The Kentucky Derby Festival

We told you about our hometown’s biggest race, the Kentucky Derby, in yesterday’s post, but lest you think it is only a 2 minute affair, we’re here to set you straight. Louisvillians manage to turn a 2 minute race into a 2 week celebration filled with fun events, tasty food and good bourbon!

The 2 week Kentucky Derby Festival actually concludes with the big race. It kicks off with a huge fireworks show. In between the fireworks and horse racing there is a marathon, a boat race, a balloon race, concerts, the Chow Wagon, a wine festival, and much, much more. For a complete listing of all of the incredible events, check out the events page on the Kentucky Derby Festival’s website.

We unfortunately haven’t had the good fortune to attend all of the 70+ events – even in our collective 65 years! However, we have had the opportunity to attend a number of the bigger events at least once. We’ll give you a brief synopsis of some of our favorite events, but keep in mind, there is so much more!

Thunder Over Louisville

As we mentioned above, the big kickoff for the Derby Festival is a huge fireworks show, but Thunder Over Louisville is even more than that. Started in 1990 and evolving over the years, Thunder now has an airshow in the afternoon, complete with Stealth Bombers, Apache helicopters and other military aircraft that fly close enough to the crowds to make your ribcage rattle (Get it? The Thunder isn’t just from the fireworks!), before the 30 minute evening fireworks which are set to various music piped out over loudspeakers. All along Louisville’s waterfront are food & drink vendors, Porta-Potties (aka Thunderpots!), and wall to wall people. It is a very family-friendly event with great people watching opportunities.

If the crowds aren’t your thing, there are plenty of opportunities for Thunder parties at friends’ and families’ homes since the airshow and fireworks are broadcast on a local TV station. This is sometimes a much more pleasant option – real bathrooms, no worry about cold temperatures or rain, and you can always hear the music over the fireworks!

The Derby Marathon & Mini-Marathon

The Saturday before Derby Day brings out the runners for the Kentucky Derby Marathon and Mini-Marathon. For the hardcore runners, the Derby Marathon takes you on a 26.2 mile trek through downtown Louisville, the Highlands, Churchill Downs and Iroquois Park (the hilly part of the course for sure!).

The Mini’s 13.1 mile route was changed in 2012 to eliminate the hilly Iroquois Park, but runners still get to see Churchill Downs and great parts of downtown Louisville.

Scott actually ran the Mini on two different occasions, but Edie preferred to save her energy and just cheer on friends that took on the challenge. Rest assured, even spectators get quite a show. Many of the Mini runners dress up in costume for run. We assume that makes a 13.1 mile run more interesting – how can you get bored if you’re running next to Elvis or Little Bo Peep?

The Great Balloon Race

On that same Saturday as the Marathon, one week before the big race, the Kentucky Derby Festival also holds the Great Balloon Race. Since 1973 and subject to good weather, hot air balloons have filled the sky above Louisville, creating quite a colorful spectacle.

In the past few years, there have actually been balloon races on both the Friday (during rush hour) and Saturday one week before Derby, which means you can manage to squeeze in both the balloons and the marathon if you so desire!

If you’re not up for early morning balloon races, there is also the option of the Great Balloon Glow. On the evening before Saturday’s balloon race, the balloons inflate in their launch position but do not actually ascend. Still, the sight of these colorful, large balloons lit up against the night sky is a beautiful and exciting sight.

The Chow Wagon

Cheese fries. Giant barbequed turkey legs. Gyros. Deep-fried Twinkies. Corn dogs. Ice Cream. Funnel Cakes. And lots and lots of beer. Imagine rows and rows of vendors of such a wide array of culinary delights and beverages. That is the Kentucky Derby Festival Chow Wagon.

Running for roughly a week before the big horse race, the Chow Wagon offers its grub for lunch and dinner downtown on the Louisville waterfront. Again, this is a great place to go people watch, plus a fun place to socialize, run into old friends and listen to live music (plenty of concerts are held on the waterfront at the Chow Wagon during Derby week!). We’re sure there are some healthy dining options at the Chow Wagon, too, but for only one week out of the year, why not treat yourself?

The Great Steamboat Race

Since 1963 (but again, subject to weather), the Belle of Louisville has chugged down the Ohio River a few days before the Kentucky Derby, racing another steamboat (or two) in an attempt to win the prized Antlers (the prize used to be Golden Antlers, but are now Silver Antlers – darn inflation!).

Spectators line the riverfront or watch from their living room TVs to see the boats compete in this annual tradition. Although the Delta Queen was traditionally the Belle’s big competitor, that steamboat has recently been retired (along with the prized Golden Antlers), and the Belle now competes against other steamboats like the Belle of Cincinnati.

Cool bit of trivia: Scott’s uncle Mike has worked on the Belle of Louisville since his teenage years and was the Captain of the Belle of Louisville for a number of years.

Pegasus Parade

The Kentucky Derby Festival’s Pegasus Parade began in 1956 and is the oldest event of the Festival (not counting the actual Derby of course!). Marching bands, decorated floats and giant blow-up cartoon characters march down Broadway in downtown Louisville the Thursday before Derby, much to the delight of spectators lining both sides of the street.

A different Grand Marshal is selected each year, ranging from local celebrities, athletes, coaches, musicians and actors. The variety of choices through the years is quite interesting. Where else would you find an array like Cyndi Lauper, Ned Beatty, General H. Norman Schwarzkopf, Denny Crum, Rick Pitino, Loretta Lynn and William Shatner?

The Kentucky Oaks

The Friday before the Kentucky Derby is another big horse race, but only for fillies. The Kentucky Oaks is almost as big for local Louisvillians as the Derby – heck, even schools are out that day! The infield, paddock, grandstands and suites are teeming with people and parking at Churchill Downs is just as packed.

As the popularity of Derby festivities and after-parties for celebrities has increased through the years, Oaks has changed from a locals-only day at the track to another reason for celebs to extend their stay a day earlier in our fun hometown.

While we typically do parties at friends’ house on Derby Day lately, we’ve been fortunate enough to hit the track on most of the last few Oaks races (except for the most recent one unfortunately!). You can experience Oaks in all the same ways you can experience the big race. Perhaps we’ll get another suite experience for Oaks one day like we had in 2011! You can’t beat free-flowing Woodford Reserve, prime rib and cookies and a view of the track and Twin Spires like we had that year.

What’s your favorite Kentucky Derby Festival event?