On Saturday, May 3, the 140th Kentucky Derby will be run at the world famous Churchill Downs in Louisville, KY. And, as a native Louisvillian and Kentuckian, few things make me as proud as when all eyes are on my hometown and home state on the first Saturday in May. For all the things that the Commonwealth of Kentucky does wrong (and there are a lot), the Derby is one of the few events that the citizens and civic leaders in the Bluegrass State do very, very well.
From its humble beginnings in 1875, the Kentucky Derby has been run, uninterrupted, every year since. Neither war, nor natural disaster, has prevented the thoroughbreds from running the 1 1/4 mile oval in the shadow of Churchill Downs’ iconic twin spires. The Derby is a cultural and sporting event by which Louisville and Kentucky define themselves. From the fancy hats that the ladies parade around in, to the gents in their seersucker suits sipping on their mint juleps, it’s truly a time when Kentucky can put its southern charm on full display.
The Kentucky Derby Festival has grown to encompass the three weeks leading up to the Derby. Things kickoff with Thunder Over Louisville, a fireworks display that is held over the Ohio River, providing both the Kentucky and Indiana sides of the river with a spectacular view of the largest fireworks show in North America. Thunder just celebrated its 25th year of being part of the Festival and routinely draws crowds in excess of 600,000. While there are dozens of events throughout the three week period, the action really ramps up the last week, affectionately referred to as “Derby Week.” There’s the Steamboat race on Wednesday, which takes place on the Ohio River, and is between old style paddlewheel boats, The Belle of Louisville and the Belle of Cincinnati. On Thursday, there’s the Pegasus Parade. On Thursday, the Pegasus Parade makes its way down Broadway with all the pomp and circumstance of the entire city. The Kentucky Oaks, a race for fillies and just as long running as the Derby itself, takes place and is usually when most residents make their way to the Downs.
Quite simply, there are very few sporting events worldwide that match the pageantry of the Kentucky Derby on that first Saturday in May. While there are other races that day, there’s only one that celebrities and stars flock to see. After a three week civic party, the horses are finally led out from the paddock to the track. The bugler blows the call to the post and the University of Louisville band plays the best state song in all the United States, “My Old Kentucky Home.” From the time the announcer bellow, “They’re off!” and hits the crowd with “Down the stretch they come!” until the horses cross the finish line, it’s as if everyone’s collective heart is beating in step the the strides of the of the horses.
When the winning horse is draped with the blanket of red roses and the Governor of Kentucky awards the winning trainer and owner the Kentucky Derby trophy, it’s time for the state to take a breath, relax and get ready to it all again next year.