The Kentucky Derby, held each year at Churchill Downs, is steeped in tradition, from the mint julep cocktails and over-the-top headgear, to the symphony of sound when more than 150,000 swaying spectators sing “My Old Kentucky Home” as the horses step out on the track. For many who make the trip to Louisville, Kentucky, however, the fashion and fundraising traditions associated with the Oaks race, which is held the day before, have even greater meaning.
The Kentucky Oaks, which was started the same year as the Derby in 1875, is a Grade 1 stakes race featuring three-year old thoroughbred fillies (female horses). It is the most attended horse race in the United States, after the three races of the Triple Crown: the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness Stakes, and the Belmont Stakes. Some 100,000 race fans are expected to attend the 145 th running of the Oaks this year.
Instead of the blanket of red roses that is synonymous with Derby Day, the winner of the Oaks receives a garland of lilies, giving rise to nickname, “Lilies for the Fillies.” The race has a signature cocktail of its own, too, called the Oaks Lily, but the day’s festivities are best described in shades of pink.
With pink bunting, pink jockey silks, and pink fashion statements — think seersucker suits and feathered fascinator hats — the ticketholders who flock to the track on Oaks Day transform Churchill Downs into a sea of pink. The splash of color is a nod to the Oaks Day “Pink Out” fundraising drive to fight breast and ovarian cancer, which has raised nearly $1 million over the past eight years.
For the cancer survivors who are invited to march each year in the Survivors Parade at Churchill Downs before the running of the Oaks, it’s more than a race. It’s a message of hope.
Through tears, hugs, and triumphant smiles, they inspire each other to stay strong, and they motivate the crowd to rally together for a common cause. Oaks Day is, above all, a celebration of life.
The Survivors Parade, now in its 11th year, is expected to be every bit as emotional this year.
Whether tied to a sporting event or a holiday that we share with family and friends, traditions define us. They reinforce our values, create connections across the generations, and establish a shared identity that strengthen our bonds. They can also be a lot of fun. So break out the pink party hats, invite some friends, and consider hosting an Oaks Day barbeque or brunch on May 3 to start a new tradition of your own.
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