Remember that story from last year, about a New York couple's $3 find at a garage sale turning out to be a 1,000-year-old Chinese bowl worth millions?

Well, this is a little like that.

Robin Thomas was looking for a unique chapeau for her upcoming Kentucky Derby party at Kissing Camels Golf Course when she stopped by a going-out-of-business sale at a secondhand store off Woodmen Boulevard. What she found was a millinery mother lode: a box of brand-new-with-tags, fancy straw Derby hats from the world's leading design houses.

"The odds of that, I mean it's so weird," said Thomas, who grew up in Kansas but now lives in Colorado Springs. "They're handmade, hand-detailed, from designers in Italy and New York. I took a picture of the tag. That's how shocked I was."

Each year with the running of the Kentucky Derby, Churchill Downs is claimed by the world's fashionable set - ladies (for the most part) sporting the most elaborate, feathered, massive headwear you're likely to find left of a royal wedding. What began in the track's early days as a sartorial charm campaign to lure high society to a venue better known for drinking and gambling is now American fashion tradition.

"Back in the day, this was the only thing to do to get dressed up," Thomas said. "Women dressed in hats and men wore suits. That was the event and you wore something fancy, the most expensive thing you had."

Custom Derby hats can run into the thousands of dollars, but vintage and thrift shops - and even some big box stores - often have a limited cache of affordable ladies' straw "church" hats that could work in a Derby pinch, Thomas said.

"First of all, I love hats. But the Derby hats? Oh my gosh, these are all one of a kind. They're not costume," Thomas said. "I love the idea that we get to go someplace and wear these big fancy hats."

The secondhand store hats that Thomas found were originally priced in the $100s and $200s; Thomas got each for $30. She saw the find as a sign that her plans - to celebrate this year's 140th Run for the Roses on Saturday with 40 friends from her Christian Meetup group - met with greater cosmic approval.

"When I saw that, I was like it is just meant to be. I can do my Derby," said Thomas, for whom celebrating the first of horse racing's annual Triple Crown races is a family tradition. Her father hosted Derby parties for 50 years, most recently at his home in Arizona. This year, Thomas takes over the reins from dad.

"In past years, I've always gone to my parents in Arizona and worn sloppy sun hats," Thomas said. "This is my first year hosting - and in a real Derby hat - and I will continue until I can't anymore and pass it on down to my son. To this day, it's the most expensive sport that people shop for and go to that only lasts 2 minutes."

If you're lucky like Thomas, though, it doesn't have to be.


Contact Stephanie Earls: 636-0364