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Kentucky Derby Festival

The Kentucky Derby Festival is an annual festival held in Louisville, Kentucky during the two weeks preceding the first Saturday in May, the day of the Kentucky Derby. The festival, Kentucky's largest single annual event, first ran from 1935-1937, and re-started in 1956[1] and includes:

  • the Great Balloon Race;
  • the Great Steamboat Race (featuring the Belle of Louisville);
  • the Pegasus Parade (one of the largest parades in the United States); and
  • the Derby Marathon and mini-Marathon.



The Kentucky Derby Festival Association started the first week-long festival in 1935, including a parade, a riverfront regatta and an orchestral concert. The first director was Olympic gold medallist Arnold Jackson. In 1937, a Derby Festival king and queen were crowned, marking the start of this tradition. After the floods of 1937, the festival was discontinued and it was not until 1956 when the modern-day Kentucky Derby Festival was reborn.

Official events

In early spring, a Derby Festival Queen and a court of Derby Princesses are selected, typically from various Kentucky colleges. The tradition of the royal court is one of the oldest Kentucky Derby Festival traditions dating back to the '50s. Today the royal court are sponsored by The Fillies Inc. which is a women's social organization that volunteers and contributes to the festival. The queen is chosen by a simple spin of the wheel the night before the Thunder Over Louisville at the Annual Fillies Derby Ball. The festival saw this method of queen selections as the most fair way to select from their court and the tradition continues today. This Royal Court attends all official Derby functions to promote the events. They also are a symbol of grace and elegance atop a featured float in the Pegasus Parade each year all wearing white ball gowns. Each of the girls, both Queen and Princesses, are awarded a $2000 dollar scholarship, an entire wardrobe for the festival, VIP access to all events, and a chauffer for the entire two weeks of the official Kentucky Derby Festival.

File:Thunder Over Louisville.jpg
Fireworks at Thunder Over Louisville

The festival's first major event is Thunder Over Louisville, the largest fireworks display in the U.S. and rated as one of the top 100 events in North America.[citation needed] Thunder day begins with a top five air show performing for hours for the crowds of hundreds of thousands of spectators lining the banks of the Ohio River, viewing from inside the city's business district windows and from many boats anchored in the river's current. When night falls, Thunder begins and the crowds' long hours of waiting are rewarded. For thirty spectacular minutes music booms in synchronization to masses of fireworks exploding in the sky and cascading in a waterfall of light from a bridge. The beauty of the show is magnified by the reflections in the river below. Since 1991, Thunder Over Louisville's fireworks have been designed and performed by Zambelli Fireworks International, proudly known as the "First Family of Fireworks".

File:Great Balloon Race.jpg
The Great Balloon Race
Each year, an official Derby Festival poster is unveiled and prints are sold to help finance festival events. Artists and photographers who have, over the years, produced the prized posters include Peter Max and Michael Schwab.

Events vary somewhat from year to year but always include numerous athletic events, concerts, fashion shows, wine tastings, luncheons and private parties ranging from backyard barbecues to lavish Derby Eve balls attended by entertainment stars, famed athletes and other persons of note. Lighthearted and laugh inspiring events are also a feature of the festival, such as the Great Bed Races in which local company sponsored employees in themed costumes push beds around a race track, competing for prizes. Recognition is given to Louisville's hardworking restaurant employees with the Run for the Rosé. Waiters and waitresses run an obstacle course while carrying trays of glasses filled with White Zinfandel Wine. Servers finishing with the best time and most wine remaining in the glasses win prizes.

Derby cruising

A controversial aspect of the Derby Festival is "Derby Cruising." Though it is not an official or licensed event during Derby Festival, it takes place in the historically black areas of West Broadway on Derby day and the Friday before it. Cruising consists of motorcycles and cars (many elaborately modified) driving slowly down Broadway, pedestrians crowding the sidewalks, and several blocks closed for a festival with rides and street vendors. The gridlock associated with cruising made it difficult for police to respond to instances of violence during 2005 Derby cruising. In 2006, police made an effort to stop cruising, shutting down Broadway except to emergency vehicles, which resulted in suggestions of racial profiling and much public debate about the legitimacy of Broadway cruising as a free alternative to other festivities.[2]

In 2007, police announced similar plans, although slightly more of Broadway was to remain open, including access to Shawnee Park. The 2007 plan sparked a lawsuit by business owners and a civil rights foundation, claiming the shutdown of Broadway during Derby week violated their constitutional rights and cost them hundreds of thousands of dollars in business. A federal judge allowed the plans to proceed, citing concerns about "public safety and the free flow of traffic".[2]

In 2008, police again banned cruising, but with a new plan allowing traffic to flow but to have a high number of officers on hand to enforce the city's noise and cruising ordinances, the latter of which prevents vehicles from blocking a roadway.[3] Police reported that arrests were down from 2007, although they did shut down a 10-block portion of Broadway for a short time on Derby evening after gridlock developed.[4]

See also

  • List of attractions and events in Louisville, Kentucky


  1. The Derby itself began in 1875 at Churchill Downs.
  2. 2.0 2.1 Adams, Jim (2007-05-01). "City can use plan to stop cruising". Courier-Journal. pp. 1A. 
  3. Adams, Jim (2007-05-27). "Cruising law stirs debate on fairness, clarity". Courier-Journal. pp. 1A. 
  4. Hershberg, Ben Zion (2008-05-05). "Cruising arrests down". Courier-Journal. pp. 5B. 

External links


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