And they're off! First on a cruise, then to the Derby

March 20, 1994|By Arline Bleecker | Arline Bleecker,Knight-Ridder News Service

It's been called "the greatest two minutes in sports" -- the Kentucky Derby at Louisville's famed Churchill Downs -- when horse racing's best 3-year-olds compete in the first leg of the Triple Crown.

The Delta Queen Steamboat Company hopes that before race-goers cruise to the Derby May 7, they might want to cruise on the company's two paddle-wheel steamers.

With some overlap, the four cruises run between April 29 and May 13. Fares range from $1,150 per person for the least expensive cabin on a four-night cruise up to $5,015 for the most expensive on the nine-night cruise.

The cruises include tickets for seats at what is perhaps the country's most famous horse race. Traditionally, Kentucky Derby tickets are so coveted, says one long-time Derby fan, that "most people can't even buy them; they inherit them."

Depending on the cruise selected, passengers also may visit a ** thoroughbred farm, breakfast with a handicapper, or attend a Derby Ball with dancing to big-band sounds of Guy Lombardo's orchestra. At a minimum, passengers can partake of some of the festivities and pageantry that surround Derby Week, among them the Oaks Race (a whole day of racing before the Derby), and the Run for the Roses.

You might say the Derby is the Super Bowl of racing, and the 51,500-seat Churchill Downs complex, which was placed on the register of National Historic Landmarks in 1986 by the Department of the Interior, is the hub of Louisville's social event of the season. The venue is replete with tradition -- Southern belles in wide-brimmed picture hats -- and interesting historical footnotes.

Until three years ago, most Derby attendees merely stood in the infield, but permanent metal bleachers have now been installed across from the grandstands.

"Bring binoculars for scanning famous faces," advises Tony Terry, a Churchill Downs spokesman, who adds: "When you're here, and it's shoulder to shoulder, and everyone's dressed as if it's the last day of their life, truly decked out, it's like going to a party."

The Derby was inaugurated in 1875 with a running distance of 1 1/2 miles. Two decades later, the field was reduced to 1 1/4 miles. The record time -- 1:59.2 by Secretariat in 1973 -- remains unbroken.

Riverboat cruising seems an appropriate complement to Derby tradition, recalling the stylish travel of a century ago, when thousands of riverboats plied the Mississippi's quaint ports and towns. These once-lavish boats resembled sugar-coated floating palaces; each tried to outdo the other with great chefs, renowned orchestras and elaborate furnishings.

The Delta Queen Steamboat Company's two paddle-wheel steamboats are the only ones still in existence in America. One of the steamers, the Delta Queen, is designated a National Historical Landmark, with its teakwood handrails and Tiffany-style stained-glass windows. Traveling at a leisurely 8 mph, the riverboats offer yesterday's ambience with today's comforts -- perhaps even a rocker on deck instead of a lounge chair. The four vacation packages include:

* Four nights on Delta Queen, May 6-10, round trip from Cincinnati, with a full day in Louisville. Includes grandstand seats for the Run for the Roses.

* Eight-night package, from May 5 to May 13, begins with a three-night hotel stay in Louisville followed by five nights on the Mississippi Queen (ends in Memphis). Includes a visit to Kentucky bluegrass country, the Oaks Race, infield seats for the Derby, the Queen's Ball, a pre-Derby dinner and reserved seats for the Pegasus Parade.

* Nine-night package, from April 29 to May 8, departs Memphis (for Cincinnati). Includes a seven-night steamboating experience, followed by two nights in Louisville. Passengers participate in the Derby's annual steamboat race between the Delta Queen and the Belle of Louisville, as well as visit Kentucky bluegrass country, the Oaks Race and the Derby. For details, call (800) 543-1949.

* In addition, a five-night cruise on the Mississippi Queen has been chartered by the Automobile Association of America South, but bookings are available to anyone by calling AAA at (800) 445-1261. This cruise sails from St. Louis to Louisville. Highlights include the Grand Derby Ball, the Kentucky Derby and a Derby-night moonlight dinner cruise.

*

Here are a few Derby facts:

* It originally was conceived as a way to showcase the Kentucky horse-breeding industry. The track, original grandstand and clubhouse all were built between 1874 and 1875 with the help of M. Lewis Clark, grandson of the explorer William Clark, of Lewis & Clark fame.

* Such musical greats as John Philip Sousa entertained the Louisville community at the turn of the century from an infield band shell.

* During World War I, Matt Winn, the track's then-vice president and general manager, grew potatoes in the infield to help allay a nationwide potato shortage. A thousand bushels were auctioned, with proceeds donated to the Red Cross.

* During World War II, the infield was renamed "Camp Winn" and Sherman tanks, fresh off the assembly line, were sent there for tryouts.

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