A Local’s Guide to the Kentucky Derby

A Local’s Guide to the Kentucky Derby

kentucky derby
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The Kentucky Derby and Kentucky Derby Festival are the epicenter of culture in Louisville each spring, boasting a variety of fun events and longstanding history that may require a local guide to all things Kentucky Derby related. But the Kentucky Derby and the local Kentucky Derby Festival wasn’t always the popular event it is today. In fact, the legendary racetrack Churchill Downs, which ran its first races in 1875, at first struggled to turn a profit.

While interest in horse racing surged in the early and mid-1800s, helping prompt the opening of several horse-racing tracks in the city, the enthusiasm had waned by the latter part of the century. Some of the tracks closed, and interestingly it wasn’t the Derby that saved Churchill Downs but rather a wider focus on events programming.

The track’s owners decided that, instead of just focusing on gambling, the racetrack would do better to embrace other cultural activities, a practice that continues today with concerts, small festivals and special events. Early events at the track that didn’t involve horse racing included fairs, steeplechases and other one-off activities. One involved two train locomotives crashing into each other headfirst as amazed spectators looked on.

As interest in horse racing began to re-emerge, and the Kentucky Derby’s legacy began to grow, the track flourished and Derby Day became the equivalent of a local holiday, an event that ushered in summer and made the city come alive, drawing tourists from all over the world. Ultimately, it grew into the weeks-long, city-wide party that is the Kentucky Derby Festival, including more than 70 public events, drawing 1.5 million people annually. 

The festival lead-up to “the most exciting two minutes in sports” began in 1956; it has been received the International Festivals & Events Association award for Best Overall Festival five times. Interestingly, original attempts at creating a Derby-related lead-in to the sporting event never got off the ground during 1935-1937.

But in ’56, the city was determined to celebrate a full week of the Kentucky Derby, as an editorial in The Courier-Journal attested: “Louisville is not the same tired old town it used to be. Sick and tired of being sick and tired, it has spruced up and is yelling for nourishment. This time the festival will succeed, they promise.” 

Succeed it did, the rest is history, and this is your guide to things to do at the Kentucky Derby and the Kentucky Derby Festival, offering you a Kentucky Derby insiders look at the history and culture of the events that have made spring in Louisville the most electric time of the year.

thunder over louisville

THUNDER OVER LOUISVILLE

Thunder Over Louisville holds the distinction of being the largest annual fireworks display in North America, serving as the kickoff to the Kentucky Derby Festival schedule each year, typically held two weeks before the Kentucky Derby. 

The event originally was a small fireworks display as part of the festival’s first-ever opening ceremonies in 1989, moving to a night-time event at old Cardinal Stadium in 1990. But by 1991 it had moved to its permanent location on the Ohio River, and by the following year, included the accompanying air show, featuring day-long aircraft fly-overs. The festival grew so rapidly that by 1996, more shells were exploded in just the first minute of the show than in the total 1990 display. In 2007, it enjoyed a record crowd of 850,000.

The event traditionally draws more than 600,000 annually, many of them staying all day to take in the air show, picnic with friends and family and wait in anticipation of the massive fireworks show, which starts just after sunset. 

Thunder Over Louisville also brings with it a very Kentucky tradition – the release of a commemorative bourbon to accompany the event. Cox’s Spirit Shoppe is the official sponsor of the 2021 Official Bourbon of Thunder, available exclusively at Evergreen Liquors in Middletown. This year’s release is a Four Roses Barrel Strength Kentucky Bourbon, aged 9 years and 11 months, and bottled at 127.4  proof. It will retail at $89.99 with a limit of one bottle per person. 

pegasus parade

THE PEGASUS PARADE

Many aren’t aware that the first-ever event organized by the Kentucky Derby Festival was the Pegasus Parade, first held in 1956 on a budget of less than $700. Held each year on the Thursday before Derby, the 1.7-mile parade draws more than 200,000 spectators downtown along the length of Broadway. The city erects temporary bleachers along the streets, and when the parade is in full swing, floats, inflatables, attractions and fans stretch as far as the eye can see in a procession that lasts roughly two hours.

Among the many character balloons, from Kermit the Frog to Paddington Bear, a key attraction is the signature Pegasus balloon, along with the annual celebrity grand marshal, which over the years has included names like Louisville’s own Muhammad Ali, John Wayne, Loretta Lynn, William Shatner, Bill Monroe, Diane Sawyer and Colonel Harland Sanders.

Belle of Lou

THE GREAT STEAMBOAT RACE

In 1963, the Kentucky Derby Festival took to the waterways with the inaugural Great Steamboat Race, pitting the Belle of Louisville against Cincinnati’s Delta Queen, with the two boats racing about 14 miles, from the Clark Memorial Bridge to Six Mile Island and back. It has since become a Louisville tradition and a Derby Festival favorite among many.

