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Power Ranking the Kentucky Derby Festival Events

Tonight fireworks will roar across the Louisville sky, marking the official start to the 2018 Kentucky Derby Festival.  For the next two weeks, the city of Louisville will buzz as the bluegrass prepares for the fastest two minutes in sports.

There are many different ways you can prepare for the Derby.  If you’re experiencing the event for the first time, allow me to guide you to the best of the best.  You can click here to see a complete list of events or visit for more information.

10. The “Great” Steamboat Race

Once a marquee event, thousands gathered at the water tower to watch the Belle of Louisville and the Delta Queen glide over the Ohio River.  The glory days have long faded and the Delta Queen has been retired, with the Belle of Cincinnati racing in its place.  The race’s demise crawls under Tony Vanetti’s skin, but you can’t blame people for not caring about a race that’s fixed.

9. Pegasus Parade

Unless you know somebody that’s in the parade, the horse pooper-scoopers are the highlight of the event.

8. The Great Balloon Race

Ran each year the Saturday before the Derby, this event holds a dear place in my childhood heart.  If the wind blew the balloons to my end of town, the family packed up the minivan, made a stop at Krispy Kreme and chased the balloons to their landing spot.  The end of the race is rather anticlimactic, unless a balloon lands on top of a house, as one did to my grade school classmate’s 15 years ago.

7. Hole in One Golf Contest

You can win a million dollars, but you probably will not.  Taking place over ten days at Seneca Park, the person closest to the pin on each day become finalists that earn an opportunity to win a million bucks with one shot.  That rarely ever happens, so if you miss out, don’t be mad.  Treat it as a day at the driving range.

6. The Chow Wagon/Kroger Fest-a-Ville

Chow wagons used to pop up all around the city, but now the beer gardens and food booths are all centrally located at Waterfront Park.  This could be the best thing in the city, if they got better food.  We live in 2018.  They should bring in a few nice food trucks instead of exclusively carrying deep fried State Fair food.

The nightly concerts downtown make or break the event.  Usually relegated to poppy new country stars, this year they’re changing things up with The Lone Bellow on Wednesday of Derby Week and Judah & the Lion the following day.  Find a complete lineup here.

5. Thunder Over Louisville

Thunder can be one of the best days of the year, or one of the worst days of the year.  It all really depends on the weather and whether you can find a spot that’s free from roaming bands of high schoolers.

4. The Great Bed Races

The most under-rated Derby Festival Event, businesses from around the state create a wheeled bed that resembles a parade float.  Creativity consumes the contraptions that fly down through Broadbent Arena.  Five people push as one person lies down face-first as the bed flies toward the finish line.  It may not tickle everyone’s fancy, but it’s a fantastic family event.

3. Mini Marathon

Running 13.1 miles (or 26.2 in the Marathon) does not exactly sound like a good time.  You don’t have to be a runner to have a blast at the Mini-Marathon.

Thousands line the streets to cheer on the participants.  There are few places your hand can go numb from giving high-fives; the Mini is on of those places.  If you really want to make the event great, tailgating is highly encouraged.  For more than a decade my group of rowdy South End friends have gathered at 4:00 a.m. to prepare for the runners.  Rain or shine, it’s always a good time.

2. Balloon Glow

The KDF has created six separate events that lead into the Saturday morning race.  The Glow the night before at the fairgrounds is hands-down the best of the best.  Lit up against the dark night sky, it’s astounding to stand next to the massive balloons and look up in awe.

The event is fun for every person in every age group and demographic, except for large people. Upon seeing the tiny wicker baskets the balloons hold, I learned I will never, under any circumstances, take a hot air balloon ride.

1. Dawn at the Downs

This is not an officially sanctioned Kentucky Derby Festival event, but it’s the best way to prepare for the Kentucky Derby.  In the twilight of the early morning, the sights and sounds of the hustle and bustle around Churchill Downs give you a greater appreciation for all the work that goes into a two-minute race.

You can feel fancy and enjoy brunch on Millionaires’ Row.  You can edge up to the rail for a closer look, and if you have kids, a jockey might hand them a pair of goggles.  If you know a guy (or are extra sneaky), the backside is the best place to see all of the action.  TV and radio crews broadcast along the rail, hundreds of donuts are served and trainers entertain crowds atop a viewing platform.

There are many more reasons why Dawn at the Downs is my favorite part of Derby Week.  It’s a tradition I will uphold as long as I possibly can, because I cannot pick my Derby horse until I’ve seen it run on a brisk spring morning at Churchill Downs.


Article written by Nick Roush

"Look upon the doughnut, and not upon the hole." @RoushKSR