Tom Eblen: Kentucky Oaks day less costly, less crowded and lots of fun

Herald-Leader columnistMay 2, 2014 

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.

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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.

Tom Eblen: (859) 231-1415.Email: teblen@herald-leader.com. Twitter: @tomeblen. Blog: tomeblen.bloginky.com

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