Established 1874.

The Oberlin Review

Established 1874.

The Oberlin Review

Established 1874.

The Oberlin Review

Review Editor Revisits Kentucky Derby Roots

Photo Courtesy of Travis O’Daniel
Travis O’Daniel at the Derby.

The sports journalist Hunter S. Thompson once described the Kentucky Derby as “decadent and depraved,” and any native Louisvillian will tell you that the sentiment absolutely still rings true. Since 1875, the Derby has been bringing in crowds from far and wide to Louisville, KY, all eager to see the first thoroughbred-horse race in the Triple-Crown tournament — “the greatest two minutes in sports.” 

Growing up in Louisville, Derby culture is ingrained into your childhood; I’ve known how to bet on horses and make mint juleps since middle school. The first weekend in May was always spent bouncing from house to house in my most colorful button-down, asking my dad for money to put into the betting pool. I always loved seeing the women in their flamboyant hats and fascinators, parading through entryways like the Kentucky Met Gala. 

As I got older, though, the Derby faded into the back of my head more and more each year. I wasn’t much of a partier in high school — believe it or not — so my Derby weekend was instead often spent as the designated driver for my family. I would drive my siblings and parents to the usual circuit of house parties, occasionally picking up some of them from the tracks themselves. Eventually, I made my way to college, where I instead spent my first Derby as an adult at a Taylor Swift concert. So, this year I was determined to make my way back home and revisit the Kentucky Derby with new eyes. 

Despite the actual race happening on Saturday, Derby weekend begins on Thursday with “Thurby,” an event hosted at the Churchill Downs racetrack sponsored by Old Forester Bourbon. Sadly, because of classes, I was not able to attend this year, but Thurby is a celebration of Kentucky culture. There’s live bluegrass music, Kentucky trivia, aged bourbon, and, of course, some good old-fashioned thoroughbred horse racing. It’s an all around nice time and warmup to the festivities ahead.

Friday brings another party at the track with the Oaks race. Oaks is functionally another Derby, except all of the horses are fillies — female horses typically about three years old. Oaks differs from Derby in a few ways: the drink of the day is a lily instead of a julep, the winning horse receives a blanket of lilies instead of the famous Derby roses, and Oaks Day features the Survivors Parade. The Survivors Parade is a tradition that started in 2008 where survivors of breast and ovarian cancer are selected to march around the famous racetrack to honor their battles and inspire those currently fighting the disease. This year, 150 women were present to represent the 150th anniversary of the Derby, and they marched proudly despite the overcast weather. 

Even though I hadn’t made it back in time to watch the festivities at the tracks on Friday, I arrived at my house perfectly in time to prepare for my personal favorite part of the weekend — the famous Barnstable Brown gala on Friday night. One of Conde Nast’s “Ten Best Parties in the World,” the gala raises money to support diabetes research at the University of Kentucky, with tickets ranging from $1,595 for general admission to $5,495 for a seat at the celebrity table.

Regular civilians like myself can only dream of being invited inside, so we camp out along the perimeter of the property in hopes of catching a few glimpses of the attendees. Growing up within walking distance, we would bring a picnic blanket and drinks and sit on a nearby hill to peer onto the red carpet with binoculars. This trend must have caught on, though, because this year there were seats placed along a barricade by the event’s entrance. Not early enough to get the really good seats, my mom and I snagged a pair of chairs on the far side with just enough of a view to see our favorite celebrities. Highlight appearances included Josh Groban, Jimmy Fallon, Louisville native Jack Harlow, Sheryl Lee Ralph, Martha Stewart, Tina Knowles, and — a personal favorite — Kentuckian Wynona Judd. Barnstable Brown is the most exciting and one of the only free-to-view events that happen Derby weekend.

Finally, after all the week’s anticipation, the Kentucky Derby arrived Saturday, May 4. My day started around 11 a.m. with the most challenging decision every Derby-goer must make: what am I going to wear? I opted for a classic multicolor seersucker button-down with a pair of khaki pants. Normally, I would have opted to add a tasteful pink blazer on top, but the 88-degree weather disagreed with me. Once I had decided what to wear, it was off to the races. 

Churchill Downs is one of the most iconic buildings in all of Kentucky, which was made apparent by the groups of people trying to frame themselves perfectly in line with the track’s twin spires for a post-worthy picture. Being at the tracks for Derby is something that everyone should do at least once in their lifetime. The energy inside is palpable, which could be a result of the abundant alcohol consumption, but I like to think of it as Kentucky spirit. The collage of pastels, feathers, and flowers across the curved edges of the track mixed with the smell of bourbon and cigar smoke makes for a beautiful and unforgettable experience. I, of course, watched a few races, placed a few bets, won nothing, and then left the tracks for a Derby experience I had never had before.

Something I had always heard about and never experienced firsthand was the Derby day frat parties. The University of Louisville’s primary campus is located a mere three-minute drive from Churchill Downs and is prime territory for college students to throw outrageous parties. Coming from Oberlin, I had never been truly exposed to Greek life. My siblings all attended the University of Kentucky and joined fraternities and sororities, and I had heard stories about their various escapades, but had never stepped foot into an actual fraternity party. 

While it wasn’t anything out of a National Lampoon movie, it was still quite a culture shock coming from the house parties I’m used to. The group of girls I attended the party with all got in for free, of course, while I had to pay the $10 fee. I was given a rubber “Pi Kappa Alpha Derby Day” wristband and made my way into the fenced backyard of the PIKE house. Once inside, I ran into seemingly everyone I had ever known. One girl, done up in full Derby glam, approached me asking if I remembered her — we had met once when I was in fourth grade. Sorry for not recognizing you, Grace. 

That’s the true beauty of the Derby. This singular event allowed me to spend time with my family and honor our traditions, but also reconnect with faces I hadn’t seen in years. It didn’t matter that I was crashing in bed by the time the actual race happened; I had already experienced the parts of the Derby that mattered. Sure, it’s an excuse to get extremely dressed up and day drink to your heart’s desire, but really, it’s about coming home. A lot of old friends I talked to throughout the weekend go to schools away from Louisville — namely Xavier University, University of Kentucky, and Western Kentucky University — and they all returned to Louisville to celebrate their roots in the city that they love. Revisiting Derby weekend as an adult let me reminisce, catch up with old friends, party a little too much, and do it all in exquisite southern style. Who could ask for anything more?

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