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Ahead Of Derby Day, Kentucky Residents Gather Early To Beat Tourists


This weekend the Kentucky Derby will be run at Churchill Downs in Louisville for the 142nd consecutive year. Tens of thousands of racing fans from all over the world gather at the track on the first Saturday in May. Many locals prefer to go earlier during Derby Week when it's less crowded, but the event's popularity is catching up to them as Rick Howlett of member station WFPL reports.

RICK HOWLETT, BYLINE: For many years, the day before the Kentucky Derby - Friday - was considered Louisville's Day at the Races.

That's when they run the Kentucky Oaks for fillies. 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 attendants surpassed 120,000. Now for many Louisvillians, Thursday is the new Friday.

Cathy Barth and her friends are gathered near the Churchill Downs paddock for what's become a Derby Week tradition for them.

CATHY BARTH: Yeah, there's about 20 of us that meet here every year. Everybody knows where we're at. We come here, and we hang out. And it's what we do.

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

HEATHER ZIRNHELD: Drink beer mostly.

JAMIE DAWSON: Yeah. We drink beer.

ZIRNHELD: We don't win money.

HOWLETT: 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 a more casual dress.

High school teacher Chris Lowber is getting a lot of attention with his hat, a scale model of Churchill Downs' famed Twin Spires.

CHRIS LOWBER: Well, you got to celebrate the Derby fever and Thurby and all the locals. And so I had some of my students help make some of the silks on the side.

HOWLETT: Churchill Downs officials predict more than 30,000 people would attend. Everyone's welcome, of course, regardless of where they're from. But today was Derby Day for many locals, celebrating the arrival of spring with their own Day at the Races. For NPR News, I'm Rick Howlett in Louisville. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Rick has been a member of the WFPL News team since 2001 and has covered numerous beats and events over the years. Most recently he’s been tracking the Indiana General Assembly and the region’s passion for sports, especially college basketball.