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First Saturday in May

How general aviation serves the Kentucky Derby

First you need a hat. That is the advice everyone gives me when learning I may be going to the Kentucky Derby, a bucket-list dream of mine. Hundreds of business jets land at the Louisville, Kentucky, airports each May for the oldest continuous sporting event in the United States. After some convincing—and a little old-fashioned horse trading—the trip was approved, and I was off to the 145th Run for the Roses.

Kentucky Derby I

  • Kentucky Derby I
    2018 was the wettest Kentucky Derby on record although fans found the 2019 races very damp. The Kentucky Derby has never been canceled in its 145-year history because of weather.
  • Kentucky Derby I
    Thursday morning practice runs begin early.
  • Kentucky Derby I
    Need some luck? Horse shoes are made of aluminum.
  • Kentucky Derby I
    Air Horse One arrives from California in the early morning rain.
  • Kentucky Derby I
    More than 150,000 fans attended the 2019 Kentucky Derby.
  • Kentucky Derby I
    The dirt track was dry earlier in the day but by race time, it was sloppy.
  • Kentucky Derby I
    The Run for the Roses was a muddy one.
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    Flight ops at Clark Regional Airport in Indiana were up 23 percent.
  • Kentucky Derby I
    Pilots of Air Horse One prepare for the flight home on Monday morning.
  • Kentucky Derby I
    Horses board Air Horse One, bound for home—or another race.

The welcome mat

Louisville International Airport (soon to be renamed Louisville Muhammad Ali International Airport to honor the boxer, a Louisville native) welcomes the commercial flights and larger jets during Derby weekend. SDF has three runways—7,200 feet, 8,500 feet, and 11,900 feet—and is primarily known for Worldport, the UPS hub that counts for most SDF traffic on a typical day. But the Derby traffic trumps UPS activity this week in May. In fact, SDF will see 58 percent more traffic on each of the days leading up to the Derby than it does typically. And the airport is ready: SDF adds 60 Derby greeters in the concourse, offering 32,000 chocolate-covered bourbon balls; employs 90 musicians to play lively music morning until midnight; creates a living wall of 700 sprigs of fresh mint; displays 4,000 fresh red roses; and creates a “Winners Circle” for photo ops. Peak traffic day is “Departure Sunday,” the day the airport plays soothing music over the amplifiers (one too many juleps?), and this year it experienced a 29-percent increase in the number of passengers taking their soggy hats and empty wallets home. There were 28,500 arrivals Wednesday through Friday and 14,500 people flew out May 5 on 441 flights (a 22-percent increase over 2018).

This was Zack Neds’ first year as general manager of SDF’s FBO, Atlantic Aviation. “I worked three previous Derbys as one of the many Atlantic Aviation employees brought in from out of town to support the local staff,” Neds said. “I remember leaving Louisville completely exhausted. There are not many events that equal the size of the Kentucky Derby and being a part of it is something I will not soon forget. I thought I had a good idea of what to expect as the hosting GM of the event. I knew it would be a lot of work and I anticipated a lot of preparation. In reality I had no idea of the amount of planning and preparation leading up to the Derby.”

Neds says Atlantic had a successful event, one that employed staff, extended family members, and even members of the Kentucky Air National Guard. More than 650 aircraft arrived at Atlantic during the week and, at race time, 269 aircraft awaited their passengers on the line.

“We have already started planning for next year’s Kentucky Derby, having learned what worked well and noting areas that we want to improve on,” Neds said. “We look forward to hosting the 2020 Kentucky Derby and making it the best one ever for our clients.”

ASI at Clark Regional Airport added an extra 5,000-gallon Jet A truck, and an 8,000-gallon fuel load was preordered each day of Derby week.Bowman Field (LOU) is one of the nation’s oldest continuously operating GA airfields and was the Louisville airport until SDF (then called Standiford Field, hence the identifier) was expanded in the 1950s. With its two 3,500-foot runways, historic terminal building rich with significant artifacts and photographs, and its beautiful French restaurant, Le Relais, Bowman is a quintessential general aviation airport. At Louisville Executive Aviation, staff was ready for Derby goers: a bar offering mint juleps and the Lily (a vodka drink for those who don’t do brown liquor), burgers on the grill, and a display by HondaJet (the aircraft and an NSX Supercar).