After the 2008 race, the Delta Queen retired; since then, the dual has become a battle of three between the Belle of Louisville, the Belle of Cincinnati and the American Duchess. Louisvillians and tourists alike pack the shores to watch the boats “race” at a speed of about seven miles per hour. Others buy a ticket onboard the Belle and become part of the Great Race. The winner each year becomes owner of the prized Golden Antlers, which will remain on board the victor until the next year’s contest.

Chow Wagon

THE CHOW WAGON/FEST-A-VILLE

The Chow Wagon was born in 1972 as a simple idea to hold a Derby Day breakfast. Sponsor Phillip Morris brought its “Marlboro Chuck Wagon” downtown to serve pancakes and other breakfast foods, and the turnout was so overwhelming that it was ultimately moved to a larger space, and the name later adjusted to its current “Chow Wagon.”

While it moved around for a while, including several years on an empty lot where the Kentucky Center for the Performing Arts now stands, currently it is an annual Waterfront Park tradition that has become part of the larger Fest-A-Ville attraction. But most Louisvillians have fond memories of heading down to the Chow Wagon at lunchtime for an elephant ear, a corn dog or a pork chop sandwich, and its series of nightly concerts, from local cover bands to touring national artists. In short, it’s kind of a big neighborhood party that serves hundreds of thousands of people every year. 

As part of Kroger’s Fest-A-Ville, the Chow Wagon is now surrounded by a wide variety of events and attractions, from playgrounds to drag brunches to Kentucky bourbon tastings.

balloon race

THE GREAT BALLOON RACE

The Great Balloon Race is one of the more unique Kentucky Derby Festival events. Launched in 1973, this race through the sky pits hot-air balloon operators against one another in a “hare and hound” race, in which the “hare” balloon takes off about 10 minutes before the rest. The “hound” balloons then chase the hare, which eventually lands and lays out a 50 x 50 fabric target. The rest of the balloons then attempt to drop markers onto the target.

The first Great Balloon Race involved just seven competitors; these days, there are typically dozens. The event is preceded by a fan-favorite event known as the Great Balloon Glow, during which spectators gather at the launch spot after dusk to behold the pilots fire up their burners to create a dazzling display. Attendees, of which often there are 50,000, can mingle with the pilots and observe the balloons up close. It’s a one-of-a-kind tradition, and one that has become the favorite for many.

Derby marathon

RACES AND MORE RACES

We have a steamboat race and a balloon race, and that’s just the beginning: in honor of the Kentucky Derby, the Derby Festival also has pulled together many other races leading up to the thoroughbred classic. These are fun events like the Kentucky Derby Festival Marathon and Mini-Marathon, with human beings “racing” through the streets; the Great Bed Races, in which teams equip beds with wheels, decorate them outrageously, and compete in various heats; the Ken-Ducky Derby, in which thousands of sponsored rubber duckys are dumped into the Ohio River to “race” downriver; and the Run for the Rosé, pitting hospitality employees in a race while carrying trays of glasses filed with white zinfandel wine.

ky oaks

THE KENTUCKY OAKS

The penultimate event of Kentucky Derby Festival season is the Kentucky Oaks, which has in recent decades become nearly as popular as the Kentucky Derby itself. About 100,000 Louisvillians and tourists alike dress in their best spring colors – pastel pink and yellow abound – to spend the day at the historic racetrack, sipping signature Oaks Lillys, a refreshing, punch-like cocktail made with vodka, cranberry juice, simple syrup, orange liqueur and lemon. 

The Oaks race is set aside for the fillies, which run the 1¹⁄₈-mile course in pursuit of the blanket of lilies and a $750,000 winning prize. It’s as old as the Derby itself, making the duo of races the oldest continuously contested sporting events in American history. It doesn’t get much more traditional than that.

ky derby

THE KENTUCKY DERBY

Churchill Downs gets packed again a day later when the crown jewel of the Derby Festival season finally arrives. More than 150,000 spectators descend on the scene, the women in their fascinators and men in their suits. Some fans fashion outrageous Derby-themed costumes. Others simply wear shorts and t-shirts and crash the infield. The signature sipper of the day is, of course, the Mint Julep, the classic bourbon cocktail served in a silver cup and garnished with a sprig of mint. (Interestingly, the Julep only became associated with the Kentucky Derby in 1938.)

The day, which may include celebrity spotting, waiting in lines at the betting windows (it’s part of the experience) and trips to the paddocks to see the horses up close, culminates in the big race, the 1 14-mile “Run for the Roses,” so named for the garland of roses draped across the winning horse after the race. Eligible only to 3-year-olds, the field sometimes approaches 20 horses, if only for the prestige of entering a horse in the famous race. It’s a Louisville tradition like no other, one that is sure to endure.

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