The Kentucky Derby is the pinnacle of horse racing, and much like the Indianapolis 500 of auto racing, it’s an event market by weeks of celebration leading up to the big day. While I’ve seen plenty of cars race and even a few horses, I’ve never watched two steamboats race, let alone be on one of the boats racing. Until now. The 2015 Kentucky Derby Festival’s Great Steamboat Race takes the prize as one of the best races I’ve ever been a part of.


Ok, when we mention a steamboat race, we know your logical conclusion… Steamboats aren’t that fast. How on earth could this be an exciting “race”? Well, you take two giant steamboats, fill them with fun-loving people, and then fill said people with bourbon. That makes a steamboat race one of the best times you could ever have during an evening in Louisville.



The Great Steamboat Race, held just a couple days before the Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs, draws hundreds to the steamboats and hundreds more to the banks and bridges of Louisville and Jeffersonville, IN to cheer on the two historic boats. While I’m sure the people on the banks had a great time, it pales in comparison to the fun we had as our Belle of Louisville raced down the Ohio River against the Belle of Cincinnati. (Being a Cincinnati native, I was torn in my allegiance. Seems wrong to root against my hometown steamboat…)


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Everyone, like almost any Kentucky Derby Festival event, was dressed for the occasion in their seersuckers and big, colorful hats, and each time the massive steam whistles blew, the crowds on the boats cheered. In a world where we’re apt to take our seats and keep to ourselves, the Great Steamboat Race seems to inspire a different sort of atmosphere… A walk to the bar or bathroom took 30 minutes, not from lines, but because I’d inevitably be pulled into a conversation with a complete stranger.


Speaking of strangers-turned-friends on our steamboat ride… Meet Greg and Ronda. Their very first date was the Great Steamboat Race in 1995. They’ve been coming to the race every year since. For you math majors, that means this year’s Great Steamboat Race was the 20th anniversary of Greg and Ronda’s first date.


So, uh, like we mentioned earlier… Steamboats aren’t particularly fast and agile. This isn’t a race where two boats go neck and neck at high speed… (Plus, world on the street is one of the Belles is already significantly faster than the other.) Instead, the vessel that accumulates the most points takes home the lusted-after Silver Antlers. Of course, most of these folks aren’t too concerned about those Silver Antlers…

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From the Kentucky Derby Festival:

The Derby Festival made some significant changes to the format of the Great Steamboat Race in 2009, including the addition of the Belle of Cincinnati as the opponent for the hometown vessel, the Belle of Louisville. The Belle of Cincinnati replaced longtime rival, the Delta Queen, in this racing tradition on the Ohio River. Now, instead of the event winner being determined by the first boat to cross the finish line at the Clark Memorial Bridge, the winner of the event is the vessel that accumulates the most points from performing a series of five tasks assigned to each competitor throughout the day and during the race. One of the tasks is a Calliope Contest between the two Belles; other tasks are performed by the boat crews on-board, as well as onshore. Each boat is assigned two judges, in addition to an overall event judge from the Derby Festival. The winner of the event will be awarded a set of silver-plated antlers to replace the traditional gilded antlers that were presented to the winner in the past.

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The Great Steamboat Race is a tradition dating back to 1963 when the Delta Queen beat the Belle of Louisville in their first race on the Ohio. The Delta Queen and Belle of Louisville battled it out each year (minus a high water cancellation in 1967) along with other boats like the Julia Belle Swain, the Natchez, and the Spirit of Jefferson until the Delta Queen was swapped for the Belle of Cincinnati for the 2009 race.

If you’re planning your 2016 Kentucky Derby experience, the Great Steamboat Race is a must-do.

Of course, you don’t have to wait until the Great Steamboat Race to ride on the Belle of Louisville or the Belle of Cincinnati. For information on other special events, dinner cruises, and more aboard the Belle of Louisville, check out their website. For information on the Belle of Cincinnati and the other steamboats in BB Riverboats in Cincinnati, hop over to their site.


This experience is from a recent trip to the Jeffersonville/New Albany area right across the river from Louisville. Read more from my trip with these related articles:

Relax and recharge at the Louisville area’s best B&B: Market Street Inn


America’s most wonderful candy store: Schimpff’s Confectionery

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Cranking the siren at the Vintage Fire Museum