History of Kentucky Derby Festival

People from all over the world travel to Louisville, Kentucky, each year to take part in the Derby Festival and experience the legendary Run for the Roses on the first Saturday in May. With more than 70 events ranging from one of the country’s largest half-marathons to the Pegasus Parade to an old-fashioned steamboat race, the Kentucky Derby Festival offers a wide spectrum of activities for both local residents and visitors. Annual attendance of events has exceeded 1.5 million in recent years. The festival is also a mirror of the community — events are attended by people representing all age, educational, geographic and income groups.

Two weeks before the Derby, the festival’s opening ceremonies kick off with Thunder Over Louisville — the largest annual fireworks show in North America. The massive pyrotechnic spectacular and air show on the Ohio River can be seen for miles, attracting 500,000 spectators to the Kentucky and Indiana shorelines. Thunder Over Louisville sets the stage for a whirlwind of eagerly awaited festival events that not only provide a huge economic impact on the community, but help define the city’s character and traditions.

And it all started with one event in 1956.

“Another effort is being made to provide a full week of fun for Kentucky Derby visitors. The first try was born a quarter of a century too soon, say fathers of the new plan. (referring to the ill-fated and ultimately flooded-out Festival starts of 1935-1937).

“Louisville is not the same tired old town it used to be. Sick and tired of being sick and tired, it has spruced up and is yelling for nourishment. This time the festival will succeed, they promise.

“The first move will be made this spring. It will be a giant parade of floats, marching bands and prancing horses. A sort of history of the horse race, put to music and flowers. And the story of industry and commerce told by the ingenuity of the float makers.

“Mayor Andrew Broaddus said yesterday he thinks Derby Week would not be complete without big name dance bands at the two leading hotels, a TV boxing card in the new Fairgrounds, and some outstanding night baseball attraction.

The parade, he thinks, probably should be staged on Thursday evening, rather than Friday, because of the pressure of other events on Friday.”

— Adapted from the “Ruby Report” by Courier-Journal columnist Earl Ruby appearing on Sunday, Feb. 19, 1956.

And thus the Derby Festival was born. Four men with an idea. A public relations man, a journalist, a Chamber of Commerce committee member and an active civic volunteer — Addison McGhee, Earl Ruby, Ray Wimberg and Basil Caummisar enjoyed lunch often, but one winter day in early 1956, a midday meal made history.

The four men knew what the Kentucky Derby meant to the city. It created a special spirit each spring, welcoming visitors from around the nation and truly bringing the little river town to life. They wanted more, more for its citizens, more for the locals who could not afford to go to the track. And that is exactly what they engineered, a literal pageant of the people. Dubbed the “Pegasus” Parade for the winged horse of Greek mythology, the first event was to symbolize the magic, energy and excitement the infant Festival was hoped to generate.

It was a simple premise — create some events at this unparalleled time called Derby that everyone could attend, no matter the size of their pocketbook. That first event was not only free to the 50,000 who showed up to watch, but included as participants groups from every walk of life in the community. The entire Derby Festival was founded on this one event and a meager budget of $640. That pattern would inspire the next four decades.

Now with more than 70 events, 23 full-time paid staff members and an annual budget of $5 million, the Festival has undergone a lot of changes. And yet the basic concept four civic-minded volunteers had in 1956 remains the very essence of Kentucky Derby Festival, Inc., today. Create events that entertain, are affordable and contribute to the common good of this community.

There have now been 59 consecutive years of Derby Festivals and many native Louisvillians who have literally grown up with the parade, the balloons, the boat race, the music and the Pegasus Pin. Those around in 1956 marvel at the growth. Did the founders ever imagine their homespun parade would be led by the likes of John Wayne, Muhammad Ali or General Norman Schwarzkopf? Or that one pyrotechnic display to open the Festival would become the largest annual fireworks show in the nation? Probably not, but it demonstrates the spirit behind what they created, the unique vitality of this area’s citizens and the spirit and magic that was born in the first running of the Kentucky Derby — all of which has become synonymous with the Kentucky Derby Festival.

June 21 - June 21