Kentucky Derby Festival Blossoms from Small Celebration to Source of Pride for Louisville

Hundreds of thousands of people will converge on Louisville this week to enjoy the dozens of events that make up the Kentucky Derby Festival. But what many of those celebrants don’t realize is that the festival is a rather recent development in the Derby’s 138-year history, and was largely the work of an ambitious racing editor at the newspaper and the public relations people who had a vision for making the first week of May something more than a couple of horse races.

Of course, they had a lot to build on. Thanks to the hard work of Col. Matt Winn, the president of Churchill Downs in the early part of the 20th century, the Kentucky Derby had become the pre-eminent thoroughbred race in the world, and its winners were household names. Then, in 1956, Churchill Downs donated $100 to support a parade— “The Pegasus Parade”—in downtown Louisville. Ultimately $640 was raised for that event, which drew a nice crowd downtown to Broadway a few days before Needles won the big race.

Credit Submitted photo
Robinson S. Brown Jr., the first chairman of the Kentucky Derby Festival.

Earl Ruby, sports columnist for The Courier-Journal, Addison F. McGhee, promotions manager for Brown-Forman Corp., Ray Wimberg, owner of a restaurant supply business, and Basil Caummisar, promotions manager for The Courier-Journal and the Louisville Times Co., were the four founders of the festival. Robinson S. Brown Jr., later president and CEO of Brown-Forman, was its first chairman.

From the start, the purpose of the festival was to involve more of the community in Derby events, since even then tickets to the race as well as to the Kentucky Oaks on Friday were expensive and hard to come by. According to the Encyclopedia of Louisville, the festival was originally launched in 1936 with a parade, fireworks, a wrestling match and a concert. However, when the Great Flood of 1937 washed over the city, it was hard enough to get the Derby itself on track for the first weekend of May. Then World War II came along, and the festival was abandoned for a generation.

In the beginning, Churchill Downs viewed the festival with skepticism, fearing that it would detract from the race. But the festival promoters were undeterred. In time, the Downs would become a more visible supporter.

The second major addition to the festival came in 1962 when Jefferson County Judge (and later U.S. Senator) Marlow Cook led the effort to buy an aging excursion boat, christened the Idlewild in 1914, then renamed the Avalon in the ’40s. Cook and company called it The Belle of Louisville, and the Wednesday before the 1963 Derby the first Great Steamboat Race with the Delta Queen of Cincinnati was held. The Queen, incidentally, won that race, but a year later, the Belle would claim the golden antlers that are traditionally held by the race’s winner.

As the years passed, more and more events became staples of the Kentucky Derby Festival. In 1972, Jack Guthrie was hired to be executive director of what had emerged as a year-round organization to plan and stage the festival activities—and in many ways he was to the festival what Matt Winn had been to the Derby. A “They’re Off!” luncheon became the kickoff event, usually drawing major celebrities as headliners. Marlboro cigarettes began supporting the Chow Wagon, a collection of food trucks that specialized in hamburgers, pork sandwiches, corn dogs and other midway delicacies along with plenty of libation and, of course, cigarettes. The Chow Wagon has continued over the years although the smoking aspects of it have been downplayed as health hazards became more of a public health issue.

Before long, every day of the week before the race became known for something special—the Great Balloon Race on the Saturday before Derby (and the balloon glow the night before at the Kentucky Fair & Exposition Center), the Run for the Rose (wine) and the Run for the Rodents (Spalding University’s race for, yes, rats), as well as concerts, square dancing, a marathon and mini-marathon, fund-raising balls, brunches at historic homes and on and on. Thunder Over Louisville, the official kickoff of the festival, now occurs two weeks before the Derby, and it has become the biggest fireworks show of the year in North America.

Of course, for a lot of us who are native Louisvillians, all of these events, not to mention the Derby itself, are only part of the tradition of this springtime season. When I was a child back in the 1950s and 1960s, our family celebrated Derby on many years (if the weather was good) by working in the yard. It’s said that in Louisville, you’re risking fate by planting your garden tomatoes before Derby Day. Some years, if the weather was bad, we all went to the movies, which were still downtown on Fourth Street and almost certainly empty on Derby Day.

To be sure, there have been some bone-chilling first Saturdays in May. I remember one particularly bitter race day in the late 1980s, when ladies’ Derby frocks were draped with mink coats and their bonnets spattered with snow. Another time, in 1976, a tornado and cloudburst moved toward the track right at racetime. The big race that year (after Bold Forbes crossed the finish line) was to make it to the buses before the torrents fell. Few people made it. Nobody in his right mind should come to the Derby without packing a sturdy raincoat, sweater and gloves. But don’t bother with umbrellas: Churchill Downs won’t permit them on Derby Day.

The weather can either be wonderful, or just plain awful, for the Derby parade. I remember times when my parents would bundle us into the car in our pajamas and park in the old Commonwealth Garage (the site of which is now the Kindred Building on Broadway). We could sit on the hood of our Plymouth station wagon and have an first-rate view of the bands, floats and dignitaries. But some years, a cold Kentucky rain has put a damper on the festivities. Still, the marchers always manage to carry on.

Regardless of how you come to the Derby, expect Louisville people to be proud of it. They even turn the other way when they see prices on menus and at the gas pump spike (another special treat for our visitors). So enjoy the festival, spend lots of money, and please come again next year.

Keith Runyon is a longtime Louisville journalist and former editorial page editor for The Courier-Journal. 

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