By TIM THORNBERRY
LOUISVILLE, Ky. — For casual observers from other states, the Kentucky Derby is a horse race the first Saturday every May – a big one, but still, a horse race. For Kentuckians, and those heavily involved in the horse industry, the Derby is an unparalleled event that gets its start for many right after Christmas.
This year is no exception, as more than 60 events connected with the Kentucky Derby Festival (KDF) began as far back as January. The real countdown however, begins two weeks before Derby Day, with the Thunder over Louisville celebration.
This famous air show, coupled with one of the largest fireworks displays in the country, has made it almost as popular as the race itself. The annual show began in 1991 and has become one of the premier events of its kind in the world.
The Great Steamboat Race is another popular pre-Derby event. The Belle of Louisville, the hometown favorite, began racing opponents in 1963. The Delta Queen was the first and longest-running competitor in the race; its tenure ended in 2008. Today, the Belle of Cincinnati is the opponent.
According to information from the KDF, “the winner of the event is the vessel that accumulates the most points from performing a series of five tasks assigned to each competitor throughout the day and during the race.”
Other notable Derby events include the KFD Marathon and Mini Marathon, the Pegasus Parade, the Great Balloon Glow and Race, the Kentucky Oaks – a race strictly for the fillies, which is run the day before the Derby – countless Derby parties for the famous and not-so-famous and the Kentucky Proud Wine Fest.
But wine will not be the only thing with the Kentucky Proud name on it this year. For the first time in the history of the marketing program and Churchill Downs, where the Derby takes place, Thoroughbred contenders racing on Oaks and Derby days will bear the “Kentucky Proud” designation, according to information from the Kentucky Department of Agriculture.
State Agriculture Commissioner James Comer made the announcement at the annual “They’re Off” luncheon and said the initiative is a significant moment for Kentucky agriculture.
“This is a mutually beneficial partnership because it places the spotlight on Kentucky’s world-class farms, breeders and racing, while placing the Kentucky Proud brand on a world stage,” he said. “With this initiative, we finally unite the entire Kentucky agriculture community.”
The Kentucky Proud logo will appear on the Oaks and Derby Day racing forms beside the names of each horse bred in Kentucky.
“One of the major goals of my administration is to fully integrate the equine industry, Kentucky’s signature industry, into our Kentucky Proud program, the most successful marketing initiative in the history of the Commonwealth,” Comer added.
“We began that process last year by ensuring that members of the horse industry would be eligible for Kentucky Proud funding and today, we take a huge leap forward toward our ultimate goal.”
Kevin Flanery, president of Churchill Downs racetrack and senior vice president of Churchill Downs, Inc., said the initiative is “about the Kentucky Derby. It’s about the Kentucky Derby Festival. And it’s all about Kentucky Proud.”
For those who can’t make it to Louisville on Derby Day, the capital city of Frankfort will once again host an annual event all its own, the Governor’s Derby Celebration. The event transforms the downtown area into a festival of food, music and activities for all ages.
Gov. Steve Beshear and First Lady Jane Beshear make their way to the celebration every year to meet and great attendees before heading to the big race.
“Jane and I are thrilled to host visitors once again to our historic capital city for this family-friendly Derby Celebration,” Beshear said. “Downtown Frankfort has a unique blend of notable landmarks, distinctive shops and enjoyable restaurants that makes it the perfect backdrop for this traditional celebration.”
As for the race itself, the Kentucky Derby began in 1875 but horse racing in Louisville dates back to 1783. The first winner of the Derby was a three-year-old chestnut colt named Aristides. (Incidentally, all Derby contenders must be three-year-olds.)
Today, the race draws more than 150,000 spectators to Churchill Downs, including many celebrities. This year the National Anthem will be sung by country music star Martina McBride.
There are many things unique about the Derby, including the twin spires for which Churchill Downs is famous, mint juleps – the official beverage of the day, made from Kentucky bourbon – and the garland of roses to be draped across the winning horse.
But perhaps the most unique thing is that all those people who come from around the world to be a part of the Kentucky Derby become Kentuckians for a day, and that horse race becomes an unparalleled event for them, as well.