An Oaklawn Tradition
For most heading to the races at Oaklawn Park is as much a social occasion as a sporting event and Derby Day is the biggest of them all. Tens of thousands of people crowd into the Spa City each year for the Arkansas Derby held in early April, many donning their finest duds or their looniest lids, all in the name of fashion and in the spirit of an exciting race.
The first Arkansas Derby was run in 1936 for a purse of $5,000.The first winner was Holl Image, who was owned and trained by Jack Carter. Although the numbers have continued to increase with the prize now at a $1 million purse, equaling that of the richest North American Kentucky Derby prep race. Last year, Jockey Rafael Bejarano took home the title with a little more than 66,000 watching as Overanalyze crossed the finish line.
Much has changed since those early days. Patrons have weathered the Great Depression and world wars, as well as years of expansion and prosperity, but the feel of excitement when hearing “and they’re off,” never seems to get old.
“People see coming to the races as an event, a fun form or entertainment, a way to forget everything else and just enjoy it,” said media relations manager Jennifer Hoyt. “There is just something about sitting in our grandstands dressed in your best dresses and hats cheering for your favorite horse.”
The tradition of the hats have played an important role in the history of horse racing for centuries, dating as far back as the world famous Royal Ascot
in the United Kingdom, where it was decreed that all guests within the Royal Enclosure adhere to a strict dress code. It didn’t take long for the royal dress code to catch on at the major racetracks in the United States. Churchill Downs patrons taking in the Kentucky Derby in particular have been enjoying this respected tradition since 1875.
More and more, creativity is winning out over the traditional head pieces with some opting to create their own Derby Day ensembles. “We encourage everyone to just have fun with it, whether you choose to wear your Sunday best or the wackiest outfit you can find. It is such a great day for everyone and we just want everyone to enjoy themselves.”
There is plenty of time left to get your outfit ready and with all the options in Hot Springs finding the perfect hat will be a breeze.
“Some plan their outfits and find the perfect hat weeks or even months in advance,” said Hoyt. “This is a tradition that most certainly didn’t start with Oaklawn, but it has carried over to our races especially since we are one of the nation’s leading derby preps. It’s just a fun atmosphere and it’s great to see all the different personalities coming out to carry on the tradition.”