While Derby Day isn’t until May 1, horse aficionados, celebrities and fans of good old-fashioned fun are beginning to descend upon the southern city of Louisville for the Kentucky Derby Festival.
The annual festival turns a two-minute horse race into a two-week-long party, filled with genteel southern balls, down-home fish fries, star-studded ‘dos, block parties and concerts. Click here for a full listing of events going on between now and D-Day.
The Derby itself is a cultural event, where enthusiastic and diverse crowds don their fanciest hats and their Southern Sunday best or their craziest costumes while sipping $1,000 mint juleps in silver Tiffany cups or cold beers in plastic tumblers.
I am not a major gambler or race fan, but I have always had an affinity for the Derby. One of my earliest childhood memories is of riding my dad’s horse. (One of my grossest childhood chores was pitching manure from said horse out of the barn.) Even though I didn’t really follow the races, I always loved the horses and viewed the spires of Churchill Downs with the awe of someone who sees Notre Dame Cathedral or the Taj Mahal for the first time.
I still remember my first trip to Louisville, when I was in 5th grade. This beautiful city on the Ohio River has much to offer its visitors, but neither the Louisville Slugger factory, the Belle of Louisville riverboat or, shamefully, the great aunt we were there to see could hold a candle in my young mind to Churchill Downs and the Kentucky horse country.
Today, my daughters (like many girls) adore horses too. They don’t have many opportunities to ride here, but they immerse themselves in all things equine when they visit my father-in-law’s farm in Tennessee. The Derby and the Kentucky Derby Festival occur before the kids are out of school for summer; but every year at this time, I tell myself we need to plan a trip up to let them see the Notre Dame of American horse culture.
Churchill Downs is open for business and racing many other days of the year, in addition to Derby Day. Other than horse country, this part of Kentucky is known for its bourbon distilleries (which offer tours for those of age) and nearby Mammoth Cave National Park – which can fill the itinerary of any visitor.
Are you a Derby aficionado? Will you be going this year? Do you go for the horses, the gambling, the people-watching or the parties? What’s your plan for making the most of this American tradition?
Have you gone to the Kentucky Derby Festival before? What events are your favorites?
How do you rate Louisville as a tourist destination? Have you ever vacationed in Kentucky?