What do Brigette Downes, Sheryl Downes, and Churchill Downs have in common? They were all part of the 2023 Kentucky Derby.
Horse racing fans know the Kentucky Derby– the greatest two minutes in sports – has been held at Churchill Downs near Louisville, Kentucky, for nearly 150 years. This year, Brigette Downes of Milbank and her mother-in-law, Sheryl, took a whirlwind trip to experience the excitement and glamour of the Run for the Roses.
The Kentucky Derby, part of the Triple Crown that also includes the Preakness and the Belmont, is much more than a horse race, though. It’s steeped in tradition and the sights and sounds run the gamut from hot-air balloons to jewel-toned jockey silks. From aristocrats to burgoo stew, and a band that plays “My Old Kentucky Home” while 150,000 spectators sway to the music and sing along. But it’s fashion that piques everyone’s curiosity. The styles along the rail rival the attention paid to the horses in the paddock. And no Derby outfit is complete without a hat or a headpiece.
“There was a group dressed to the nines in extravagant dresses with six-inch-plus heels and hats that were two feet tall.” Brigette says. “There were men in custom-patterned suits that you know would only be worn for one day. It was wild to see!” She said the majority of women wore sundresses with a hat or a fascinator, and the men wore suits.
She and Sheryl also dressed for the occasion. “I had been looking at dresses for almost a year to find some that I liked. I was able to find one of my hats at the secondhand store in town and ordered another online.” Sheryl chose to sport a fascinator.
Brigette also agrees that style is the reason she ended up at the race. When my husband and I were moving once, my mother-in-law looked at all my dresses and heels, and she thought they were very pretty. She remarked that they reminded her of the Kentucky Derby. From there, we just kept discussing how fun it would be to go sometime. Last year for Mother’s Day, Justin surprised us with tickets.”
Traveling rarely goes off without a hitch, though, and Brigette and Sheryl’s trip took an unwelcomed turn early. They arrived in Louisville to discover their hotel had been closed for eight months. Although it had been shuttered since last September, Expedia had neither informed them nor canceled their reservation. Brigette said they were lucky Justin’s college roommate lives there. “He invited us to stay with him and his family and dropped us off at the track every day.”
They attended Oaks Day on Friday, which is also known as Ladies Day. Everyone wears a swishy dress or their most feminine attire. Pink is popular. The Kentucky Oaks is the sister race to the Kentucky Derby and Brigette says the big race of the day featuring the three year-old fillies was scheduled for 4 or 5 p.m.
“We arrived at about 11 a.m. The first thing we did was to figure out where we would be seated. Then, we watched a race. After that, we walked around and looked at all the booths. We took some photos in areas that were set up in cute scenes.” They also saw the paddock, where the horses parade and get ready for the race before entering the starting gate.
Friday was hot without a cloud in sight, so refreshments were close to the top of the itinerary. Mint juleps, made with Kentucky bourbon of course, have been a Derby tradition since 1939. Winners are toasted by the Governor of Kentucky and sip their juleps from sterling silver cups. Over 120,000 mint juleps were served this year. Turns out, Midwestern girls weren’t interested in betting on the favorite. “I have to say that mint juleps are trash,” Brigette says, “I tried to drink a few, but honestly I couldn’t. The signature drink for Oaks Day is the Lily, so that’s what I ended up ordering.” A Lily is based on a Cosmopolitan. It’s hot pink, refreshing, and girly. It was created to mimic the stargazer lilies that are draped over the winning filly’s shoulders.
“As a result of Covid,” Brigette says, “the Kentucky Derby went to an all-inclusive menu. The food and drinks in our area were part of the price of admission. The standouts were the chocolate-covered strawberries, the pork belly, and the wings.”
Friday ended on a bit of a sour note, though. “After the races, we tried for over two hours to get an Uber,” Brigette says. Ten drivers canceled on us because the roads were blocked and they couldn’t get to us. We ended up walking about a mile to a gas station before we were able to find a ride.”
“On Saturday, our schedule was about the same, she recalls, “however, we entered through a different gate and found places we hadn’t explored the day before. We came to the red carpet and decided to see if we could spot anyone famous.”
Suddenly, the Downes duo turned into celebrities themselves. At the red carpet, a local news station asked to interview them.
Some of the VIPs they spied on the red carpet were the Chiefs QB Patrick Mahomes, chef Bobby Flay, Bills QB Josh Allen, Chris Harrison from “The Bachelor,” Ian Bohen who plays Ryan on “Yellowstone,” and country singer Randy Travis.
Brigette says they saw lots of celebs and star athletes she wasn’t that familiar with or didn’t recognize by name. “We ended up watching for about two hours. After that, we were looking at more booths and were told that Ian Bohen would be doing a meet-and-greet in a few minutes. We stuck around and were able to get a picture. He also informed us that the new season of “Yellowstone” should be coming out in November.”
Two stars weren’t seen, but they were heard. Rachel Platten, who took “My Fight Song” to the top of the charts, sang “The Star Spangled Banner” on Oaks Day. Grammy Award-winning artist Carly Pearce performed the National Anthem during the Derby.
Of course, each of the horses at the Kentucky Derby is a celebrity in their own right. They are all elegant and beautiful, too. Mage and his Hall of Fame jockey, Javier Castellano, thrilled the crowd by coming from behind to overtake Two Phil’s down the stretch and hold off the favorite Angel of Empire. He clinched a breathtaking victory and captured the crown, the blanket of roses, and the 14-karat gold and jade trophy. Not to mention the claim to $1.86 million of the $3 million purse.
But Brigette says, “The most exciting thing for me was seeing how excited everyone else was. Most of the people in our section had tickets for both Friday and Saturday so we were able to get to know the people around us. Even while I was standing against a wall charging my phone, people came up to talk to me. Everyone was just so friendly.”
She and Sheryl placed a few bets and won some money, but nothing big. “I think the most I won was $23 on one race. Sheryl picked a few winners in different races.” Neither of them got rich in the big race.
Instead, Brigette chose a t-shirt and crewneck as souvenirs of her trip. “The drinks were all served in commemorative glassware, so I was able to collect a few,” she says.
The weather at Churchill Downs on Saturday was dominated by cloud cover, and the forecast warned of rain. “Almost immediately after the big race, a downpour started,” Brigette says. “I was prepared with raincoats for Sheryl and me. Others were not. They looked like a bunch of wet cats walking around in their fancy clothes completely soaked.”
Unlike the day before and unlike thousands of other racegoers they left behind standing in line, Brigette and Sheryl were fortunate enough to flag down a yellow cab. The Downes girls from South Dakota hadn’t made a bundle at the betting window, but they had an experience of a lifetime and left the Kentucky Derby feeling like two very lucky girls.