January 8, 2024. Louisville, KY. – It was a royal morning in Louisville as the Kentucky Festival introduced its 2024 Royal Court during an event at Dillard’s in Mall St. Matthews. Five young women have been selected to serve as Princesses for this year’s Festival and will serve as official ambassadors of the city, Commonwealth and Festival as they attend more than 70 events this spring.
The Program is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity celebrating the state’s most civic-minded and academically achieving college students, and each woman receives a $2,000 scholarship ($1,000 from the Fillies, Inc., and $1,000 from the Kentucky Derby Festival Foundation).
“The Royal Court Program has been a tradition for more than 60 years, and seeing the Derby Festival Princesses out in the community is one of the first signs that the Derby Festival season is around the corner,” said Matt Gibson, Kentucky Derby Festival President & CEO. “These young women are academic scholars, leaders in their communities and have resumes packed with awards and achievements. We’re honored to have them as our ambassadors.”
The 2024 Royal Court was selected after attending final judging over the weekend with 24 other finalist candidates. There were dozens of original applicants for the Royal Court Program, representing more than 15 colleges and universities from around Kentucky and Indiana and throughout the region. All of the applicants went through preliminary judging in November. The Royal Court is coordinated by The Fillies, Inc., a volunteer group that works closely with the Festival.
The members of the 2024 Court are:
Paighton Brooks of Alexandria, KY – Paighton, 21-years-old, is a senior at the University of Louisville with a Double Major in Political Science and Criminal Justice and is a Pre-Law and Public Policy student. She is a McConnell Scholar and their DEI Chair, and a Woodford R. Porter Scholar and also serves as President of Porter Scholars. She’s a member of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Inc., is the 2023 University of Louisville Homecoming Queen, and volunteers with The Hope Buss.
Sarah Downs of Springfield, KY – Sarah, 23-years-old, is a second-year Med student at the University of Louisville School of Medicine. She is a member of the Distinction in Business & Leadership Track, the Social Chair of her class, and the Public Relations Chair of Project Heal. She is an avid pianist and has her own Kentucky Proud certified bakery.
Ankita Nair of Louisville, KY – Ankita, 25-years-old, is a third-year Med student at the University of Louisville School of Medicine. She graduated Summa Cum Laude from UCLA in three years with a Bachelor’s Degree in Human Biology and Society. She is the reigning Miss University of Louisville and was a Quality of Life finalist at Miss Kentucky. She founded her own preventative health initiative “Let’s Live Kentucky” to improve state healthcare outcomes and led her school’s Medical Spanish program.
Emma Rhodes of Louisville, KY – Emma, 24-years-old, is in the second year of her Master’s Program at Bellarmine University focusing on Elementary Education, and is a third-grade teacher at Saint Agnes School. She was a member of the Bellarmine University Dance Team, served on the Executive Board of Phi Mu Fraternity, has taught English in Italy and Austria, is a three-time national ballroom dancing champion, and is a conservationist.
Laurel Riggs of Bardstown, KY – Laurel, 22-years-old, is a senior at the University of Kentucky with a dual degree in Political Science and Writing, Rhetoric and Digital Studies. She is Pre-Law and will be attending UK’s Rosenberg College of Law in the fall. She’s a Lunsford Scholar and Lewis Honors College student, is on the Executive Board for UK Panhellenic and Student Government Association, and serves as Director of Programs at Hugh O’Brian Youth (HOBY) Leadership Kentucky.
Two alternates were also chosen – Abigail Willhoite of Frankfort, KY, a senior at Western Kentucky University, was chosen as the first alternate. Anneli White of Shelbyville, KY, a junior at the University of Kentucky, was chosen as the second alternate. They will become Princesses if one of the other women is unable to serve.
One of the five Princesses will be crowned the Derby Festival Queen by a spin-of-the-wheel at the annual Fillies Derby Ball on Saturday, April 13 at The Galt House Hotel.
Since 1959, the Royal Court Program has been overseen by members of The Fillies, Inc., a non-profit organization with 250 community volunteers who work closely with the Derby Festival. Candidates for the Princess Program must maintain a minimum 3.0 grade-point average and are selected by a panel of three out-of-state judges. Criteria for selection includes knowledge of the Derby Festival, poise, intelligence, personality and campus and community involvement.
The first Derby Festival Princess was crowned in 1957, the second year of the Festival. Previous Princesses have included former Kentucky Governor Martha Layne Collins and the late Gail Gorski, the first female pilot ever hired by United Airlines.