With blue skies and mild temperatures, all in attendance at the annual Governor’s Downtown Derby Celebration in Frankfort were free to enjoy the preamble to the 142nd Run for the Roses, and focus on food, drinks and fun.
The event started at 9AM, but my crew had been up late the night before and we all had athletic events scheduled for later in the afternoon, so I elected to wake Isabella up around 9:30 AM to get her ready and down to the event by 10:30.
For early risers, the new governor and his wife dropped by to kick things off downtown, and there were four different Derby Dash options for kids 2-12. That was a bit ambitious for Isabella, 4, and myself on this day. We felt like easing into things.
A solid crowd was in attendance and all attractions were well received. The lines for things like pony rides and bouncy castles could last 5 to 10 minutes, but nothing that wasn’t tolerable for the kiddos.
One of Isabella’s favorite stops was the craft area on the grounds of the Old Capitol, where kids could assemble their own Derby hats. Volunteers use pre-cut paper sheets and masking tape to form the hat, then kids can visit the decorating tables to customize their chapeaus. Each child was allowed one ribbon, one bow and up to four flowers. Drop all that by the folks running the glue guns and in no time Bella was sporting her own personal Derby hat creation.
The big attraction for adults was the opportunity to get your Derby celebrating off to an early start. There were plenty of like-minded individuals to help stoke that enthusiasm. With ideal weather and the prospect of another Triple Crown winner in the air, it’s easy to get carried away with the breakfast drinks.
Capital Cellars offers a prime spot on Broadway, where its loyalists gather to purchase top shelf beer, wine and spirits to go. There is the option to crack open purchases for consumption on the spot or the inside bar will mix a mean cocktail for patrons as well. With outside seating right in the heart of things, Capital Cellars was packed throughout the morning with folks getting their spirits enthused.
The other primary libation location is the Kentucky Coffeetree Cafe. Located one shop down from Capital Cellars on Broadway, this entire block, along with Serafini, Completely Kentucky and Poor Richard’s Bookstore, is jumping from start to finish of this celebration.
The Coffeetree takes its cocktail preparation seriously and offers premium cocktails, hearty ales and many other offerings to get spirits soaring. A jumbo barbecue smoker out front was cranking out ribs and pulled pork for diners to enjoy as they sat outside and soaked up the atmosphere.
This also was ground zero for the “Pedal for the Posies” midget bike race. Billed as The Most Ridiculous Two-Minutes in Sports, this annual event pits local merchants or their representatives, in costumes on decorated miniature bikes, for a scramble down Broadway.
The kids get into watching this as well, but there is plenty of competition for their attention. Most all the attractions at the Governor’s Downtown Derby Celebration are geared to kids 10 and under. In the parking lot behind the First Christian Church there were pony rides, face painting, and a bouncy obstacle course.
Across Ann Street in the train depot parking area was another bouncy house with a sliding board sponsored by the Kentucky Fire Commission. This was also a fine spot to score a steak sandwich or an all-beef hot dog from the Kentucky Cattlemen’s Association.
Since I had a 4-mile run slated for later, alcohol was not on my list of options this morning, but snacks were fine, so I sampled a bunch of different eats as Isabella and her brother, Jacy, 11, bounced their way through the morning.
It was great to see La Fiesta Grande and Mai Saigon joining in the Derby celebration on St. Clair Street. I picked up a delicious order of shrimp & pork egg rolls from the Vietnamese restaurant.
The other hot spot up this way was Brick Alley. This joint mixes dangerous-sized Derby drinks and has plenty of indoor and outside seating. This year I tried their Burgoo, which came with a homemade corn muffin. Once I crumbled that muffin up into the stew and added a healthy dose of Louisiana hot sauce, this was a scrumptious offering.
Our last stop was to check out the series of activities hosted in the parking lot of the YMCA. Most importantly there was a H-U-G-E bouncy castle inflated, along with music, dance instruction, basketball shooting contests, popcorn and cable rope exercises. I couldn’t get Bella out of the bouncy castle. It wasn’t until she tired herself out that she came stumbling over to me in need of liquids and air-conditioned relief.
Many thanks to the organizers, and all the folks performing on the Jim Beam stage. Particularly the jazz ensemble from Kentucky State University. They played some hot notes.
As for the actual Kentucky Derby, it’s a spectacle all its own that must be experienced in person to fully appreciate. There was a significant weather outburst around 5ish that brought a momentary downpour and strong wind gusts that sent expensive Derby hats flying across the grandstand at Churchill Downs, but by then most attendees were numb from imbibing Mint Juleps all day. Whats a little rain, right?
For those that live in this area, Derby has now morphed into a multi-week extravaganza. There are free concerts at the waterfront nightly leading up to the Derby Eve Jam, there’s a steamboat race that dates back 150 years between the Belle of Louisville and the Belle of Cincinnati, the U.S. Bank Great Balloon Race, the Pegasus Parade, cooking contests, a mini and full road race marathon, a slew of special events & Derby bottle unveilings from the bourbon industry and of course horse racing.
The spring meet at Churchill Downs opened April 30, the week before the Derby, and runs through July 2. It used to be locals not wanting to deal with the hassle or expense of wading into the Kentucky Derby would visit Churchill on the Friday before to take in the Kentucky Oaks. This is a $1 million Grade 1 stakes race, and is America’s premier and most lucrative contest for 3-year old thoroughbred fillies dating to 1875.
The Oaks is massive these days, and for longtime attendees, every bit as committed an adventure as the Derby used to be back in the 1980s. This year the Kentucky Oaks set an attendance record of 124,589 to see Cathryn Sofia take the $600,000 victory and her garland of lilies.
Lately, a marketing campaign has grown up around the idea of locals day being pushed back to the Thursday before the Derby, and calling it “Thurby.” Those attending Thurby, Oaks and Derby, can experience the trifecta of Kentucky horse racing pride.
The big winner Saturday was the No. 13 horse, Nyquist. Coming into the Kentucky Derby he was undefeated and a prohibitive 2-1 favorite amongst the 20 contenders. Any superstition about drawing the No. 13 post disappeared when the chestnut colt, which stalked the lead throughout, broke loose under jockey Mario Gutierrez on the outside coming down the home stretch to victory.
His final Derby time for 1 1/4 miles measured a respectable 2:01.31 and did so in front of 167,227, the second-largest crowd in Churchill Downs history – just under the record of 170,513 in 2015.
Wagering from all sources on Saturday’s Kentucky Derby was the second-highest in history, totaling $192.6 million, only 1 percent off the record set in 2015.
NBC and the horse racing industry were hoping for a big bump in interest for the Derby after American Pharaoh’s Triple Crown victory last year, the first in 37 years, but the audience dropped 3.1 percent. NBC announced that the Derby averaged 15.5 million viewers with a 9.0 rating and 21 share. American Pharoah’s Derby drew an average of 16 million viewers and a 9.6/23, which was a 2 percent increase over California Chrome’s 2014 Derby win.
Nyquist looked impressive and talk of a Triple Crown contender this year is inescapable. Next up is the Preakness Stakes, but nothing beats the Kentucky Derby for prestige, pageantry and history.