BreakingModern — The anticipation and promise of spring is marked by different events depending on who you are and where you reside. For Louisvillians, the promise of spring is associated with one event in particular — The Kentucky Derby. More specifically, spring in Louisville comes to fruition with the nearly three-week party known as the Kentucky Derby Festival, which just so happens to culminate with the running of the fastest two minutes in sports.
Attending the Kentucky Derby and the festival that leads up to it should be on everyone’s short list of things to do. However, as someone who has witnessed over 50 first Saturdays in May, there are some things you should definitely do to enhance the overall Kentucky Derby experience.
More Than a Horse Race
The Kentucky Derby Festival is a nearly three-week long, citywide event along the lines of Mardi Gras or South by Southwest. The festival is kicked off by Thunder Over Louisville, a spectacular air show, followed by the largest annual fireworks display in North America.
Let me describe it for you: 600,000 people lining the Ohio River from 2 in the afternoon until 10 at night to watch an air show (the Thunderbirds are performing this year), and then a huge fireworks display that features two barges, one on each side of the Clark Memorial Bridge. Oh, and by the way, that bridge is the key player in the show.
Other Kentucky Derby Festival events take place over the next three weeks and most are free with the purchase of a $5 Pegasus Pin. The pin is sold all over the city and is one way the festival raises money each year. A Pegasus Pin, for example, will grant you access to the Chow Wagon located in Waterfront Park.
The Chow Wagon is where you go to get your Gyros, Funnel Cakes, Pork Chops, Bratwursts and, of course, beer. This is also the place to check out live music and dance the night away. The Chow Wagon is open daily during the festival, so you’re likely to visit more than once.
One of my favorite times to visit the Chow Wagon is during the Great Steamboat Race, which takes place the Wednesday afternoon before the running of the Kentucky Derby. The Belle of Louisville and the Belle of Cincinnati partake in a competition of skill and speed, with the winner taking the fabled Golden Antlers. It’s a great family event and unique to this festival.
I’ve only mentioned a few of the highlights of the Kentucky Derby Festival. I have yet to mention the Pegasus Parade, or the Great Balloon Race or the Marathon — well, you get the picture. Let’s just say we know how to throw a three-week party around here.
When it comes to actually going to Churchill Downs to see the horse races, there are several things you should do. First, go to Opening Day, which is the Saturday before the Kentucky Derby. Opening Day (or Night) is one of my favorite days at Churchill Downs because the grounds are immaculate in preparation for the Derby, but the crowds are moderate and much more relaxed.
The Friday before Derby is known as Kentucky Oaks Day in Louisville and it’s a fantastic day to spend at the racetrack, one the handicappers will appreciate the most. The Kentucky Oaks is a horse race, of course, but the it has also become a local holiday. Schools are closed, people take the day off from work, businesses shut down early and the entire city takes a deep breath in anticipation of the next day.
Party of Parties
The last thing to mention is the famous (or infamous) Kentucky Derby Infield. The infield is a big party — and certainly something one must experience at least once in a lifetime. However, the infield can be a bit wild for some, so here’s my advice.
If you are in college or perhaps just graduated, hang out in the third turn — that’s where the wild things happen. If you’re a little older and like things a bit more subdued, more to the area along the back stretch. Families, on the other hand, should head for the first turn. I don’t know how or why it works this way, but people seem to follow this tradition every year. Also, bring something to sit on, use sunscreen and by all means wear a hat. Unless, of course, you just want to rage …
As a lifelong Louisvillian, I can assure you that the Kentucky Derby and the Kentucky Derby Festival are not to be missed. We love having visitors and we love to show off our famous hospitality. The two minute horse race you see on television each year is only the last act in a very long and fun-filled three weeks.
If you’re looking for advice on restaurants, etc., please add it to the comments section below, I’m sure I can come up with some worthwhile suggestions.
For BMod, I’m Mark Kaelin.
Featured/First Image Credit: “Spires_UL band” by Richard Hurt via Flickr Creative Commons
Fireworks. Image credit: Wikimedia Commons
Belle of Louisville: Image credit: Wikimedia Commons
Fourth Image Credit: © WavebreakmediaMicro / Dollar Photo Club