After two years of difficulties brought on by the COVID pandemic, the 67th Kentucky Derby Festival in 2022 will present a more familiar iteration of itself, though events began in mid-March rather than the traditional two weeks before the Derby. 

thunder over louisville 2022 - kentucky derby festival

Every year on the first Saturday in May, "the most exciting two minutes in sports" take place at Churchill Downs. The period before that, however, brings forth an exciting series of festivities known as the Kentucky Derby Festival. After two years of difficulties brought on by the pandemic, the 67th Kentucky Derby Festival in 2022 will present a more familiar iteration of itself, though events began in mid-March rather than the traditional two weeks before the Derby. If you're just now learning about this Louisville institution, read on to find out what you've been missing.

History of the Kentucky Derby Festival

It was 1935 that saw the introduction of a weeklong festival preceding the Kentucky Derby, but the idea of an annual event was cut short in 1937, which brought flooding that led to its discontinuation. Not until almost 20 years later in 1956 would there be a successful effort to revive the festival. The individuals who conceptualized the revival were Basil Caummisar, Addison McGhee, Early Ruby, and Ray Wimberg. 

These men regularly lunched together. Early in the year, they discussed over a meal the possibility of developing a special occasion centered on the Kentucky Derby that brought life and excitement to the city of Louisville. The idea was to put on an event that could appeal to everyone, regardless of their economic class. That event would be the Pegasus Parade, which featured various members of the Louisville community and was free to the estimated 50,000 attendees. The budget for the parade was just $640 (the equivalent of about $6,700 today).

Since those humble beginnings, the festival has grown tremendously around the initial Pegasus Parade event. Over the years, the parade leaders have included celebrities such as John Wayne and Louisville native Muhammad Ali. Today, the number of events exceeds 70, and the festival attracts attendees from around the nation. In the course of its history since the 1956 revival, there has been only one total cancellation, which occurred in 2020. 

Kentucky Derby Festival Traditions

The Kentucky Derby Festival comprises over 70 events, with some specific to the year and others that are part of ongoing traditions since its early days. See what some of the best-loved traditions are and what you can expect from them in 2022:

"Rabbit Run" - Sponsored by Rabbit Hole Distillery

Rabbit Run is one of the newest annual events to be added to the lineup of Kentucky Derby Festival Traditions. It is a public event, open to the community and features a Rabbit Derby style race - yes, complete with live rabbits -  plus a few "unannounced" surprises each Kentucky Derby season. Complimentary cocktails and heavy hors d'oeuvres will be served. Currently there is a capacity limit for the race; although it is expected to grow exponentially with each Kentucky Derby Festival time. To RSVP to this event or the Rabbit Hole Distillery official Derby oaks Dinner and Party, inquire here

Thunder Over Louisville

Thunder Over Louisville is the official kickoff event of the Kentucky Derby Festival. What began as a small fireworks show in 1988 soon grew to accommodate its rising popularity. Nowadays, the event brings in over 600,000 attendees every year. Thunder Over Louisville also features an all-day air show leading up to a tremendous pyrotechnics display after nightfall. In addition, there are myriad entertainment options to keep you occupied throughout the day, including the Thunder FoodFest, a fun zone with bounce houses and face painting, and an interactive display area.

Thunder Over Louisville takes place this year on April 23, exactly two weeks before the Kentucky Derby. Traditionally held at Waterfront Park since the 1990s, last year saw a dispersed display throughout the city on account of the ongoing pandemic. In 2022, though, it returns to the Waterfront.

Great BalloonFest

The Great BalloonFest is a race event featuring hot air balloons. In 2022, the Great BalloonFest takes place on the Waterfront and spans two days, April 29 and 30. The first day is for the Great Balloon Glow, a nighttime companion event to the race. The hot air balloons remain grounded in the field while their pilots ignite the burners, causing the appearance of a glow as a musical score accompanies the sight.

The second day brings on the hot air balloon race, one of the most popular events of the festival. Falling under the category of a hare-and-hound race, the event begins with a single balloon taking off in advance of the others. This is the hare balloon. Minutes later, the remaining balloons — the hounds — take off. Meanwhile, the hare finds a place to land and lay out a 50-foot target. The objective of the hounds is to aim markers at the target. The one who lands their marker nearest the target gets the highest score. 

The Great Balloon Glow takes place at 8 p.m. on April 29 on the Waterfront, while the race is at 7 a.m. on April 30 at Bowman Field.

Pegasus Parade

The event that started it all continues to delight crowds today. In accordance with this year's theme of "Loving Louisville," parade participants are expected to use decorations that show off what they love about their city. In addition to floats and inflatables, there'll be equestrian units and marching bands. 

A significant change to this year's parade is that it takes place on Sunday, May 1, rather than the traditional Thursday. However, after last year's dispersed arrangement, the event returns to Broadway, beginning at 3 p.m. and lasting two hours.

Great Bed Races

It's a race — with beds. Teams of five people construct a racing vehicle using a bed as the base. The bed must be at least 64 inches wide and 75 inches long and have a minimum height of 10 inches, measuring from the ground to the top of the support frame. The vehicle must include a steering mechanism as well as a push bar. One team member steers while the others push the vehicle around the racecourse.

This outrageous fun takes place on May 2, 2022, with the tailgate party starting at 1 p.m., the Parade of the Beds at 6 p.m., and the race at 7 p.m. 

Great Steamboat Race

A longtime tradition since 1963, the Great Steamboat Race on the Ohio River initially saw the Belle of Louisville competing against the Delta Queen of Cincinnati. In that inaugural race, the steamboats raced from Clark Memorial Bridge to Six Mile Island and then back to the bridge. The Delta Queen came out on top that year. 

This year, the race includes three vessels: the Belle of Louisville, the Belle of Cincinnati, and American Duchess. The race takes place on May 4 at the Wharf on the Waterfront. Boarding begins at 4:30 p.m., and the race lasts approximately 2 hours. 

The above events represent just a sample of the festivities you can expect at this year's Kentucky Derby Festival. Many other events are scheduled to take place throughout April and early May, all leading up to the spectacular that is the Kentucky Derby itself.

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