The week leading up to the Kentucky Derby is almost as much fun as the Run For The Roses itself. That's because the Kentucky Derby Festival is packed with events that celebrate the region, its culture, people, food, drink and traditions. Anyone visiting Louisville for the race should plan to spend a little extra time in the city the week before. But for cruise fans, there's one annual event that's a must: the Great Steamboat Race.
A longstanding tradition, the Great Steamboat Race pits steamboats against one another, racing for roughly 14 miles roundtrip down the Ohio River. Two ships -- Belle of Louisville and Belle of Cincinnati -- compete annually to take home the gigantic Silver Antlers trophy, though other ships also occasionally join in the race for the vaunted prize.
The Great Steamboat Race, which first took place in 1963, began as a battle between Belle of Louisville and Delta Queen, but Belle of Cincinnati joined the fray in 2009, after Delta Queen retired from service. In 2018, American Queen Steamboat Company competed, beating out both ships with its American Duchess. American Queen battled as well, in 2012, when Belle of Louisville was declared the winner. (American Queen Steamboat Company chairman and CEO John Waggoner is on the Kentucky Derby Festival board of directors, the organization behind the event planning.)
The race begins and ends at the Clark Memorial Bridge in Louisville, Kentucky.
The winner isn't simply the first boat to cross the finish line. The river boats also accumulate points by performing a series of tasks assigned throughout the day. Tasks might include a calliope contest or a knot-tying competition, for example. The tasks are light and fun, reflecting the atmosphere of the race, which is as much pageantry as actual competition.
The best spot to watch the Great Steamboat Race is from onboard one of the vessels. Belle of Louisville and Belle of Cincinnati both offer dinner cruises during the event. Their offerings vary, depending on which ship you sail, but you can expect food, music and drinks. (Expect to try bourbon cocktails onboard, including the mint julep, a Kentucky Derby staple.) If a company such as American Queen Steamboat Company competes, the best way to guarantee that you can see the race from one of its ships is by booking a full cruise.
Can't get on a sailing? You can watch from virtually anywhere along the 7-mile course. Fans line the banks of the Ohio and wave as the riverboats sail by. People also flock to the numerous bridges over the river so they can watch the majestic ships pass under. Passengers on the boats wave right back.
Other offerings leading up to the Kentucky Derby include a beer fest, marathon balloon festival, sports, health and wellness events, a wine fest, numerous concerts and food galore.
Updated October 10, 2019