“Flying into Bowman Field for the Derby was really easy for me, and my owners really enjoyed it as well,” said corporate pilot Krystal Covin, CEO of Covin Aviation of Dallas. “If we come to the Derby again next year, we will be back to Bowman Field for sure. Everybody that received us, worked with us, and saw us off was very helpful. It’s easy to overlook the details in those high-volume times and they didn’t miss a one for us.”

Across the Ohio River in Indiana, Clark Regional Airport (JVY) has been courting Derby flights, especially since one of its two runways increased from 5,500 feet to 7,000 feet in 2018. The two FBOs—Honaker and Aircraft Specialists Inc.—once may have had a Hatfields and McCoys kind of feud over bragging rights, but today both general managers admit there’s more than enough traffic for both. The drive over to Churchill Downs is just three minutes longer than the seven minutes from SDF, they claim.

For Kevin Happel, whose family for a long time owned what is now Honaker Aviation, this was his thirty-seventh Kentucky Derby. While he admits his kids probably attend the Derby (in the infield), he’s happiest at the airport. He works 15-hour days during Derby week and broke tradition by offering arriving passengers margaritas instead of mint juleps.

John Foley is the new manager at ASI, and he was a gracious host as corporate and private jets arrived at his busy FBO. Here, too, were offerings of drinks and food, big bouquets of red roses, and helpful service from a full-court press of extra staff. “Derby takes a lot of planning, but this year was a great success,” he said. “It’s a choreographed event and the line service at both [FBOs] was fantastic.” Foley said ASI saw 35 jets in 2018 and 50 this year. “All told we serviced nearly 100 aircraft this year.” ASI pumped 32,000 gallons of fuel over the weekend.

Rain, rain, go away

You now know that the 145th running of the Kentucky Derby will be forever famous for the first disqualification of the winning horse. Never in any of the years since 1875 has a winning horse been disqualified in the Kentucky Derby. And never have I seen so much rain, nor been as wet. But—like a mailman of yore—the running of the Derby is never deterred by something as silly as simple rain.

We get our first taste of this at SDF when Air Horse One lands. It’s a Boeing 727-200 owned by Kalitta Charters II and leased by H.E. “Tex” Sutton Forwarding Co. of Lexington, Kentucky, which is the oldest equine transport air service in the United States. Thoroughbreds that have flown cross-country from Ontario, California, arrive in a drenching rainstorm at 6 a.m., their handlers ensuring these million-dollar babies are kept comfortable and dry as they depart the airplane down a specially designed ramp (yes, with a red carpet). From the airplane to ramp, each horse is escorted individually into a stall inside a 40-foot-long tractor-trailer. From the airport to the famous Churchill Downs, they munch on hay and sip water (the horse equivalent of a snack and cocktail). Tomorrow they will run off that indulgence in practice runs early in the morning (horse people, it appears, are morning people).

From the airplane to ramp, each horse is escorted individually into a stall inside a 40-foot-long tractor-trailer.As the sun appears briefly the next morning, the track is humming with activity. Steam rises from horses being given a morning bath, the reflection of standing water and puddles lending an other-worldliness to the scene. There’s good-natured camaraderie along the stables as grooms and trainers walk to the track. Friends call out to one another; hot walkers make loops around the stalls; trainers confer with veterinarians who drive up in mobile offices. A horse enjoys a spa treatment. “He gets so comfortable he lays his head on the side and lets his tongue hang out,” a trainer tells us.

Derby weekend is more than the “First Saturday in May,” as the Kentucky Derby is famously referred to. It’s become a nearly weeklong event; so much more than Meriwether Lewis Clark Jr. (explorer William Clark’s grandson) envisioned when he used the land deeded to him by his uncles John and Henry Churchill to build America’s first racetrack, modeled after tracks he’d seen in his travels to Europe. Clark enjoyed the wealthy lifestyle and propagated it in his racetrack, introducing parimutuel betting but eventually committing suicide when he lost his fortune: At the prospect of living poorly he put his gun to his head.

