By MARY ALAN WOODWARD
There was a time when many Louisvillians celebrated the Kentucky Derby by watching celebrities get off the train.
In 1956, however, a handful of influential citizens invited everyone to the party by assembling the first Pegasus Parade in the fledgling Kentucky Derby Festival (KDF).
“A lot of people soon thought of the parade as their Derby,” said Mike Berry, KDF’s president and CEO. “Today we have all kinds of ways to celebrate, whether you’re young in age or young at heart.”
Mike joined KDF as an event manager in 1986. He later sold corporate sponsorships, and was promoted to his current post 15 years ago.
During his early days, there were nine employees and an annual budget of around $3 million.
“The festival was like Brigadoon — it appeared for eight or nine days, then went away,” he said. “Now we have a full-time staff of 23 with a budget of $6 million, and it’s a two- to three-week festival, depending on how the religious holidays fall, with events outside that time period. We’re ten events, including the Spring Fashion Show, into it by the time Thunder comes.”
He credits his predecessor, Dan Mangeot, with positioning the festival as an economic driver in the community. That required turning what started out as a party into a business.
“We could no longer be only in the business of fun; we needed also to be in the business of good governance,” he said. “We’re a not-for-profit, but the government requires us to do things formerly reserved for businesses. For example, conflicts of interest might arise if any of our board members work in companies we consider hiring. In the past, we’d just been putting the spit in the papier-mâché and hoping it wouldn’t fall apart until the day after Derby. But we’re not putting on a play in the backyard — we’re on Broadway.”
The public’s expectations have grown along with the festival, which now has approximately 70 events.
Occasionally, people vote with their feet to tell festival organizers which ones need reworking.
The Great Steamboat Race, for example, became predictable — fewer people thronged to the riverbanks, and one broadcaster likened it to watching paint dry.
Now, the boats are involved in additional activities, such as a tug-of-war between captains, and the American Queen will participate in this year’s race.
The Run for the Rosé started out as a lively race among restaurant workers, but isn’t on the current schedule.
“Restaurants are crazy as Derby approaches, so it’s hard for people to get off work,” Mike explained. “It was getting harder to find sponsorship, because the race was alcohol-related. But if anyone wants to come forward, we can talk about 2013. One nice thing about the festival is that something can go away but then come back.”
His favorite events include the steamboat race and the Stock Yards Bank Great Bed Races. The latter take place on Monday of Derby week and creative silliness always wins.
“We could probably blow up the city and not get as much nationwide coverage as the bed races get,” he said.
Another of his favorites is the Ford Motor Co. KDF Spelling Bee.
Emily Keaton, 12, of Pikeville has won three consecutive contests, earning $30,000 in U.S. savings bonds.
“That event is special for me because of its educational value, and because it’s our largest outreach,” he said.
“More than 60 counties in Kentucky and southern Indiana send representatives,” he said. “It’s a way the festival gets its message to places that aren’t reached by our advertising or by our footprint here in metro Louisville. People in Pikeville know more about the Derby because of the spelling bee than because of Thunder.”
Attracting more than a million attendees from near and far, including the 50 states and 17 countries that send athletes to the Marathon and miniMarathon, helps KDF generate $128 million in annual revenue for the community.
Almost half of the festival’s budget is raised through corporate sponsorships, with additional funding provided through sales of Pegasus pins, tickets, entry fees and concessions.
The numbers are important, but so is the festival’s magic.
“Louisville is fortunate to have two Christmases,” he said. “This festival is so loved and embraced by the public. We used to have themes such as ‘Spring Fever Reliever,’ but that was confusing. All people needed was the KDF brand, because it’s about tradition, pride and fun. People wanted a lot of family-oriented events at the waterfront, so we started Fest-a-Ville. We’re simply caretakers of this community tradition.”
That’s why KDF sets up its Morning Line radio network, through which stations from regional cities and towns broadcast from the Kentucky Derby Museum.
“We get jockeys, the governor, all kinds of people going from one table to another, talking to the broadcasters,” he said. “It’s a long commercial for what’s going on. Mr. Paducah, you’re only a few hours away, so come spend the night. Enjoy the Chow Wagon and the steamboat race, and stay for the parade. Then go tell your friends — and bring them with you next year.”
The Kentucky Derby Festival office, 1001 S. Third St., opens at 8:30 a.m. and closes at 5 p.m. Monday-Friday. For more information, visit www.kdf.org or phone 502.584.FEST.