Hats and Horses: The Road to the Kentucky Derby

Arson Squad Hot, Maggie Mae

Who doesn’t love the glitz and glamor of fast race horses and fashionable ladies dressed to the nines for the Kentucky Derby? I’ve often wondered where some of those fabulous hats come from and how they come to life. Read about “Hats Off to the Horses: The Road to the Derby”, a 6-month online Derby hat fundraiser that supports retired racehorses, as well as my Q and A with custom hat designer Sallie Faith Steinmann of Maggie Mae Designs.

Writing Horseback: Tell us a little about your hat making business, Maggie Mae Designs.

In 1998 I began Maggie Mae Designs, a website business featuring ladies’ couture millinery. I create custom hats for weddings, horse sporting events, including the Kentucky Derby and Royal Ascot, as well as everyday wear, seasonal hats, cocktail hats, church hats and hats for hair loss.

Dancin Renee Hat, Maggie Mae Designs
Fabric hats for horse racing events

All of my hats are created in fabric, which sets them apart from the traditional synthetic straw designs often seen at many of the horse racing and wedding events where hats are traditionally worn.  Dupioni silk, 100% linen, silk organza and shantung are used for the basic hat foundation, while rose curls, fabric leaves, sashes, bows, Marguerites and other trims are fashioned out of organza, silk, taffeta, chiffon and charmeuse.

The art of hat making is a statement of personal style and expression, both mine and my customer’s. Custom handcrafted and individually sized, my hats have been all over the world – to Churchill Downs, Royal Ascot, the Queen’s garden party in Scotland, the Curragh Racecourse in Ireland and the Island of Mauritius!

Hidden Lake hat, Maggie Mae Designs

Writing Horseback: How did you come to design Derby hats? How are Derby hats different from your other hats? Are there any requirements to what makes a fashionable Derby hats?

Over the years as my business grew I found an increasing number of my customers were women attending the Kentucky Derby. This brought me back to my childhood passion for horses.

Ogygian hat, Maggie Mae Designs
Derby hats are about drama

Derby hats are indeed different from other hats that I create. Put simply, they are all about drama. I have always thought of the Kentucky Derby as theater; players returning to the stage at Churchill Downs and making their entrances in a series of scenes and acts all leading up to the two most exciting minutes in sports. Women wearing hats is an important part of the theater. The woman who asks me to create a Derby hat for her wants something unique, something that will always remind her of her special day at Churchill Downs; many of the hats are passed along to future generations as heirlooms. Because the Derby is such a special event, women will invest considerable time and money in the purchase of just the right hat that will suit their sense of style and taste. For some of the more detailed Derby hats the creative process can take many months, even  a year. I find that women attending the Derby want to feel like a participant on the grand Derby stage, and part of that experience is creating just the right hat that will match up to all the drama and excitement of the pageantry that awaits them.

Creator Hat, Maggie Mae DesignsWriting Horseback: How long does it take to create a Derby hat from inspiration to production?

As a true custom millinery, the creation process for each hat is as unique and individual as the hat that is created and the woman who will wear it. If the order is for a hat from one of my website collections with no custom changes, the process would be as follows: once I receive the order, the hat foundation is cut, prepped and stitched. Trims are then created, laid onto the hat and eventually hand stitched into place.

If the hat order is for a custom design, there are a variety of other steps involved depending upon the design chosen, including whether the hat is created to match an outfit (or vice versa) as well as how quickly delivery is needed. Oftentimes photos are shared with the customer through email. Swatches, shoes and outfits are often sent as well, and there are countless phone conversations as the design gets finalized. From that point, the process continues as it would for a standard order; allowing some flexibility for tweaks and changes along the way.

Bull in Heather hat, Maggie Mae DesignsWriting Horseback: I understand that you have created an online Derby Hat auction with one-of-a-kind Kentucky Derby hats. Tell us the inspiration behind your Derby Hats?

My passion for hats and for horses was what ultimately inspired me to create “Hats Off to the Horses: The Road to the Derby”, a 6-month online Derby hat fundraiser that supports retired racehorses after they are no longer racing or breeding. Although creating Derby hats had brought me back to my childhood passion for horses and horse racing, I was well aware that not all racehorses have happy endings to their lives. Following the tragic breakdown of Barbaro in the 2006 Preakness and his subsequent death in 2007, I felt compelled as an artist to create a hat to honor him, naming it “Run for the Roses.” I next created a new page on my hat website, “Hats and Horses: A Lifelong Love Affair” which showcased some of the horse welfare organizations around the country. That same year I was asked to create and donate hats to honor other fallen equine racing heroes in charity events for Thoroughbred aftercare.

Noor hat, Maggie Mae DesignsAs a one person custom millinery with limited financial resources and a demanding production schedule, I wanted to find a way to further support the racehorses and still run my millinery business. Consequently, I created the concept, “Hats Off to the Horses: The Road to the Derby” in the fall of 2009 as an annual fundraising project that would target one specific Thoroughbred retirement facility. Beginning in November and leading all the way up to Derby Day, I would create one hat per month to honor one specific Thoroughbred retiree at the facility.

