The Triple Crown of Thoroughbred Racing comprises of three races for three-year-old Thoroughbred horses, beginning with the Kentucky Derby, then the Preakness Stakes, finishing with the Belmont Stakes run on a 2.4km track, making it the longest in US thoroughbred racing. Though winning all three events is one of the greatest accomplishments in racing and only 12 horses have done it, it is a far simpler feat to win in the wardrobe department. FATR investigates the fashion themes across these iconic American race days.
The Kentucky Derby was established in 1875 by Colonel M. Lewis Clark Jr., who was inspired by his visit to England’s Epsom Derby at Surrey and onto France’s Grand Prix de Paris at Longchamp. Upon his return, the Colonel raised funds with the Louisville Jockey Club to build what we know today as Churchill Downs. The Derby is held on the first Saturday in May, kicking off the Spring Racing season in the United States.
Race tracks were previously a place for men to drink and gamble and some help would be required to polish the reputation of racing before the Derby gained momentum. Colonel Lewis recruited his wife and a wagon of society girls and went from door to door to convince Louisville’s elite that Churchill Downs would be a platform for fashion. The mission was a success and more than 10,000 guests attended the first Kentucky Derby with their hats, dresses and parasols.
The racing dress code was heavily influenced by Southern life, where etiquette was a currency, Sundays were spent at church and ladies wore their very best ensembles and accessories to community events. Southern belle style was heavily influenced by Victorian era attributes from hoop skirts to petticoats and elite southern women sought fabrics from Europe to cement their status.
The Kentucky crowd is still steeped in tradition and visiting celebrities adapt the notion to their looks today, where the tone is akin to Viktor & Rolf Flowerbomb – sweet, charming and undeniably girly. You will find most racegoers wearing pink on Kentucky Oaks Day, as well as a flurry of excitement over the Longines Fashion Contest, which is held across the Triple Crown in search of the most elegant woman at the track at each carnival.
Notable fashion icons observing modern interpretations of the femininity this year were Tina Knowles-Lawson in a figure-hugging black ruched gown and Victoria Justice in a sleek power suit. Both looks were paired with exceptionally detailed hats, a trend that echoed through the crowd with wide brims and elaborate feathered and floral motifs, as guests tend to dress from the hat down for the Kentucky Derby.
But headwear is not just for the ladies at Churchill Downs, guests such as Blair Underwood, Richard Lawson and Tom Coliccio opted for light-coloured blazers, pastel shirts and fedoras. Think Colonel Sanders but make it fashion - and do not forget your Mint Julep. You are in Bourbon country, after all.
On the third Saturday in May, Pimlico Race Course in Baltimore hosts the Preakness Stakes. As we make our way through West Virginia and over to Maryland on the East Coast, it’s time to check the Southern Belle demeanour at the border. The Preakness Stakes is all about figure-skimming silhouettes, bright colours and bold patterns.
There is a distinctive focus on fun at Preakness, as it’s the most relaxed of the Triple Crown events. Guests are encouraged to chow down on crab cakes and sip the signature Black-Eyed Susan cocktail. Named after the state flower, the Black-Eyed Susan is also the title of the Friday races and has been the official drink of the carnival since the 1950s.
A blend of bourbon, vodka, peach schnapps and orange juice, the drink is served over ice with oranges and cherries, and your ensemble should be equally as potent and colourful. Relax the cinched waist and tailor the knee-length skirt and your figure will fit right in. The accessories lean toward the fun aspect of racing, as headwear ranges from medium brims to broad-based headpieces; the vibe is much like our Darley Goodwood Day.
The final Triple Crown carnival is Belmont Stakes Day, held just outside of Queens in New York. Established by August Belmont, the Stakes predates its Kentucky cousin by eight years, holding its first running in 1867 at Jerome Park.
Now held at Belmont Park, the Stakes is always in early June, a perfect climate for sipping on the signature Jewel cocktail. Bourbon, pomegranate juice and a hint of orange zest combine to give you just enough buzz to sensibly parade your look at the Longines Fashion Contest.
With a focus on New York flair, guests are encouraged to be their most sophisticated self in a more subdued colour palette than the Preakness. Think monochrome, block colours and pops of bright hues, and a hint of preppy style for gentlemen.
Many racegoers elect to wear black and white, but it is not quite so strictly adhered to as our Derby Day. You can expect to see an additional colour introduced in makeup or accessories. Headpieces are a must and much attention is paid to carefully coordinating shoes and purses.
Amongst the countless fashion scores across the three major race days, there was a Triple Crown winner in Justify who won all three races across the States, the first horse to claim the triumphant victory since 2015.