Many Derby Festival events have Louisville or Kentucky in their names, but that doesn’t mean Hoosiers don’t celebrate the cultural landmark just as enthusiastically.
Every year, the excitement crosses the Ohio River.
“It’s a big party internationally,” said Jim Bulleit, a former media broadcaster and Indiana native. “It draws everybody on this side of the river. They’re all proud of the Derby just as much. They figure it’s their Derby just as much as anybody else’s.”
Indiana’s celebrations around Derby start with the fireworks and aircraft spectacle of Thunder Over Louisville. Thousands of people flock to the riverfront from New Albany to Jeffersonville to catch a glimpse of the show.
“Jeffersonville has [one of] the world’s biggest clocks, but you’ve got to go over to Louisville to see it,” Bulleit said. “Louisville has this big fireworks show, but one of the best views you have to see it is from Southern Indiana. That way you get the skyline in the background and things like that.”
The buzz continues in the days leading up to the big race.
Jim Epperson is the executive director of SoIN Tourism, which serves Clark and Floyd counties. He said the Derby and all of the festivities that accompany it are a huge economic boon for Southern Indiana.
“Our hospitality industry folks are as busy and booked up and committed to their equivalent of a Black Friday, which is Derby week,” he said. “Our restaurants are as full.”
It isn’t just hotels and restaurants that benefit from the busy week.
Luanne Mattson, SoIN Tourism’s chief marketing officer, said local shops also see increased foot traffic from Hoosiers, Kentuckians and those from farther afield.
One of the biggest draws is the fashion industry, especially boutiques like House of K, Dress & Dwell and Sapphire on Spring.
“There’s places that people will travel to for Derby wear,” Mattson said. “The fashion aspect of it on our side of the river for women — we’ve got a lot of great stuff over here.”
When horses are called to post on Saturday, Hoosiers across the region will be gathered at watch parties.
Some throw house parties to drink bourbon and celebrate with friends. Others head to popular local establishments.
Joe Huber’s Family Farm and Restaurant has hosted large parties in its venues during past Derby races. Director of Sales and Marketing Terra Huber-Mahan said the thrill is the same as being at Churchill Downs.
“I can tell you that the energy is just out of this world,” she said. “It’s amazing to get everybody all together rooting on that last race. It’s just so exciting. Everybody is cheering for their horse pick. Lots of cheers, lots of noise, lots of laughter, and just great memories every year.”
Between the economic and cultural impacts, the Derby is a Hoosier tradition, just as much as it is Kentucky’s.
Epperson said central Indiana has the Indianapolis 500 to look forward to every May. Southern Indiana has the Derby.
“It’s just part of what we do.”
John Boyle is a reporter and editor at WFPL news focused on Southern Indiana. He is a corps member with Report For America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms.