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LISTEN: As Derby And Oaks Grow, Louisvillians Gather Earlier

This Saturday, the Kentucky Derby will be run for the 142nd consecutive year at Churchill Downs. Last year, more than 170,000 racing fans and revelers from around the world gathered at the track on the first Saturday in May.

But many locals prefer to go to the track when it’s less crowded and hectic during Derby week.

For many years, the day before the Kentucky Derby — Oaks Day — was considered Louisville’s Day at the Races. Locals would take advantage of lower admission prices and gather with friends for an afternoon at the track.

But the popularity of Oaks Day has exploded, with more out-of-towners arriving early to take in the races. Last year, Oaks attendance surpassed 120,000.

Now, for many Louisvillians, Thursday is the new Friday.

Cathy Barth and her friends were gathered near the Churchill Downs paddock on Thursday, for what’s become a Derby week tradition for them.

“There’s about 20 of us that meet here every year, everybody knows where we’re at," she said. "We come here and we hang out. And that’s what we do.”

Out in the grandstand, Heather Zirnheld and Jamie Dawson were waiting for the first race of the day, doing what many locals do at the track.

“Drink beer, mostly," Zirnheld said.

"We don’t win money," Dawson followed.

Louisville’s Day at the Races was never an official event, but Churchill Downs is now making it one. They call it "Thurby," complete with a logo and featuring locally produced food and entertainment.

Some choose to celebrate with Derby-themed attire, colorful clothing and fancy hats; others opt for more casual dress. High school teacher Chris Lowber drew a lot of attention with his hat, a scale model of Churchill Downs’ famed twin spires.

"Well, you’ve got to celebrate the Derby fever and Thurby and all the locals, and I had some of my students help make some of the silks on the side," he said.

Nearly 40,000 people showed up for the races on Thursday. And everyone’s welcome, of course, regardless where they’re from. But Thursday was Derby Day for many locals, celebrating the arrival of spring with their own day at the races.

Rick Howlett was midday host and the host of LPM's weekly talk show, "In Conversation." He was with LPM from 2001-2023 and held many different titles, including Morning Edition host, Assignment Editor and Interim News Director. He died in August 2023. Read a remembrance of Rick here.

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