Kentucky Derby Festival a big party for 2-minute race
Louisville, Ky. — There’s bourbon-tasting and hot air balloons, fashion shows and fireworks, a belle and a ball, and the event that started it all, the Pegasus Parade.
From the time the Kentucky Derby Festival started in mid-April, the party doesn’t stop — not until the horses run for the roses on Saturday.
The Kentucky Derby lasts only two minutes, but the legendary race at Churchill Downs has spawned an extended celebration with more than 70 events drawing more than a million people to the Louisville area. Festival officials say it pours nearly $130 million annually into the economy.
“Louisville is the only city in the world that can take a two-minute horse race and turn it into a two-week party with a two-month build up,” said Mike Berry, now in his 22nd year as the president and CEO of the Kentucky Derby Festival.
The festival has come a long way since 1956, when four civic-minded leaders decided to use $648 to put on a parade.
“My grandmother used to tell me that what they would do to celebrate Derby was they’d go down to the train station and watch all the rich people and the celebrities come in at 10th and Broadway for Derby,” Berry said. “There was nothing for the community to do to celebrate this big sporting event at the racetrack. That’s where this idea was born by these four gentlemen.”
The first Pegasus Parade attracted 50,000 people, but the celebration it inspired keeps growing.
Now among the larger festivals in the nation, the Kentucky Derby Festival has won the International Festivals and Events Association’s highest award multiple times, organization President Steve Schmader said.
“They are, on a global stage, very well recognized for all they do,” he said. “The Kentucky Derby Festival never fails to stand out.”
Planning events that draw large crowds doesn’t come without risks. Berry said organizers partner with police and other agencies to keep people safe.
Louisville Police Lt. Jill Hume said law enforcement will be “all hands on deck,” especially during events that draw big crowds. She said extra security measures are in place this year, including SWAT teams in full gear and earlier street closures.
The only significant violence at festival events occurred in 2016, when two teens were wounded by gunfire near the Pegasus Parade route. Hume said that involved a grudge between teenagers and ended quickly.
“We made an arrest within 30 seconds because there was such a heavy police presence,” she said.
The Derby party officially begins with Thunder Over Louisville, which opened with military aircraft and stunt planes flying over crowds lining both sides of the Ohio River in the afternoon and closed with fireworks after sunset. First held in 1990, it can draw 700,000 people in good weather.
The fireworks and air show kicked off a two-week period of events all over the city, including hot air balloon races, bed races, a steamboat race featuring the Belle of Louisville, a mini-marathon, free concerts, a bicycle tour, a pet-friendly cocktail party, a winefest, a beerfest and one of the newest additions, a zombie walk.
The run-up included FamFest, a new event in southern Indiana that caters to families.
Five-year-old Aleigha Johnson steered a bed on wheels up and down a race course, then jumped down and headed over to kick soccer balls at a booth hosted by professional soccer club Louisville City FC.
“It’s like a kid’s view of what they do for Derby Festival,” said Aleigha’s grandmother, Kimberly Anderson of Floyd Knobs, Indiana.
Tamika Bundley of Louisville, who came with her 7-year-old son and 8-year-old brother, said they were on their second round of fun.
“They won’t let me leave,” she said, smiling, as the boys attempted pull-ups at a nearby booth. “I love it.”
Berry said the basic mission of the Kentucky Derby Festival has stayed the same over the years: to offer a variety of affordable attractions that celebrate a world-class sporting event. In an era of divided politics, he said, such diversions bring people together.
“During Derby time, all that gets laid aside,” he said. “It’s the one time of year where you don’t have any labels in Louisville.”
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