The Boat of the Ball this past Tuesday, May 1st, was the Belle of Louisville as our local girl was crowned winner of the 2012 Great Steamboat Race. Growing up on the banks of the Mississippi, and having traveled across the Ohio river many times, I realized that there was a major river in every city I had ever lived and I had never actually taken a ride on an actual riverboat. The breeze wafting gently off the lazy river, water gently lapping of the bow, the chug-chug-chug of the engines taking you back to a time only read about in books. What Mark Twain moment on the mighty river powered only by unpredictable currents and heated water would be complete without a day of jousting, obstacles, tossing monkey fist tossing, and VIP retrieval.
I've always thought of a steamboat as a barge with an inferiority complex and assumed a race is always won by crossing the finish line first. I was wrong about the boat as it was not only interesting but beautiful inside-and-out, and the scoring format of the race this year returned to the point system which was implemented three years ago. The vessel and team that accumulated the most points would be declared the winner, rather than the one that simply crossed the finish at the Clark Memorial bridge – and to make things interesting (read: concerning) this year they added the largest steamboat ever built, The American Queen.
Although the line to board was made longer by the ninety-degree heat, every guest was welcomed by the Derby Festival Princesses and a friendly handshake from this year’s Festival Chairwoman, Wendy Jacob. After passing the belle’s smiling on the Belle’s bow, the crowd divided into those scoring a good seat, and those headed straight to the bar where Four Roses Bourbon and Bourbon Barrel wine were the feature acts. I headed upstairs where a friend and took seats near the paddle on the outside of the boat. I wanted my first steamboat ride to include moments where I could travel back in time and pretend I was powering up river for a picnic and lemonade with family in Cincinnati with blue birds on my shoulder and all that…then some really fun ladies who had been at the track all day took the seats next to us laughing hysterically and I realized that my trip with them would be way more fun than day dreaming about the past.
Earlier in the day the point-fueled events were held and The Belles of Cincinnati and Louisville held a commanding lead over the American Queen. Ultimately the winner of the 2012 Great Steamboat race would come down to the final 29 points earned by the winner. When the cannon fired to start the event (and signal the serving of food) the standings were:
Our first leg took us up-river and the view of downtown Louisville was amazing. The American Queen was briefly in front of us but had to lower it’s stacks to fit under the Clark Memorial Bridge making it look like a festive civil war battleship and never recovered.
Wandering down to the main cabin to grab some of the food which was catered on three tables by Masterson’s I overheard a nice lady in a large hat say, “So far I’ve seen one of the Real Housewives, Miss America and got to meet the Mayor – I really hope I get to take a picture with the Cardinal [mascot] before we dock!” Trying to turn her sentence into a joke (seriously, ‘so the mayor, a Real Housewife and a beauty queen walk onto a boat…’) I took my plate to the bar where I met one of the bartenders, Jeremy. “I’ve been to almost every Derby, but this is the first year I’ve had to work it,” he explained. Although he had seen the Great Steamboat Race several times, Jeremy actually applied, and was hired, to be a bartender just six hours before we met. “I live in Shepherdsville, and decided this year I’d make some extra money, and they were like, ‘you’re hired, now head over to the boat’ and here I am.” I felt like Jeremy got his bonus before his first check.
The banks of the Ohio River were littered with waving locals as we headed toward the shore to pick up our VIP just passed the Water Tower. I had been enjoying myself just relaxing on the deck of the paddle wheeler I forgot that there were still tasks to complete during the race and was thankful we weren’t crashing. The captain lowered the gangplank to the river’s edge where we “captured” the Louisville Cardinal mascot who I could have sworn was on board when we left. With the exception of the finish, the remaining tasks completed before the water u-turn and the points accumulated were:
Bird on board and aimed back toward Louisville, we steamed full-power toward the finish. (It should be noted here that when choosing a seat on a steamboat, the ones under the stacks occasionally get rained upon my re-condensing steam giving you an unwanted hot shower. On the flip-side you can avoid the newbies and those who’ve had too much to drink by staying clear of that exact same position on the boat.)
We passed crowds waving from the Jeffersonville waterfront (and a tug boat named the Tom Behringer which made me giggle), the Coast Guard boat next to us finally fired up it’s water cannon, our boat whistle blew, and the Belle of Louisville accumulated the last 29 of the necessary points to win the 2012 Kentucky Derby Great Steamboat Race.
The Belle of Cincinnati finished second with 105 points, and the American Queen was third with 90 points, but the Belle of Louisville was awarded her tiara consisting of a set of silver-plated antlers immediately after the race at the Chow Wagon.
Leaving the boat I stopped back by to ask Jeremy if he’d ever work during Derby again and he said "Of course, it's been great!" Another new employee asked me with a smile not to write about him because everyone would want their job next year (my fingers were crossed when I agreed). My friend and Louisville native, Stephanie Hart, had joked that she could finally write this off her Derby bucket list. “I had a great time! The food was good, we won the race, it was a pretty day, and I got to see it first-hand – it was an experience of a lifetime.” And she was right – everyone has heard of a 'bucket list' (if you haven’t it’s a list you hope to accomplish before you ‘kick the bucket’), but it had never occurred to be that someone would have a Derby Festival-specific version - but then again why wouldn’t you? Louisville hosts a two-week family friendly Mardi Gras every year that is so jam-packed with food, fun, friends it’s almost impossible to not be forced to prioritize. The 2012 Kentucky Derby Festival may culminate with the Run for the Roses this weekend at Churchill, but it’s not too early to plan for next year – the Great Steamboat Race via beach or Belle comes highly recommended. You can bet on it.
(Photos: Kit Helton)
Great Steamboat Race sponsors are: Republic Industries International, Inc., Four Roses Bourbons, Captain’s Quarters Riverside Grille and Lite 106.9 WVEZ.
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