words.”

Running for shelter. Photo/Tom Eblen