The Kentucky Derby Festival is packed with events that celebrate the region, its people, culture, traditions, food, and drinks. Anyone who wants to visit Louisville for the race must plan a little extra time in the city the week before. But for the cruise fans, there’s an event that is a must: the Great Steamboat Race.
What is the Great Steamboat Race?
The Great Steamboat Race is an annual steamboat race that usually takes place on the Wednesday before the first Saturday of May, three days before the Kentucky Derby. A longstanding tradition, the Great Steamboat Race is a part of the Kentucky Derby Festival.
In this steamboat race , boats pit against each one another and race for roughly 14 miles round trip down the Ohio River, spanning between Louisville, Kentucky, and Jeffersonville, Indiana. It begins and ends at the Clark Memorial Bridge in Louisville, Kentucky. The Belle of Louisville and Belle of Cincinnati compete annually to take home the giant Silver Antlers trophy, though other ships join the race occasionally to take home the vaunted prize.
The winner of the race is not always the first boat to cross the finish line. The steamboats also accumulate points by performing a series of tasks assigned throughout the day. For example, it might include a calliope contest, obstacle inflatable course, handy line toss, or a knot-tying competition. The tasks on the race are light and fun, which reflects the atmosphere of the race. It’s actually as much pageantry as actual competition.
The race usually starts at 6 PM, and all boats typically come racing back (at ten mph) around 8 PM. If you’re interested in watching the race, make sure you bring a jacket because the river can get chilly once the sun goes down.
History of the Great Steamboat Race
The first Great Steamboat Race took place in 1963, and it began as a battle between the Delta Queen and the Belle of Louisville. The head-to-head battle of the two historic vessels is one of the Kentucky Derby’s oldest Festival traditions. Scheduled yearly for the Wednesday before Derby day, this tradition has seen its fair share of participants.
The Great Steamboat Race had different formats through the course of its history:
Traditionally, the race began under the George Rogers Clark Memorial Bridge, which served as the start and finish line. The competitors were the Belle of Louisville and the Delta Queen, though other additional or substitutionary vessels competed occasionally. The distance of the race is 14 miles, with boats averaging a speed of 7 miles per hour. The winner received the Golden Antlers, which would remain with the winner until the next race.
The year 2008 was the last year to feature the Delta Queen as a competitor before being renovated into a dry-dock hotel. To replace her, the Belle of Cincinnati took place and entered the races.
In 2009, the event organizers changed the format of the race, prompting Belle of Cincinnati’s Capt. Kerry Snowden to note that there are no rules in riverboat racing, so whatever goes, goes. The change brought in a series of tasks that the crew must be able to perform for points before the actual race. Since the Cincinnati is a diesel ship with more power, it must travel further to Harrods Creek. The steamboat that garners the most points after the race is declared as the winner and is presented with the Silver Antlers. The Golden Antlers were retired when the Delta Queen stopped competing.
In 2012, the race featured once again two steam-powered boats as competitors and the diesel-powered Belle of Cincinnati. The American Queen returned to overnight steamboat service that year, so it was able to join. It finished as second that year.
In 2018, the American Queen Steamboat Company competed again, beating out both ships with its American Duchess.
How to Enjoy the Great Steamboat Race
If you love to celebrate all things Derby, here’s a list of ways you can enjoy the Great Steamboat Race:
Take the cruise.
The best spot to watch the Great Steamboat Race is from onboard one of the vessels. Both the Belle of Cincinnati and Belle of Louisville offer dinner cruises during the vent. Their offerings vary depending on the ship you sail in, but always expect food, music, and drinks.
Guests dress in Derby wear for the two-hour event, which often includes fancy hors d’oeuvres and an open bar aboard a century-old historic landmark. Riding the steamboats themselves is something to put on anyone’s Derby bucket list. If you want to learn about what people traditionally dress when riding steamboats, read this post.
Have a picnic on the waterfront.
If you can’t get on a sailing, watch the race anywhere along the seven-mile course. Fans line the banks of the Ohio and wave as the riverboats sail by. You can grab some friends, some fast food, and refreshing beverages, then pop a squat along the riverside to enjoy a picnic-style afternoon of boat racing. Some fun, free viewing areas include Cox’s Park and the Big Four Lawn.
Stroll the Big Four Bridge.
People also flock to the bridges over the river so they can watch the steamboats pass over. The Big Four Bridge is a great place to get a birds’ eye view of the action. This bridge is near the races start to finish line, and you can get some grub in Southern Indiana in the downtime.
Attend the KDF BeerFest.
The BeerFest lets you enjoy the race while sampling both regional and national craft beers. Tickets for the event include some craft beer tastings, a souvenir sampling glass, and a BeerFest pin. The BeerFest is usually open from 6 PM to 9 PM on a race day.
Take cover indoors.
If you’re worried about the weather, you can get into the limited but good options to catch the race while dining indoors. Joe’s Crab Shack and King Fish on the River, RIVUE at the Galt House, and River House on the Levee are all great places to catch a glimpse of the slowest two hours in water sports.