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    “I can’t wait to get out of this rat race.” Sister Julia Clare Fontaine overheard one of her Spalding University students say this about final exams in the spring of 1973. “And I thought: We have pet rats in the lab. Let’s go outside and race them,” Fontaine said several years ago in an interview with the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth, which founded Spalding. Fontaine, whose great-great-grandfather William Fontaine founded Fontaine Ferry Park in west Louisville, held the first Kentucky Derby of Rats in ’73 to help her students take their minds off their stressful exams, as well as to teach them about animal care and behavior training. The first winner, a “filly” named Regret (after the 1915 Kentucky Derby-winning filly), finished in just a few seconds in a field of five on the straight track that was eight-feet long. The students won a collective $20 that they put toward the biology department.

    The following spring, news circulated in several of the country’s newspapers about a man from New York who had founded the Small Animal Racing Association, championing pari-mutuel mice-gerbil races as a more humane and economical alternative to Thoroughbred racing. He had reached out to the governors of all 50 states — Kentucky, then prepping for the 100th Derby, didn’t exactly laugh him off but suggested he talk to the state’s legislative research director. While professional rodent racing never gained any speed, the annual Running of the Rodents patters on at Spalding’s campus, where the 46th race is April 12.

    Photo: Sister Julia Clare Fontaine. // Courtesy of Spalding University

    Fontaine, known for her wit, enthusiasm and creativity — she was called the “Grande Dame of Rodent Racing” — has inspired students to build upon the tradition over the last four decades. A few years in, one student constructed a 17-foot oval track with a starting gate. Spectators bet a quarter with a .30-cent return on the winner. In the past, the rats have been what Fontaine called “Thoroughbred rats” — black and white Norwegian lab rats. “They are a loving animal like a kitten,” she told Nazareth. Huddled around the track, which looks like a replica of Churchill Downs, the trainers, er, students anxiously watch as their rat either sniffs around, meanders in the wrong direction, climbs up the clear plastic wall surrounding the track or beelines to the finish. Students proudly hold the winner in the air, tail squirming.

    Early on, the race drew international attention, getting picked up by Sports Illustrated, BBC News and even by a Japanese TV crew. (We don’t need to go into gruesome detail about the Great Ratastrophe of 1978, but let’s just say that the lab’s heating units malfunctioned and the original hopefuls in that year’s field, all Regret descendants, didn’t make it to the starting gate.) Many of the events have been themed — a Watergate race in ’78, when Deep Throat took the garland of Froot Loops; a Dallas theme in ’81, when contender Kristin got pregnant by fellow rat J.R. (both named after lovers on the show) and was scratched when she became too big for the starting gate. The theme this year is Disney.

    Even after retiring in 1987, Fontaine remained connected to the festivities, which have included campus parades, a “fillies”-only Spalding Oaks, a “Mr. and Ms. Rodent” presiding over race-day activities, an actual call to the post from the Churchill Downs bugler and lemonade julep sales. On the race’s 40th year, in 2012, Fontaine was named grand marshal of the parade and rode in a red Jeep Wrangler around campus. The school gave her a bouquet of rat cookies.

    Nazareth communications director Diane Curtis says that the personality of the race embodies Fontaine, who died in February at age 97. Some of her friends and former co-workers remember how, in her later years, she would ride around in a wheelchair with the words “Jazzy Judy” on the back.

    “She could stir that pot, believe me,” says Sister Mary Angela Hicks, Fontaine’s best friend and former student. “And you’d enjoy it while she was stirring it. It was such a screwy thing. I mean, who would have thought of something like that? Stupid. Rats.”

    This originally appeared in the April 2018 issue of Louisville Magazine. To subscribe to Louisville Magazineclick here. To find us on newsstands, click here.

    Mary Chellis Nelson's picture

    About Mary Chellis Nelson

    Mary Chellis Nelson is the managing editor of Louisville Magazine.

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