How Oaks Day became Ladies’ Day

3 November 2022 Written by VRC

The Kennedy Oaks – it is Ladies’ Day at the Melbourne Cup Carnival 2022, celebrated in style around the nation.

“Attract the ladies and the men are sure to follow.” Whether he ever said these words or not 150 years ago, this was reportedly the wisdom of the Victoria Racing Club’s very first Secretary (Chief Executive), Robert Cooper Bagot, in drawing crowds to Flemington for the Melbourne Cup Carnival. He made sure there were superior facilities for ladies in the Grand Stand, and he issued the members of the VRC, all male, two free guest tickets for ladies at each race meeting. 

Cup Day in the Bagot era became so popular and overcrowded that one newspaper of the 1870s ‘strongly advised the feminine portion of the population to reserve their powers for the real “ladies’ day”, the Oaks day, when they would have an opportunity of seeing and being seen’. 

Fashion was foremost.

Bagot’s successor as Secretary, Henry Byron Moore, held the top job at Flemington for the next forty-four years. He is credited with giving Oaks Day its special magic as Ladies’ Day. After the buzz of Melbourne Cup Day, Oaks Day at Flemington became the chance for a more relaxed day at the races, with more room on the lawns and in the stands for ‘seeing and being seen’.

Oaks Day followed fashions from the colonial into the Edwardian era, on into the flappers’ decade of the 1920s, the restrained elegance of the 1930s and 1940s, and the tailored flair of the 1950s. After that, there was something of a fashion revolution.

The origins of the Myer Fashions on the Field competition date back sixty years now, to the 1960s, with Oaks Day always the focal point. The contest, like fashion itself, has moved with the times. Then, in 2020, in the demanding times of the global Covid pandemic, it evolved into Myer Fashions on Your Front Lawn.

Sometimes we have to remind ourselves that Oaks Day is the fillies’ day on the track  – this year more than ever before.

How old a race is our Oaks? It takes its name from the fillies’ Oaks Stakes first run in England in 1779, a year before the first Epsom Derby. Melbourne had its first Oaks Stakes in the gold rush era, in 1859, conducted by the Victoria Turf Club. It turned out to be not a race at all since the winner, Birdswing, won in what was correctly called ‘a walkover’ in a field of one. This was the first ‘Oaks’ at Flemington, even though many official lists begin with the filly Palestine in 1861, the year of the first Melbourne Cup.

For horse lovers, the list of Oaks winners since that time contains revered champions, not least Miss Finland, Surround, Research, Light Fingers, Evening Peal and Chicquita, and back to Frances Tressady, Auraria and Briseis.

When the brown filly Pinot, ridden by Stephen Baster, won the VRC Oaks in November 2017, Sydney’s Gai Waterhouse became the first woman ever to train the winner of this classic staying race. It gave a whole new meaning to Oaks Day as Ladies’ Day.

Clare Lindop was the first woman jockey to win a Victoria Derby, Michelle Payne the first to win a Melbourne Cup, and Nikita Beriman the first to win the feature race on Stakes Day. The history books are still waiting for the first woman to ride the winner of the Victoria Racing Club’s classic staying race for fillies, the Kennedy Oaks.

On the race card today the emphasis is on races for the equine female sex. The Darley Ottawa Stakes for two-year-old fillies. The Network 10 Red Roses Stakes for sprinting three-year-old fillies. The Desirable Stakes – named for a champion of the 1970s – for fillies over a middle distance. The Inglis Bracelet 1600 metre race for fillies and mares. The TCL TV Stakes for fillies and mares. And the $1 million Kennedy Oaks.

There is also the support card of the G.H Mumm Stakes over 1000 metres for open aged horses; The Twitter Trophy (BM 90) over 1800 metres for four years old and upwards and the Melbourne Cup Carnival Country Final (BM 80) - a new innovation in recent years.    

Oaks Day today takes many forms as Ladies’ Day at Flemington.

Image: Champion filly Briseis achieved an extraordinary feat in 1876 winning in the Victoria Derby, Melbourne Cup and Oaks in one week. (VRC Collection)

Image: Elegantly dressed racegoers at Flemington, 1909. (Australasian Newspaper)