Kentucky Derby Festival begins!

2015 Kentucky Derby

Saturday was the official kick off of “Derby Season” here in Kentucky, so it seemed appropriate to devote myself to what is, without argument, the biggest yearly event to Kentuckians (and to horse enthusiasts everywhere in the USA). Today happened to be my scheduled blogging date on Austen Authors, and with thoroughbred horse racing indisputably an English invention, I wrote a historical timeline spanning the continents and leading to the Kentucky Derby. Loads of fascinating facts to lay the foundation for the pinnacle of all equine sports.

The races themselves — The Oaks and The Derby — will take place on May 2 this year. Traditionally, since 1932, the races have been held on the first Saturday in May, meaning the dates vary year to year. Originally a weekend party surrounded the races, gradually becoming organized by city planners to take advantage of Derby fame and the hordes of visitors streaming into Louisville. For twenty years attempts were made to create something marvelous to entice tourists to arrive earlier, without great success. Then, in 1956, along came four men with an idea. Addison McGhee (public relations man), Earl Ruby (a journalist), Ray Wimberg (a Chamber of Commerce member), and Basil Caummisar (a civic volunteer), sat down for a midday meal and made history.

The four men knew what the Kentucky Derby meant to the city. It created a special spirit each spring, welcoming visitors from around the nation and truly bringing the little river town to life. They wanted more, more for its citizens, more for the locals who could not afford to go to the track. And that is exactly what they engineered, a literal pageant of the people. Dubbed the “Pegasus” Parade for the winged horse of Greek mythology, the first event was to symbolize the magic, energy and excitement the infant Festival was hoped to generate.  -HISTORY OF THE KENTUCKY DERBY FESTIVAL  link

click for official festival website

Of particular concern to these men was that far too many people could not afford to attend the race itself. With a budget of $640 they engineered a literal pageant of the people. At present the Derby Festival is a two-week extravaganza with more than 70 events, 23 full-time paid staff members working all year, and an annual budget of $5 million. The Festival has undergone many changes, yet the basic concept four civic-minded volunteers had in 1956 remains the very essence today: Create events that entertain, are affordable, and contribute to the common good of the community.

The Pegasus Parade remains a staple, as it has since 1956, and per tradition will make its way down Broadway Street in Louisville on the Thursday before Derby. Over the decades the Festival has added events, some lasting to become standards and others not, with the Festival growing. Various firework displays have been included in the celebrations since the 1960s, but occurred on different nights of the week (and a few during the day!) and in multiple locations. In 1990 the Festival planners launched an official “opening ceremonies” event at Cardinal Stadium featuring recording artist Janie Frickie, with a fireworks and laser show. The visual display was so massive that drifting smoke and debris interfered with traffic on I-65!

Nevertheless, it was a phenomenal success. In 1991 the show was officially named “Thunder Over Louisville” and was relocated to the Ohio River on both sides of the Second Street Bridge. Louisville and Cincinnati share the responsibilities and joys of presenting what is now the largest annual fireworks show in the United States, topping anything done on the 4th of July.

In 2014 Thunder Over Louisville celebrated its 25th anniversary. It was incredible! On Saturday, April 18th, the 26th annual Thunder Over Louisville once again wowed viewers, and launched the Kentucky Derby Festival. We were unable to attend, (or rather didn’t want to fight the crazy crowds) so watched the televised event. Naturally the recording has already made its way onto YouTube, so if interested, click the video below to full-screen, and enjoy!



Sharon Lathan

Sharon Lathan is the best-selling author of The Darcy Saga, a ten-volume sequel series to Jane Austen’s Pride & Prejudice.

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[…] Believe it or not, I have only scratched the surface on horse racing history and the Kentucky Derby in particular. Nor did I mention The Oaks or touch on the multiple traditions and elaborate events that surround Derby season. It is intense, trust me! I’ll be sharing more on my blog over these next two weeks leading up to the Derby on May 2, so pop over from time to time. Today I have a companion post discussing the opening ceremonies of the Kentucky Derby Festival. […]

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