Guide to the Kentucky Derby in Louisville: Festivals, Events, Things to Do

The Kentucky Derby

Eclipse Sportswire / Getty Images

Held each year on the first Saturday of May, the Kentucky Derby brings hundreds of thousands of spectators to Louisville, Kentucky for the annual race. However, festivities for the Kentucky Derby aren't limited to the race itself; in fact, the Kentucky Derby Festival takes place over two weeks packed with dozens of different events.

If you're trying to decide what Kentucky Derby Festival events to attend, though, you'll want to pick the best and biggest like the annual fireworks show, marathon, balloon festival, and parade as well as the official race itself.

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The Kentucky Derby

Sculpture of Kentucky Derby Winner Barbaro in front of Kentucky Derby Museum at Churchill Downs, Louisville, KY
 Barry Winiker / Getty Images

Although the Kentucky Derby always takes place on the first Saturday of May, live racing events for the festival start on Tuesday and the Opening Night of the event takes place the Saturday before the race.

  • Opening Night: Partnering with the Fund for the Arts, the Churchill Downs' event includes a variety of art instillations, live performances, and 11 thoroughbred races on April 27, 2019, from 5 to 11:30 p.m.
  • Champions DayHighlighting the history and sport of the Kentucky Derby, the newest event of the festival includes autograph sessions with legendary jockeys, seminars on handicapping, and free giveaways on Tuesday before the race (April 30, 2019)
  • Dawn at the DownsEvery morning from Tuesday to Thursday
  • Thurby: Featuring great horse racing, Kentucky bourbon, and music, this annual tradition takes place from 11 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. on Thursday before the race (May 2, 2019)
  • Kentucky OaksOne of the longest-running horse races in the United States, held each year for 3-year-old fillies (female horses) to compete on the Friday before the Kentucky Derby (May 3, 2019); guests are encouraged to wear pink and stick around after the event for the Survivors Parade honoring breast and ovarian cancer survivors​
  • The Kentucky DerbyKnown as the "greatest two minutes in sports," this annual event is the main attraction of the annual festival and always takes place on the first Saturday in May (May 4, 2019)

To attend any of these official events, you will need to purchase a ticket well in advance of the Kentucky Derby Festival; prices can be quite expensive to start, but the occasions are certainly worth the cost.

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Thunder Over Louisville

Kentucky Derby Opening Ceremonies - Thunder Over Louisville

Stephen J. Cohen / Getty Images

Each year, close to half a million people gather around Louisville's riverfront to watch Thunder Over Louisville--the largest fireworks show in the world and the opening event for the Kentucky Derby Festival.

Additionally, the 28-minute fireworks show is preceded by the Thunder Air Show, one of the top five air shows in the country. The Thunder Air Show features more than 100 planes performing hours of diving and acrobatic stunts.

Thunder Over Louisville will take place on April 13, 2019, and will carry the theme "The Wonderful World of Thunder." The event is free to attend and can be seen from rooftop bars and restaurants across the city as well as the riverfront itself.

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Kentucky Derby Festival Marathon and miniMarathon

Kentucky Derby Marathon

Steve Lovegrove /

The 26.2-mile Derby Marathon and the 12-mile Derby miniMarathon are two of the top annual Kentucky Derby Festival events; though the miniMarathon is the more popular of the two and has been named among the nation's top 50 races by  USA Track and Field magazine.

More than 12,000 people from all over the world gather together on the last Saturday in April to run one of these two scenic marathons through Louisville's parks and neighborhoods and past some of the city's biggest attractions.

The 2019 Kentucky Derby Festival Marathon and MiniMarathon will take place on April 27, 2019, starting at 7:30 a.m. Advanced registration is required to participate in the marathons, but you can watch from anywhere along the route.

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Great Balloon Festival

U.S. Bank Derby Festival Great Balloon Glow

Stephen J. Cohen / Getty Images

The Great Balloon Fest is a series of five Kentucky Derby Festival events that lead up to the main event—the Great Balloon Race.

The first Great Balloon Race was held at Iroquois Park in 1973 and featured only seven balloons; however, the Great Balloon Race quickly became one of the most popular Kentucky Derby Festival events, and what was once just the Great Balloon Race is now an entire weekend festival of hot air ballooning festivities.

Events for 2019 include the Great Balloon Glow, a race between hot air balloons lit up with twinkling lights, and the Great Balloon Glimmer, a smaller version of the Glow event. Each of these events is free with a Pegasus Pin, though you may be required to pay a parking fee.

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Great Steamboat Race

Kentucky Derby Festival's Great Steamboat Race

LuAnn Snawder Photography / Flickr / CC BY-ND 2.0

The Great Steamboat Race is an annual Kentucky Derby Festival event that occurs on the Wednesday before the main event. The Great Steamboat Race is a competition between the Belle of Louisville and the Belle of Cincinnati, which takes place along the Ohio River.

Prior to 2009, the Belle of Louisville raced the Delta Queen in the Great Steamboat Race, but new federal regulations forced the Delta Queen to dock permanently at the end of 2008. It is now being kept as a hotel in Chattanooga, Tennessee.

During the event, guests can either purchase tickets aboard the Belle of Louisville or the Belle of Cincinnati (the latter is cheaper but includes fewer amenities). The Great Steamboat Race will take place on Wednesday, May 1, 2019; boarding opens at 4:30, and the race itself starts at 6 p.m.

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Pegasus Parade

2011 Pegasus Parade / Flickr / Public Domain

The Kentucky Derby Festival Pegasus Parade was the first ever event of the Kentucky Derby Festival; although the festival has grown since the days where it consisted of just the parade races, the Pegasus Parade remains one of the biggest and best Kentucky Derby Festival events.

During the event, parade participants march, walk, and roll down Broadway in Downtown Louisville while spectators watch the amazing series of floats, inflatable characters, marching bands, celebrities, and horses pass.

The 2019 Pegasus Parade will take place on Thursday, May 2, 2019, starting at 5 p.m. The parade runs west for 1.7 miles on Broadway starting at Campbell Street and concluding at 9th Street. Advanced registration is required to participate in the event, but spectators are free to watch from along the route free of charge.

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