So far this week I've brought you Derby season haters and people who gush love for their favorite Derby festivals. Today, we're jumping into the deep end by letting people sound off on whether they prefer Derby or Oaks and why.
Before we jump into quotes, I'd like to say I was a little surprised by the results. I started my night of questioning at Cafe 360, where I ran into a group of soldiers dressed in fatigues and zombie makeup.
"Uh...what's a Oaks?" asked one.
A bunch of guys from Fort Knox heard about the game of Zombie Tag on the Great Lawn, but they'd never heard of Oaks? Surely they were pulling my leg. The soldiers invited me to sit down with them.
"Hey - is Derby only once a year?" asked one.
"Yeah. I'm working this Derby. How many times a year do they do it?"
"Just one," I answered. "It's always the first Saturday in May."
"So... what's the point?" asked the solider who had never heard of Oaks. "Just watch some horses?"
By this point the waitress looked like she was on the verge of popping an aneurysm from listening in. I left the soldiers in her capable hands and moved along. Outside, I found a group of kids who'd come up from Greyson county for a weekend in the big city.
"I've heard of Thunder," said Billy. "Never been, though. Is Oaks like that?"
Billy, Brent, Heidi, Heather, and Kailen all lived an hour away in a different direction from Fort Knox - and like the soldiers, they'd never heard of Oaks.
"We have Derby Parties," said Brent. "But it's always at a friend's house. You leave the races on TV, but mostly, it's an excuse to hang out."
I'll make a confession. Before moving to Louisville I spent a couple years in Cincinnati. Back then, I'd never heard of Oaks, either. Oaks is one of the last truly local holidays left in an increasingly homogenized world. I've lived in a good number of cities and I decree there's something truly precious about a genuine honest to goodness local holiday. Every city used to have them. Now, we're one of the very few who still do.
Further down Bardstown Road, I ran into Lauren. She agreed wholeheartedly with my sentiment. "My family moved here when me and my sister were in elementary school. I remember my first year at Derby time. I was so excited. I couldn't believe kids got off school for Oaks! I remember asking my mom what holiday it was. She said well, it's...a horse race. I was like, so what holiday is that. She said, it's not - they just let you out of school because that's what people here do. I remember thinking this is the best place ever! And it is! Even as a kid, you know everybody's happy, everybody's excited, it's just such a fun time."
Tonya Hahn loves both races in different ways. "Oaks for me means less of a crowd, more Louisville people, I'd see more people I know. If I was buying tickets, I'd go to Oaks." Normally, she watches both races from private parties. She said she never misses Derby, though, not even when work sends her out of town. "I love that two minutes in sports. I LOVE IT! I like the horses, and the tradition. I'm from here. When they play My Old Kentucky Home I get a feeling of pride. The horses are beautiful. They're majestic. I watch it every year. It doesn't matter where I am. I stop whatever I'm doing and see the races."
"I've been to both, but I enjoy Oaks more," said Sam, who lives on the south side of Louisville. "There's more competition going on there. There's a broader variety of horses. The Derby is strictly thoroughbreds, that's it. I always enjoy the Oaks race a little more. Plus, there's also the feeling at the track. People are much more laid back on Oaks day than Derby day. On Derby, everyone is all riled up, sometimes even kind of angry. Oaks is relaxed."
"It's easier to get in," said Halley. "Oaks is Louisville's day at the downs."
Rhonda sees Oaks as an opportunity for empowerment. "Oaks is all about the Fillies. This year's all Pink Out. The girls race, for us girls. It makes me feel like they're really reaching out to us girls, so you know racing isn't all about boys and sweat and testosterone because the horses, just look at the horses! They're so beautiful. They need a day like Oaks where the horses are strong and beautiful and the women are strong and beautiful."
Not everyone finds all that pink appealing. "This pink thing - I'm not a dresses and heels kind of girl. I know it's about the fillies, but I feel like if I show up to Oaks as myself, they'll kick me out of the Downs. Derby, I don't have to worry about people judging my shoes or my dress or my hair or my nails. Derby people have a good time no matter what," said Jennifer.
Despite the number of people who said they thought Oaks was more laid back than Derby, Rhonda wasn't alone in worrying about that feeling of judgement from strangers. Sheila scoffed at the idea of visiting Churchill Downs for anything other than Derby. "Oaks? Only if you're one of those East End Blue Bloods. Why would normal people go? Derby, baby. That's where it's at. The whole world is there. We've had the Queen! The celebrities come and broke kids come and everybody, I mean everybody, gets to see the same race at the same time in the same place with the same horses. Why would I be with all the high fallutin women with their noses in the air and their pinkies stuck out and their dresses that cost more than my rent? Oaks is for snobs. The Derby is democratic."
"You've got to go to Derby! It's what we're known for! C'mon, Derby is what puts Louisville on the map. Go out of town, nobody's heard of us. Say, 'The Kentucky Derby' and everyone knows us - everyone, everywhere. You can say Kentucky Derby in England, in Mexico, in China even, and they know us, they know Louisville. I love it!" gushed John.
"Give me Derby," said Erik. "It's THE event! The Oaks is nice, and if you're looking for something that's not as crazy, not as packed, then go to Oaks, but Derby is it!"
A table of five people at Cumberland Brews agreed wholeheartedly. Jessica, Wes, Jerry, Lincoln, Samuel, and Becca moved to Louisville 5 years ago from Northern Kentucky.
"I got arrested at Derby," Samuel confessed. "So I go to Oaks."
Everyone else rolled their eyes and chorused, "DERBY!"
"I always go at the last minute," said Jessica. "Usually the Paddock area on the infield. It's amazing."
"I'll tell you what's amazing," said Wes. "On Derby, it's a challenge to be sober enough to know who won at the end of the day."
"Plus, it's hard to see the race. If you're in the infield, you're not going to see anything," added Becca.
"Yeah, but it's DERBY! You've got to go. It's DERBY!"
So there you have it. Oaks really is for locals. People as close as an hour's drive away have never heard of it. But here in town, opinions are split about which race to attend. A lot of people who can afford it do both. The more crowd averse head to Oaks while the adventure seekers go to Derby, but absolutely no one stays home for a quiet day in on either day.
Speaking of adventure, stay tuned tomorrow when I'll be back with people's stories of the craziest thing they've ever seen on the Derby Infield. Feel free to chime in the comments - everybody seems to have one heck of a story.