Wealth is obvious here at Churchill Downs—there are lavish spreads of food and drink at venues both in the stands and at the stable areas. A mint julep is always readily available. And the reporters—the press with their massive telephoto lens cameras and video equipment—follow potential winning trainers, owners, and jockeys everywhere except the bathroom.

The run for the roses

Friday of Derby weekend is the annual Kentucky Oaks, a race for fillies that honors breast cancer survivors. The horses have pink silks and the dress color of the day for fans is pink (yes, if you do the Derby properly, you’re going to need two hats). Photographer Chris Rose and I watch the races from a perch in a gracious venue in the infield alongside the turf track. Taking a breather from work, rain, and early mornings, we watch the more sedate races of the Oaks from here.

I tend to judge a winning horse by its looks, and we had the pleasure of meeting trainer Bill Mott and his beautiful 3-year-old chestnut colt Country House on Thursday. Mott, we were told, is the winningest Louisville trainer but had never won a Derby. I decide my money is on Country House. Rose picks the favorites Game Winner and Roadster. But I forget to place my bets; my mother, whose birthday is May 4 and who always dreamed of going to the Kentucky Derby, had given me $20 to place a bet on her pick, Maximum Security, a 7-1 safe bet.

The day arrives and I’m in my hat. We are in the historic and iconic grandstand and it’s here that I realize I never placed my bets. Horse owner and former AOPA Foundation board of advisors member Bill Daugherty (see “Pilots,” p. 112) offers to place my mom’s bet, but I can’t muster the courage to ask him to place an additional $20 wager for me on Country House. At first it appears that my mother’s eighty-seventh birthday present will be a win at the Kentucky Derby but, no, No. 7 is disqualified for not staying in his lane.

Rose bounds up the grandstand covered with mud from photographing the infamous race and says, “Congratulations! You bet on the winning horse! You must have made a bundle.” (Country House was a 65-1 longshot.) But, no. No, I did not.

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Kentucky Derby II

  • Kentucky Derby II
    Photography by Chris Rose
  • Kentucky Derby II
    The track was downgraded to "sloppy" for the third year in a row—2018 was still the wettest on record, but the Kentucky Derby has never been canceled because of weather.
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    Private jets on the flightline at Aircraft Specialists Inc., one of two FBOs at Clark Regional Airport.
  • Kentucky Derby II
    Passengers arrive in all manner of aircraft...
  • Kentucky Derby II
    ...and get the red carpet treatment...
  • Kentucky Derby II
    ...including food and drink.
  • Kentucky Derby II
    Bowman Field is in Louisville while Clark is across the Ohio River in Sellersburg, Indiana. Both airports as well as the international airport are just minutes from the racetrack.
  • Kentucky Derby II
    General manager Kevin Happel of Honaker Aviation...
  • Kentucky Derby II
    ...and GM John Foley of ASI, both FBOs at Clark.
  • Kentucky Derby II
    H.E. “Tex” sutton Forwarding Co. of Lexington has handled transportation of thoroughbreds for more than 60 years.
  • Kentucky Derby II
    The company calls the Boeing 727-200 it leases from Kalitta Charters II of Michigan Air Horse One.
  • Kentucky Derby II
    The “stress-free” atmosphere of the air transport includes individual hay racks and in-flight access to water for each horse.
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    Grooms and assistants accompany the horses on board.
  • Kentucky Derby II
    Fancy hats are a longstanding tradition at the Run for the Roses, which gets its name from the winner’s garland of 40 pounds and more than 400 red roses.
  • Kentucky Derby II
    Pink is the color for the Kentucky Oaks race held on the Friday before the Derby, red is for the Run for the Roses.
  • Kentucky Derby II
    There was sun and then there wasn’t and then there was a whole lot of rain, but 175,000 fans packed the grandstand anyway for the main event.
  • Kentucky Derby II
    It was a surprise win for trainer Bill Mott and his horse Country House.
Julie Walker

Julie Summers Walker

AOPA Senior Features Editor
AOPA Senior Features Editor Julie Summers Walker joined AOPA in 1998. She is a student pilot still working toward her solo.

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