A Day at the Races

I’ve always been a sucker for a great hat. Before I came to work at the Library of Congress, I was a writer for a society magazine in Louisiana whose calling card was the hats we wore to cover local events. Needless to say, when given the opportunity to don a fashionable chapeau, I jump at the chance. This past Friday, I enjoyed a day at the races during Black-Eyed Susan Day – the precursor event to the Preakness Stakes in Baltimore, Maryland, at Pimlico Race Track – wearing a hat I actually made myself, out of placemats!

Kentucky Derby, Churchill Downs, Louisville, Ky. Photo by Caufield & Shook, 1937. Prints and Photographs Division.

Kentucky Derby, Churchill Downs, Louisville, Ky. Photo by Caufield & Shook, 1937. Prints and Photographs Division.

Every year, the warmer weather heralds in the Triple Crown of Thoroughbred Racing in the United States. The series kicks off with the Kentucky Derby (which was held this year on May 2), followed by the Preakness (May 16) and culminating with the Belmont Stakes (set for June 6 this year). All three events are more than a century old.

On May 17, 1875, the first Kentucky Derby was held, with horse Aristides winning the inaugural race. Prominent Louisville citizen Col. M. Lewis Clark, Jr., built Churchill Downs and patterned the event after the English Classic, the Epsom Derby.

“The inaugural meeting of the Louisville Jockey Club opened today under more favorable auspices than had been hoped by the most sanguine of its managers. The attendance was upwards of 12,000, and the grandstand was thronged by a brilliant assemblage of ladies and gentlemen.

“Altogether today’s meeting was extraordinarily successful, the weather being everything that could be expected, the track in fine order and everything to indicate a satisfactory meeting.” — Nashville Union and American, May 18, 1875

Old members clubhouse at Pimlico - oldest building in American racing, dates back to 1870. May 15, 1965. Prints and Photographs Division.

Old members clubhouse at Pimlico – oldest building in American racing, dates back to 1870. May 15, 1965. Prints and Photographs Division.

The Preakness was first run May 27, 1873, with Survivor winning the purse. However, Pimlico racetrack opened in October 1870 with the Dinner Party Stakes won by the colt Preakness. According to its website, the Preakness marked its 140th anniversary this year (much like the Kentucky Derby), perhaps in honor of the horse itself and the very first race at Pimlico. The Library’s Prints and Photographs Online Catalog has several images of the racetrack.

“A notable feature of the day was that, with the exception of the first race, which was really no contest whatsoever, the favorites were badly defeated. In once instance, a horse se’ling lowest in the pools was the winner.” — Evening Star, May 28, 1873

The oldest of the three, the Belmont stakes debuted on June 19, 1867, at Jerome Park in New York with horse Ruthless taking home the win. According to history.com, Ruthless was also the very first filly to win one of the three historical races.

“DeCourcey and Ruthless now along, still were full of game, and footed homeward at a good bat. It was now a close and beautiful run … The noble pair lay with each other for 60 rods, DeCourcey still leading; but now the filly drew on him. As they reached the grand stand she had her nose at his saddle-girths. Yard by yard as she strode along she gained, and at the middle of the stand had him beaten, and got her head in front. Fifty yards were left to run, and the struggle was kept up to the finish, DeCourcey battling bravely, but Ruthless went over the score by half a length the winner.” — New York Tribune, June 20, 1867

Couple at the races , by Ethel M'Clellan Plummer. 1916. Prints and Photographs Division.

Couple at the races, by Ethel M’Clellan Plummer. 1916. Prints and Photographs Division.

Only two female thoroughbreds have captured the Belmont since (only 22 fillies have ever competed in the event.) Three have won the Kentucky Derby, and five have won the Preakness, the most recent being Rachel Alexandra in 2009.

As far as the history of wearing hats, we can thank our friends from across the pond, where hats and finery were de rigeur at races such as the Royal Ascot and Epsom. When Clark founded the Kentucky Derby, he also brought to it that fashionable European tradition.

According to the website of the Kentucky Derby, “What Colonel M. Lewis Clark Jr., envisioned was a racing environment that would feel comfortable and luxurious, an event that would remind people of European horse racing. For a well-to-do late 19th and early 20th century woman, a day at Churchill Downs, especially on Derby Day, was an opportunity to be seen in the latest of fashions.”

 

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