When you think of the Kentucky Derby Festival, there is perhaps no organization that works more feverishly–or with more heart–than the ladies of the Fillies. Founded in 1959 under the leadership of Frances Askew Davis, the women must meet three main requirements: work on the club’s signature event during the Kentucky Derby Festival, the Fillies Derby Ball; they should further the fame of the Commonwealth of Kentucky; and they should place a $2 bet on any filly entered in the Kentucky Derby. You may think those duties are easy, right? Wrong. These ladies volunteer their time to more than those in the bylines–especially during Kentucky’s most famous season.
Meet The Fillies: the Women Behind the Kentucky Derby Festival
They are not just a sorority-like club with over 250 members, this philanthropic society cares about bettering the city of Louisville and the state of Kentucky. “A Filly…is a woman who wants to be involved in her community, realizing that the Derby itself is just two minutes and most of our residents cannot attend it,” Helen Davis, Fillies Past President and former Pegasus Parade Chair says. “We support the events that run two weeks before and are open to the whole community.”
The group sponsors the Royal Float on which the Derby Princesses and Queen ride in the Pegasus Parade, happening this year on April 30. “To see hundreds of thousands of people at all the events, to see the Royal Court, and everything we do for the community, it just warms your heart,” Helen says.
The women plan The Fillies Derby Ball, the largest annual fundraiser of the Kentucky Derby Festival Foundation, which happens this year on April 15 at the Louisville Marriott Downtown. The Derby Ball is the “Ball that starts it all.” This year’s theme is “Celebrating Louisville” and will be an elegant gala honoring our beautiful City and its traditions. The Fillies Derby Ball is the second oldest Kentucky Derby Festival event and has contributed thousands of dollars to the Kentucky Derby Festival Foundation. The Foundation works to further the Festival’s educational and charitable mission through exhibitions and performances and producing educational programming on the Festival’s schedule of events, such as a STEM Robotics Competition, JusticeFest and the Derby Festival Royal Court Program.
The newest event of the season is JusticeFest, occurring this year back in February. This event allows school-aged children from elementary to high school to present projects that might help the community, then the students receive mentors and sponsors to receive money to put their plans into motion. One particular project awed the Fillies–a group of elementary school students came up with a project to allow all children to use the school playground no matter their disability. “It (became) an all-inclusive playground for those with sensory disabilities and the hearing-impaired,” Barbara Wainwright, current President, says. “It’s inspirational that the kids presented this and the foundation could sponsor it.”
An additional event (and the newest) the women have planned is the Royal Safari with the Derby Princesses. This new event, open to the public, will be held on April 23 from 1 to 3 p.m. at the Louisville Zoo. The Fillies hope that this event will give all children the opportunity to meet and greet the Royal Court while experiencing a fun, interactive event at the Zoo.
The Derby Princesses Program, created by the Fillies in 1959, is an opportunity for young women to earn scholarship money, as well as serve as ambassadors for the city of Louisville and the Kentucky Derby Festival events in the spring. Applicants are single, female residents of Kentucky or Southern Indiana, full-time, second-year undergraduate students attending a university, college or accredited professional school with a minimum 3.0 GPA. Only the most poised and outstanding women in the community, including Kentucky’s first woman Governor Martha Layne Collins, are chosen for the prestigious title–one who serves as the face of over 75 events of the festival. The Derby Princesses volunteer their time to help organize fundraising events, dinners and dances, as well as visit residents of local nursing homes and schools and provide meals for the homeless. The Derby Queen is chosen from the year’s members of the Derby Princesses Program by the spin of the wheel by the President of the Fillies at the annual Fillies Derby Ball.
All participants of the Derby Princesses Program receive $1,000 in scholarship money, and as Sally Galla, Past President, says, “It helps defray a little of their cost to the college, and their talents add to the world.” Michelle Oberst, Fillies Board Member, says the resumes continue to blow the club away. “It’s exciting to have women that empower themselves and are not afraid to step outside of the box,” she says. “And to have them be a part of the Fillies and represent us throughout the Derby Festival season is really quite an honor.”
The Fillies want the public to know that the program is not a pageant but more like a distinction. “It is based on academics, volunteer hours and their social activism within the community,” Barbara says. “Most of the women have started their own nonprofits in college and really give to the community in so many ways. They’re great because they represent everyone in the community. I think a lot of little girls look up at them and go, ‘Hey, I see myself. I can do that, too.’ They are wonderful role models.”
Not only do the Fillies love and do good work for their community, but it is also important to them to maintain friendships within their circle of members. “The most important thing to me is the friendships we’ve made,” Sally says. “I’ve met and made great friends in this organization; we’re all still together, and we all love each other. It’s just been a fabulous time. Many of our members are in the community doing great work and great things in life. It’s a good, good group of people.”
Michelle Oberst watched as her mother Norma Oberst served as president. “I watched her work her way up within the organization, watching the work that she did, and now being part of the Fillies myself is really unique,” she says. “It’s a really great opportunity for the FIllies to show off our City and be a good partner with the Derby Festival. We work together to make these two weeks just the best two weeks for our City. It makes me very proud to be a part of the organization and to see what we’ve accomplished. I look at these women who have been presidents year after year and how strong and dedicated they are; they really want to help take the Fillies each year to the next level. It just makes me want to be a part of that so that I can help get us to the next level.”
Fillies Ball Chair Nancy Naxera says the most valuable part of the society is the betterment of the community. “As a women’s organization, I’m very proud to be a group of people that are celebrating Louisville,” she says. “We make our city shine. We give to our community and are ambassadors of the City of Louisville.” The women “work hard and play hard,” says Barbara. “It is a lot of volunteer hours that is like a full-time job, but we also have fun doing it. I’ve made so many life-long friends that are my best friends.”
For more information on the Fillies, go to acwfillies.wildapricot.org. For a complete schedule of events during the 2023 Kentucky Derby Festival, go to kdf.org.