This entire week we're going to explore an event that is a gem in the South~a real crown jewel. Of course, I'm talking about the the Kentucky Derby. As such, I had to get the inside information from a friend of mine, Hunter Oldham Weinberg. Not only did Hunter's family found Louisville along with George Rogers Clark, but she celebrates each occasion with sass & style, wearing her heritage like a badge of honor. She loves living in Louisville, even moreso now that she is continuing many a tradition with her own family.
The Kentucky Derby has been called the most exciting two minutes in sports, and it is. But it is so much more than that.
To Louisvillians, Derby isn't just a two-minute horse race, and it's more than just the two-week season of parties and events leading up to the big day. It's a cultural mindset and a deep pride in something that belongs to Kentucky alone. It's the knowledge that every Derby experience is different, that some years we may have great adventures without ever seeing a horse, and other years we may begin our day on a city bus and end up with the champion horse in the winners circle, because we never know where Derby will take us. But every year, whether we are cheering with our friends at Churchill Downs or planting tomatoes in the garden, we all dream of choosing the winning horse--even if all we get for it is bragging rights.
This is a place where horses themselves are more than just animals. At their humblest they are old friends, their names bringing memories of childhood derbies or legends from before we were born. At their greatest, they reach a certain mythology, and even children here know to treat the memories of the great thoroughbreds with awe. "You be Secreteriat, I'll be Man o' War, and he can be Seattle Slew." Is there anywhere else on earth where children on a playground can not only quote the names of history's greatest racehorses, but actually pretend to be those horses? Only in Kentucky, my friends.
Derby is more than just fashion, but Louisville girls learn early what makes a good Derby hat: a cluster of flowers that look just natural enough and not too gaudy, maybe a tailored bow, and definitely a wide brim that swoops over one eye and is perfect for flirting. I like to take my children to Dee's Crafts, which has all manner of hats and accoutrements, and is girl-central in the weeks leading up to Derby. It's just fun being there, surrounded by all that Derby cheer. Customers can smell the heady aroma of glue guns before they reach the front door, and once they're inside they discover a secret local girl world of ribbons, feathers, nets, and flowers that can be endlessly combined and edited to make the perfect hat. The experts at Dee's will even put it all together for you, and they do a remarkable job.
My first Derby hat was from Dee's: a black straw hat with a huge brim, topped with a subtle black bow and three graceful white calla lilies, which I wore with a black linen rolled-neck Jackie Kennedy dress. That hat has been worn by every one of my friends to one Derby or Oaks race or another. That's another beautiful thing about Derby hats: no one would ever wear the same one twice, but it's perfectly acceptable to pass them around among friends. And once enough friends have been to enough Derbies, the hat supply becomes endless.
As for men's Derby fashion, seersucker and khaki poplin suits are always in style, as are over-the-top Lilly Pulitzer jackets with linen pants. But the piece de resistance that no Kentucky girl worth her salt can resist is a well-tied bow tie, preferably in an equestrian print. Throw in a cigar and a flask full of Pappy Van Winkle, and the ensemble is complete. Well-bred Southern men know this instinctively, and can pull off the look naturally, in a way that the boys from Cleveland and Chicago who show up by the busload in their seersucker never quite can. As with the horses themselves, some things take generations of breeding and a lifetime of training.
Derby is more than just parties and festival events, although there are many. On the party circuit, there's the Fillies Ball, where the Derby princesses are crowned. Famous Derby Eve parties are the Julep Ball, Oaks and Smokes, and the Barnstable-Brown Party, but most locals prefer a certain post-racetrack house party in Mockingbird Valley. It's not fancy, bit it's interesting, and you might not see any celebrities, but you could see a local politician, a random Junior Leaguer, a dreadlocked hippie, or a man who's completely naked except for a seersucker jacket and a Turf Club pin. (I'd personally rather be at that party than the one where Ashton Kutcher is partitioned off behind a velvet rope in another section of the party--I don't even know him!) Derby Festival events include the Great Steamboat Race, the Pegasus Parade, and the Chow Wagon, featuring various fair foods and live music on the waterfront. (I have to love the Chow Wagon for its kitschy name alone). In my family, we put on our Pegasus Pins and go to every last bit of it.
Derby is more than just tradition, although tradition is at the heart of what makes Derby great. My two little girls are small, but I sing My Old Kentucky Home to them with their earliest lullabies. I know they have plenty of time, but one day it will be their turn to put on sundresses and Scarlett O'Hara hats, and stand up with their friends as the horses are led to the gate, juleps in their hands and tears in their eyes, singing a song about home. I want them to be prepared when that moment comes, and I hope I'll be there too...in a tasteful suit and hat befitting a woman of my age, and sitting in much better seats.
And that's what Derby is. It's pride of place--not just of Louisville or Kentucky, but each person's place in the unique and quirky culture here. I've been a little girl watching the Derby coverage on a tv in someone's back yard, wishing I were there and longing for one of those hats. I've been a teenager scoping out boys at Thunder Over Louisville. One thing I haven't been is a college student in the infield, but mud, beer, and nudity were never my scene. I've had my turn as a Derby belle, and now my turn as a mother, watching the Pegasus Parade with my children.
There is a place for everyone in the grand spectacle that is Derby, and the roles may change from year to year, but generation to generation they stay the same. That's what Derby is--it's Louisville culture plain and simple, distilled like bourbon into two glorious weeks or two exhilarating minutes. As my children go through each role as Derby spectators and participants, I hope it's the culture of this place--and their place in this culture--that they'll ultimately learn to love.