Many Derby Festival events have Louisville or Kentucky in their names, but that doesn’t mean the Hoosiers don’t celebrate this cultural landmark with equal enthusiasm.
Every year, the buzz crosses the Ohio River.
“It’s a big party internationally,” said Jim Bulleit, a former media broadcaster and Indiana native. “It attracts everyone on this side of the river. They are equally proud of the Derby. They think it’s their Derby as much as anyone else’s.
Indiana’s celebrations around Derby begin with the Thunder Over Louisville fireworks and air show. Thousands of people flock to the riverfront from New Albany to Jeffersonville to catch a glimpse of the spectacle.
“Jeffersonville has [one of] the biggest clocks in the world, but you have to go to Louisville to see it,” Bulleit said. “Louisville has this great fireworks show, but one of the best views you have to see is from southern Indiana. That way you get the horizon line 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 the festivities that come with it are a huge economic boon to southern Indiana.
“Our people in the hospitality industry are also busy and reserved and engaged in their equivalent of a Black Friday, which is Derby week,” he said. “Our restaurants are also full.”
It’s not just hotels and restaurants that are taking advantage of the busy week.
Luanne Mattson, director of marketing for SoIN Tourism, said local stores are also seeing an increase in foot traffic from Hoosiers, Kentuckians and those further afield.
The fashion industry is one of the biggest draws, especially boutiques like House of K, Dress & Dwell, and Sapphire on Spring.
“There are places where people will go to wear Derby clothes,” Mattson said. “The fashion aspect on our side of the river for women – we have a lot of good stuff here.”
When the horses are called to post on Saturday, Hoosiers from across the region will be brought together for watch parties.
Some throw house parties to drink bourbon and party with friends. Others head to popular local establishments.
Joe Huber’s family farm and restaurant hosted big parties on its premises during the last Derby races. Sales and marketing manager Terra Huber-Mahan said the thrill was the same as at Churchill Downs.
“I can tell you the energy is just out of this world,” she said. “It’s amazing to gather everyone around this last race. It’s so exciting. Everyone applauds for their choice of horses. Lots of cheers, lots of noise, lots of laughs and just great memories every year.
Between the economic and cultural impacts, the Derby is a Hoosier tradition, just as much as that of Kentucky.
Epperson said Central Indiana has the Indianapolis 500 to look forward to every May. Southern Indiana has the Derby.
“It’s part of what we do.”