In the third floor ballroom of Spalding University’s College Street building on Thursday, Janelle Rae is prepping team captains before a day of racing.
But it’s not the racing you may have come to expect out of Louisville. No horses here. Just rats.
It’s a part of an old tradition at Spalding called the Running of the Rats. “It started when Sister Julia Clare Fontaine noticed that students where kind of in the rat race of finals,” said Rae, who is charge of running the race. So in 1973, Sister Fontaine decided to start a different rat race; one that mirrored the other famous race in town.
This year was the 47th race. Six rats raced around a miniature track that resembles Churchill Downs. But instead of racing 10 furlongs, like the horses in the Kentucky Derby, the rats have to travel 0.024 furlongs — roughly 16 feet — to take the tape.
The theme for this year’s rat race was Harry Potter. Attendees dressed as witches and wizards began to file into the ballroom, all in anticipation of the start of the long-standing tradition.
Behind the scenes, rat captain Hannah DeWitt is handling her rat, Scabbers. DeWitt, a junior studying art, is familiar with rats; she has three at home. The rats in this race, she says, are feeder rats typically meant to feed snakes. But thanks to the Running of the Rats, six are rescued from that fate and are ultimately adopted by the end of the day.
The call to post is played over the speakers — along with the Harry Potter film score — signaling the start of the event. One by one, Rae guides the rats into the makeshift starting gates. And before long, the races begin.
The rats don’t immediately rush off the starting line. Rae says the rats actually enjoy the coziness of gates. But before long, a rat finally makes its way across the finish line. It’s a white rat named Luna, who is racing for the nursing students. Another rat, Uncle Vermin, wins the second race and Luna again takes the third.
Meanwhile, DeWitt and her rat Scabbers are still looking for a win.
There’s no point system like in horse racing, so the races leading up to the final race, The Spalding Derby, aren’t exactly high stakes. But nevertheless, a win is the goal for everyone, humans and rats alike.
The fourth race proves to be the closest of the day. Luna is once again positioned for a win, with DeWitt’s Scabbers in hot pursuit. Just as it appears that Luna will clinch her third cap of the day, she unexpectedly turns around and begins heading away from the finish line. This opens the door for Scabbers to surge ahead and claim victory. The crowd roars in excitement for the come-from-behind win.
Ultimately, the ever-dominant Luna would win the final race, claiming not a garland of roses, but a garland of cereal. In the final, like most of the other races, Luna seemed to be the only one focused on crossing the finish line.
“It kind of turned out to be like the puppy bowl. It’s just footage of rats being cute more so than footage of rats being athletic,” DeWitt said.
Senior nursing student Amanda Jewell was the rat captain behind Luna. Her first real experience with rats was at last year’s race, where she captained a team that came in second. She was happy to end her final year on a win.
“It’s definitely good bragging rights for the winner,” she said, holding the champion rat and trophies.
Odds are Hannah DeWitt will be back next year, looking to do the same as Jewell — claim a victory to send her off in her final semester.