How the Kentucky Derby Festival became a part of Louisvillians’ DNA
Outside of the city of Louisville, the Kentucky Derby is a horse race that seems to end as quickly as it begins.
The bugle sounds, and they’re off.
A thunder of hooves tears up the dirt track at Churchill Downs. And about two minutes later, it’s all over.
But for Louisvillians, the Kentucky Derby is much more than a two-minute race.
That’s in part due to the Kentucky Derby Festival.
The festival as it is known today began in 1956, though an earlier iteration existed in the '30s.
It started when a group of Louisville residents came together to create an event that would give everyone access to Derby celebrations.
“Their goal at that time was to provide something for the community to do and to celebrate leading up to that horse race,” vice president of communications and media relations at the Kentucky Derby Festival Aimee Boyd said.
Similar to today, the Derby itself was expensive and not easily accessible to local residents. This year, a day-of general admission ticket costs $85.
Churchill Downs expects to host 270,000 people between Oaks and Derby day. However, track officials said up to 70% of those in attendance will be from outside of Kentucky.
“Back then a lot of people didn’t have the opportunity to go to the Derby because of the price of the tickets or the availability,” marketing director for the Kentucky Derby Festival Bridget Sherrill said.
The very first Kentucky Derby Festival included one event: the Pegasus Parade.
“It was meant to symbolize the magic, energy, excitement. Like everything a Pegasus symbolized in that Greek mythology because that’s what they wanted it to bring to the community,” Boyd said.
From there, the festival continued to expand.
“It just started growing year after year, and that was just in response to the community,” Boyd said. “What did the community want to do? What did they want to see?”
The festival added a luncheon, hot air balloon demonstrations and more.
And in 1973, the Pegasus Pin was introduced.
The pins are the ticket in to many Kentucky Derby Festival events. People can register their pins to be entered into raffles. And a few lucky purchasers will unwrap a gold pin. Which, beyond being an opportunity to brag to friends, gives them a chance at even more prizes.
Sherrill has been working with the festival since the inception of the Pegasus Pin program.
Inspired by the Skipper Pin created for Minneapolis Aquatennial, Kentucky Derby Festival organizers wanted to create their own souvenir pin.
At first, only 10,000 pins were released. It was intended to be a simple awareness campaign. However, the pins became more popular among residents. It is not hard to find someone out and about during Derby season wearing a hat adorned with pins from decades ago.
Now, the festival has a million-dollar budget for pins alone. And that first edition pin from 1973 could sell for more than $1,000.
While the Pegasus Parade was the cornerstone for the festival, it waned some in popularity as other events joined the fray.
“I think we’d have to say Thunder Over Louisville is it,” Sherrill said.
Thunder Over Louisville is one of the nation's largest annual firework shows.
“Once you’ve seen our fireworks display, there is none other like it in the world,” Sherrill said.
It now serves as the kick-off event for the core two-week celebration leading up to the Derby.
Thunder didn’t join the festival lineup until 1989. It started as a balloon release at the old University of Louisville football stadium. But like with a lot of things connected with the festival, it grew with the community’s demands.
It moved to its current home Waterfront Park in 1991.
“It didn’t start with an air show, it didn’t start with all the fireworks, but over the years it grew,” Boyd said. “And the waterfront and the park area down there developed along with it.”
Sherrill and Boyd said people come from all over to see the show and after a couple of years off because of the pandemic, this year’s show is going to be one of the best yet.
“We’re saluting the 75th anniversary of the U.S. Air Force,” Boyd said. “And then it all culminates with those fireworks right there on the waterfront.”
With its return to in-person events and a full schedule, following coronavirus and the protest of 20 the Kentucky Derby Festival is once again having to adapt to community needs.
Last year, a pop-up traveling parade took place. Festival organizers moved through the city a mini version of the Pegasus Parade.
“They couldn’t come to us, so we came to them,” Boyd said.
And that traveling parade returned this year. Additionally, the Pegasus Parade, which has traditionally taken place on Thursday before Derby has been moved to the Sunday before the horse race.
Boyd said the move comes from listening to the community's concerns about not being able to attend the parade on Thursday.
“That’s very important to us. That the whole community feels part of the Derby and Derby festival celebration,” Boyd said.
Part of including the whole community has been efforts by the festival to include Louisville's West End in celebrations.
In order to “create new traditions” as Boyd said, the festival hosted an event called the Block Party at the Norton Healthcare Sports and Learning Complex April 16.
The free event featured food, entertainment and vendors.
“When you come to talking about economics around Derby, which is one of the biggest money-makers in the whole entire city, where’s the piece at – where Black-owned businesses are able to capitalize off that?” MELANnaire Marketplace founder Nachand Trabue said. “It’s important for us to create these spaces and create these platforms so we can try to bridge this wealth gap that’s going on.”
There were also tables where community organizations and leaders set up to offer services and information for those in attendance.
Life-long residents of the West End, like Larry Anderson, were happy to see Derby celebrations return to the area.
“It’s one of the biggest things to happen here in the last few decades,” Anderson said.
From its inception, Kentucky Derby Festival organizers have strived to evolve with the needs of the community.
It is not that way by chance, but by design.
This story has been updated.