Private jets pack Bowman Field in Louisville, Ky., during Kentucky Derby week.
From the Paddock beneath the Twin Spires to Millionaire’s Row, the eyes of the world focus on Churchill Downs and Louisville on the first Saturday of May each year for the Greatest Two Minutes in Sports known as the Kentucky Derby.
Louisville Muhammad Ali International Airport (SDF), as well as nearby Bowman Field (LOU) and Clark Regional Airport (JVY) are packed with private planes as jetsetters from the world of entertainment come to be entertained, gathering with professional athletes, titans of politics and industry, and just your regular run-of-the-mill ultra-high-net-worth individuals to soak it all in. They drink bourbon, eat fine meals, place exotic bets, and party the night away until the sun again shines brightly on their temporary Kentucky homes sometime the following morning as partygoers finally hit the hay.
Much of the national attention goes to Derby Day, culminated by a two-minute thoroughbred race, and Derby Eve, a night where the city is full of star-studded events. However, for those who call the Commonwealth home year-round, the Kentucky Derby Festival is a two-week-long party.
Why We Love Thunder Over Louisville
While AirVenture and Sun ‘n Fun are bucket-list events for those who live to breathe the smell of jet fuel burning, the airshow and fireworks delivered to the kickoff of the Kentucky Derby Festival is attended by people from around the country. In fact, it draws a crowd as large as four times the size of those inside Churchill Downs during the actual Run for the Roses.
This year’s event paid tribute to the 75th anniversary of the Air Force and featured aerobatics shows along with demos of planes ranging from a B-29 to a F-16s and a B-2 bomber.
RELATED: Thunder Over Louisville airshow honors Air Force history in triumphant return
Why We Love the Great Steamboat Race
From horses and plains to boats on the Mighty Ohio. The Belle of Louisville is a crown jewel of the community, and at the age of 107, it is the oldest operating Mississippi River-style riverboat in the world.
Although its opponents have changed through the years, the Great Steamboat Race pits steam-powered paddleboats against one another, each packed tight with throngs of partiers, as thousands line the riverbanks to party along as the boats break every law in the rulebook trying to best one another in a jaunt up and down the river and back under the Clark Memorial Bridge.
Given the Belle’s history and the no-holds-barred attitude to the race, it is a fitting complement to the (as of 2022) 148-year-old Kentucky Derby.
Why We Love the Chow Wagon & Balloon Glow
What’s a good party without food and drink? The Fest-a-Ville at Louisville’s Waterfront Park features a carnival-type vibe with a midway and helicopter rides, along with fried foods, beer and live music. On the Friday before Derby Eve, hot air balloons line the Great Lawn of the park, firing up their burners and lighting up the sky. The following morning, weather permitting, the balloons take off in a hare & hound race, filling the morning sky with color across Louisville, chasing one another across the city to a spot where the hare balloon, the prior year’s winner, places an X on the ground and the hound balloons toss markers as close as they can to the target.
Why We Love Thurby and Oaks
Despite all of the other fun Derby events, it’s all about the horses, right? While the Kentucky Derby and Kentucky Oaks are world-class sporting events dating back to the Reconstruction Era (The Derby is the oldest continuously held event in sports history.), “Louisville’s Day at the Downs,” dubbed Thurby is a newer event with stakes races and concerts in the track’s infield. It adds a more modern-day affair to the racing fans’ calendar for mint juleps and stunning wardrobes, complete with floral hats and brazen bowties.
Formerly “Kentucky’s Day at the Downs,” the Kentucky Oaks has taken on a more national scope in recent years, becoming a day to celebrate women, particularly those impacted by breast cancer, hosting a survivors’ parade on the track and racing money to advance the fight against the disease. Learn more here.
Why We Love the Other Derby Festival Events
This article could be written to be twice as long, highlighting many more events, including the original Kentucky Derby Festival event, the Pegasus Parade, and the marathon held during the festival. This time of year is a top tourist draw for the area, also bringing increased crowds to the Muhammad Ali Center, Louisville Slugger Museum and the Bourbon Trail that runs through the region, highlighting historic distilleries.
In all, the Kentucky Derby is estimated to have a $400 million economic impact, and the two weeks of festival atmosphere in peak spring weather ahead of the big race is worth jumping on a jet for and flying to Louisville.
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