My objectives were to generate substantial funds for the Thoroughbred retirees and participate in the growing educational outreach to the public regarding the needs of the retired racehorse population. It seemed like such a simple concept, combining hats and horses, and yet had never been  done in quite this way as each hat personalized the retired thoroughbred it was honoring with the hat’s style, color (not only the horse but the racing silks of the stable) and overall effect. To funnel additional traffic to the auction I would also created webpages linked to my millinery website that described how each individual horse inspired the hat that was up for bid.

Thunder Rumble Hat, "Maggie Mae Designs"Writing Horseback: What is “Old Friends,” the beneficiary of the online Derby Hat auction?

Old Friends is a non-profit Thoroughbred retirement center in Georgetown, Kentucky. Founded in 2003 by former Boston Globe film critic Michael Blowen, Old Friends at Dream Chase farm is now home to more than 130 horses, most of them stallions. After the news broke in 2002 that Derby winner Ferdinand had died in a slaughterhouse in Japan, Michael Blowen created Old Friends to provide at-risk racehorses with a dignified retirement after their racing and breeding careers were over.To read more about Old Friends, please visit their website page at About Old Friends.

In 2009 I decided to contact Old Friends for the inaugural year of “Hats Off to the Horses.” Michael was thrilled about the concept and I am happy to say that our “Hats Off to the Horses” 6-month online fundraiser is now heading into its fifth year for Old Friends Equine with all proceeds going each year to their Thoroughbred aftercare facility. To learn more about the creative process behind the hats I create for our “Hats Off to the Horses” fundraiser, please see my blog post, “Changing Hats”.

Popcorn Deelites HatWriting Horseback: When does this unique, six month Derby Hat auction open for bidding? Is there a minimum bid for each hat?
“Hats Off to the Horses” is now an annual 6-month auction series that supports the retired racehorses at Old Friends Equine with all of the proceeds going to their organization.Year five of our series begins again November 1, 2013 and runs through April 2014. For 6 months, the featured auction hat is posted on my website and the Old Friends website. With an online EBay auction format, there is a minimum bid required of $200 and a reserve is set at $500. Each hat is available for bidding for 10 days only, from the 1st of the month through the 11th. All those interested in bidding are encouraged to go to the Old Friends website and click on the EBay link provided after the first of each month. Winners are announced each month (unless they prefer to remain anonymous) and on the first day of the following month a new one-of-a-kind millinery creation placed up for bid to celebrate another resident of Old Friends.

To view the hats and horses they honor from our first four years of the auction, please visit the Old Friends Hat Auction Portfolio.

Sarava Hat, Maggie Mae DesignsWriting Horseback: What made you want to partner with Michael Blowen of Old Friends? What is your relationship with horses?

Alex Brown of Alex Brown Racing led me to Michael. I had heard about Old Friends and Michael for years, and when Alex suggested Old Friends for my Derby hat fundraiser idea I was thrilled! In a 2001 CBS interview, Michael Blowen was asked why he wanted to help Thoroughbred racehorses and not some other worthy cause. He replied, “Everyone has a little spot in the world. One tiny little dot. This is my dot.”

Michael’s love and respect for the horses in his care are evident in his every word and action, and his dream for the farm is really coming true. Old Friends is indeed a haven for the retired racehorses who live there and a marvelous outreach for educating the public about the needs of all horses. Maggie Mae Designs has a dot as well. By donating these Derby hats to Old Friends we are connecting the dots by bringing the worlds of hatmaking and equine aftercare together. Instead of two isolated dots, this Derby hat fundraiser has made a connection between us in our mutual concern for the horses.

Benburb Hat, Maggie Mae DesignsAs far as my relationship with horses, as a child I was totally fascinated by them. I read every horse magazine and book I could find and had a collection of plastic horses and china horse figurines. I watched every horse race that was televised as well as any movies about horses. I had friends who had horses and longed for one of my own but having a horse was and still is an unfulfilled dream. Books like Anna Sewell’s Black Beauty instilled in me at an early age that we are the caretakers of these wondrous creatures that posses not only individual personalities but have spirit, emotion and memory as well. I just could not understand how someone could ever abuse or neglect these sensitive and giving creatures. Although I have never had a horse of my own, my hats have led me full circle right back around to the horses I’d so loved as a little girl!  “Hats Off to the Horses” allows me to blend my love for hats and horses and to have horses in my life in a way that I never would have imagined.

Writing Horseback: What questions did I not ask that you would like to answer?
We all can play a part in the caring of our nation’s horses: the retired racehorses, the Mustangs, the PMU (pregnant mare urine) mares, and the nurse mare foals. All of these horses need our help. For me, whether I am helping Old Friends or other horses down the road, the important thing is that no matter whether it’s a horse who earned millions at the track or one who never won a single race, every horse’s life is sacred. Banged up or broken, they all deserve love and our care for the rest of their lives. After all they’ve given us, we owe them that much.

Where to buy:

Old Friends


1841 Paynes Depot Rd.
Georgetown, KY 40324

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Kentucky Derby & Kentucky Bluegrass Wine Auction

2 thoughts on “Hats and Horses: The Road to the Kentucky Derby”

  1. Nancy, thank you SO much for inviting me to do this Q&A about the “Hats Off to the Horses” online Derby hat fundraiser I do for Old Friends Equine of KY each year. Hopefully it will help spread the word about our need to help our retired racehorses and ALL the horses. Thank you thank you! :)

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