For the third time this spring, my phone flashed a text reading, “Grab your hat! It’s race time!” Of course I knew what this meant. Choose one of my many flamboyant hats and head over to watch the Belmont Stakes horse race. Watching it without wide brim, feathers and bows is tantamount to heresy.
Since I was a wee tot, mom made sure I had an Easter bonnet every spring, which did double duty as my Derby hat on that first weekend in May when the fastest horses in the world took to Churchill Downs for a crazy two minutes. We’d gather with other like-minded ladies and their daughters and pretend to be the upper class elite we absolutely were not. The ladies would sip mint juleps and the lasses would slurp Shirley Temples, all with pinkies high in the air. We’d make fun of all the horses’ names and have friendly wagers on who would win.
Derby parties are a ritual of spring, although the interest sometimes wanes before the Preakness rolls around. By the time the Belmont gets here, we’ve usually forgotten all about horse racing. Except this year, when we thought we had a Triple Crown winner! Out went the call to arms. I mean hats. And the crowd grew.
It was Col. Meriwether Lewis Clark Jr. who wanted to eliminate the stigma of debauchery from the sport of horse racing by making sure the track was an acceptable environment for the upper class. He sent handwritten invitations to the finest families in Louisville, Ky., asking them to come enjoy a picnic at Churchill Downs and to bring all their friends.
That spring, in 1875, the Derby was born. With hats, purses and outfits perfectly matched, the elite of northern Kentucky paraded around the infield, showing off their ensembles. The tradition took root at once and the rest is history.
My hat would have remained on the wall this year, but California Chrome changed all that. Even though he didn’t win, this $10,000 upstart got our attention. Breathing strips bearing the word “Chrome” were on the noses of everyone at the race. Betting pools were popping up everywhere. All the TVs were turned to the big event. And of course, the hats were brought out of the closet. Again.
It’s nice to know some traditions will stand the test of time. Now that the races are over, all the hats will be on sale, so I think it’s time I get a new one for next year. Because if it’s one thing I know for sure, I’ll get a text next May to join the local ladies, hat in hand.
Dana Dittmar is a columnist for The Sun who lives in Kings Point and works in Sun City Center.