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    If you’ve seen the Great Steamboat Race over the years, you’ve probably assumed that it’s rigged. How has the Belle of Louisville held up so often against the larger Delta Queen? And how has the Belle, a century-old steam-powered paddlewheel, won against its diesel-powered rivals in recent years? Surely the mayor has some sway in securing the 50/50 odds that the Belle has enjoyed over its 54-year run.

    Not so, say the Kentucky Derby Festival folks. Several years ago, the difference in horsepower between the boats drew criticism, leading the festival to hold a daylong points-system competition (think obstacle courses and a calliope contest), so that the winner of the race itself wouldn’t necessarily win the whole deal. But with waning public interest (it’s confusing and anti-climactic when the boat that crosses the finish line first isn’t actually the winner), the Derby Festival has done away with tug-of-war and the like. This year, on May 2, it’s a full-on 14-mile race for blood — or, rather, gilded antlers, which the winner proudly keeps until the next year. (The Belle of Cincinnati currently has them, but more on those fools in a minute). Like any good handicapper, one needs to know the dirt on each of this year’s three players.
     

    AMERICAN DUCHESS

    Top speed: Eight mph. At 100 feet longer than her competitors and twice as wide, her presence could throw the others off their swagger.

    Year built: Originally a casino boat built in 1995, the Duchess has recently been gutted, blinged out with chandeliers, a grand piano and 83 luxury suites and turned into an overnight cruise vessel. She was recently christened in New Orleans when the owner’s daughter smashed a bottle of Maker’s Mark on the rail. This is the Duchess’s first race.

    Number of passengers: 166, who will stay on the boat for the week leading up to Derby.

    Pedigree: Sister vessel the American Queen raced in 2012 but lost to the Belle of Louisville.

    Deciding factor: Owner John Waggoner is no stranger to priming winners. He formerly owned the Belle of Louisville before the Waterfront Development Corp. took over.
     

    BELLE OF CINCINNATI

    Top speed: “I can’t give away all our secrets,” captain Alan Bernstein says. Seven to eight mph is “a good travel speed — not the top speed.”

    Year built: 1991

    Number of passengers: 700 to 800. To lighten the boat’s load on previous race days, Bernstein’s crew has put him on a diet. If the captain stays off the Skyline Chili, the boat could have a chance.

    Race record: She began racing in Louisville in 1999, against the recently sold Spirit of Jefferson. Her first race against the Belle of Louisville was in 2002, when Cincy’s Belle lost. She officially replaced the Delta Queen as the Belle of Louisville’s main competitor in 2009, winning four titles since. She has won the last two years.

    Scratch factor: In 2004 Cincinnati crossed the finish line first — but mayor Jerry Abramson declared Louisville the winner. “Maybe we weren’t a steamboat and it’s called a steamboat race,” Bernstein says. Cincinnati’s incensed crew stole the antlers — as well as the mayor’s Gallopalooza horse. Bernstein turned himself into police, he says, and had charges against him: horse stealing, impersonating a steamboat captain and inflicting pain and suffering on the kids and citizens of Louisville. He was found guilty and had to do two days of community service: spend a day as a deckhand on the Belle of Louisville and then, the following year, walk in the Pegasus Parade as a pooper scooper. “They assigned me to the Clydesdales,” he says. Following the fiasco, Bernstein claims that Cincinnati was designated a pirate boat by the Coast Guard and now flies a pirate flag.

    Verdict verity: While each boat brings its own set of judges, the Belle of Cincinnati’s have been nuns in the past, to ensure integrity. “The race is really not about how fast a boat can go,” Bernstein says. “It’s all about how you can lie, cheat and steal the other guy.”
     

    BELLE OF LOUISVILLE

    Top speed: 12.5 miles per hour

    Year built: 1914. The Belle is the oldest operating steamboat in the country.

    Number of passengers: 650

    Race record: 27 wins. (Her former top competitor, the Delta Queen, has won 20 times.) It’s amazing she ever raced again after a dismal first year, in 1963, when she got stuck in the mud, then windswept, and lost to the Queen by a staggering three miles, according to the Courier Journal.

    Judges: U.S. Army Corps of Engineers commanders have noticed that the Belle of Cincinnati got a head start in years past.

    Deciding factor: “Only I know when the canon goes off to start,” captain Mark Doty says. “I jockey into position at the start line to get the best advantage. Hopefully we can get full steam ahead with the big boat in the race this year. There’s no room to deviate.”
     

    Will the Queen ever return?

    In 2009, after on-and-off financial issues, the Delta Queen retired to Chattanooga, Tennessee, having been federally forbidden from carrying overnight passengers due to fire concerns about the wooden structure. She’s now docked south of St. Louis on the Mississippi River, but her owners, as well as the Derby Festival, remain hopeful that she’ll once again compete in the race, as she and the Belle are two of only a handful of paddlewheel steamboats remaining in the country.

    This originally appeared in the April 2018 issue of Louisville Magazine. To subscribe to Louisville Magazineclick here. To find us on newsstands, click here.

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