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Exploring Kentucky | Doin’ the Derby

Soaking up the Derby experience takes more than just a day

By Katherine Tandy Brown


So you’ve planned ahead and scored Derby tickets. Nice job! If I hadn’t attended “The Most Exciting Two Minutes in Sports” twice, I’d be envious. The first was in college…in the infield. I stood on a stack of beer cans on the rail for two hours to watch Kauai King cross the finish line first. The second was in 1982…in a box with a trainer and his son. Gato Del Sol made us some nice steak-dinner money.

These days, however, parking on the couch in front of the afternoon-long TV race coverage on the first Saturday in May works nicely for me. Late afternoon, just before “My Old Kentucky Home” begins, everyone with commonwealth roots or superior taste lifts a glass of single-barrel Kentucky bourbon (served neat, of course, with no water-it-down rocks) and when the Bluegrass State’s anthem soothes, “Weep no more, my lady…,” tears roll down our cheeks and Churchill Downs turns magical.

If you’re lucky enough to be in Derby City, be sure to take advantage of at least some of the many events leading up to the big day.

You’ll need to drag yourself out of bed early to discover what goes on in the racetrack world before most folks have opened their eyes. The Tuesday through Thursday prior to the Derby, Churchill presents Dawn at the Downs, where you can scope Kentucky Oaks and Derby contenders working out as you enjoy yummy Kentucky vittles at a trackside buffet.

Be sure to stop in the Kentucky Derby Museum while you’re there. Located on the track grounds, this treasure house of everything equine has reams of info on Derby horses, trainers, jockeys, owners and films of past races; hands-on exhibits, one of which puts you in the saddle to feel the jockey experience, and another, in a “winner’s circle” photo op; and fancy Derby hats and shiny trophies galore. The film “The Greatest Race,” shown in one of the world’s only 360-degree, high-res theaters, is a touching treatise on the “Sport of Kings” that appeals to novice racegoers and diehard fans alike.

You have until May 1 to make a reservation for the museum’s Biscuits and Bourbon event on Wednesday, May 2. Think Kentucky Proud products, a Southern biscuit bar, live music and unlimited libations, including the state’s native spirit, bourbon. You can even add a box seat to watch the ponies run that afternoon.

Back in 1956, the Kentucky Derby Festival (KDF) began with one event – the Pegasus Parade – that made its now-annual trek down Broadway on the Thursday prior to the Derby thanks to four volunteers and a budget of $640. Now the five-time winner of the International Festivals and Events Association award for Best Overall Festival, the KDF has morphed into an amazing array of 70-plus events that take place over the two weeks prior to Derby Day.

With 4,000 volunteers, the festival these days generates nearly $128 million each year for the local economy, while connected events help to raise almost $300,000 for area charities. The festival is produced by Derby Festival Inc., a private nonprofit civic organization with a professional staff of 23 and a 75-person volunteer board.

Thunder Over Louisville literally gets the festival going with a bang. One of the country’s largest annual fireworks spectaculars, the event serves as the opening ceremony for the festival and the huge explosions of color can be seen along the Ohio River shoreline for miles.  Think Washington D.C. on the Fourth of July. It’s that big!

Led by the beloved giant inflatable Pegasus balloon named “Peggy Bank,” the Pegasus Parade winds along a 1.7-mile route packed with onlookers cheering its larger-than-life floats, top-caliber high school bands, performance groups, step-in-time equestrian units, inflatables and celebrities. Through the years, the parade’s grand marshalls have included John Wayne, Liberace, Col. Harland Sanders, Muhammad Ali, General Norman Schwarzkopf, Bill Monroe, Rosemary Clooney, and a number of Congressional Medal of Honor recipients.

If you simply can’t wait, you can sneak a peek at the floats during the parade preview at the Kentucky International Convention Center the Tuesday night before the parade officially hits the streets.

Among all KDF’s activities, there truly is something for every age and interest. Two-thirds of the festival events are free, so families can find lots of kid-friendly, pocketbook-pleasing fun.

So what’s your pleasure? Historic paddlewheelers go bow-to-bow in the Great Steamboat Race on the Ohio, while sports fans can shoot hoops, join 500 other teams in the country’s largest outdoor volleyball tournament, or take a swing in the $1 million hole-in-one golf shot. If no one grabs the big money, first prize is still $5,000.

Music aficionados can groove at concerts nearly nonstop at numerous venues, including the 900,000-s.f. Great Lawn, while the Derby Queen is crowned at the formal Derby Fillies Ball. Whether your interest is gospel, country, rock, Latino, urban or classical, there’s something for everyone.

There are hot air balloons; interactive military displays; a HappyTail Hour where pet owners and their pups mingle, listen to music and play doggie games; a “neigh-maste” all-level yoga class (really!); and even a KDF spelling bee. And, of course, food and drink for every palate, including WineFest, BeerFest and BourbonVille. Edibles range from barbecue, bratwurst and chicken-on-a-stick to funnel cakes, elephant ears and anything imaginable deep-fried.

If you’ll be at the Derby itself, don’t forget to bring your Kleenex to stanch that weeping, which you’ll be doing along with 260,000-plus other attendees as the Thoroughbreds step onto the dirt to the strains of the state anthem for the post parade.

Whether or not you’ll actually attend the Derby, sign up to receive the KDF newsletter at kdf.org (800-928-3378).  You can also get the inside scoop on happenings at Churchill Downs, the big race and its history and tradition, what to know if you go or how to throw a home Derby party if you don’t, betting basics, Derby fashions, and more by visiting kentuckyderby.com or calling (502) 636-4400.

Katherine Tandy Brown is a correspondent for The Lane Report. She can be reached at [email protected]