Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Derby Festival: Boat Race nearing an end?

Mike Berry first went aboard the Delta Queen in the Great Steamboat Race when he was 8.

Now 47, the CEO of the Kentucky Derby Festival has been on either the Delta Queen or the Belle of Louisville in every festival race since.

He tells stories from when he was on board, and before, about passengers on the Belle being charged by their weight -- a dollar a pound -- and the time there were so many people on the Belle it had trouble leaving the dock.

He might remember this year's Great Steamboat Race as the last.

Since the first race in 1963, the Queen and Belle have been the main competitors, with 19 and 22 wins respectively, said Berry. But now the Delta Queen is in danger of losing its exemption to make overnight passenger cruises and thus be unable to participate in races -- unless Congress grants another exemption by November.

While there are other steamboats, the ones that could make the trip are more modern, dating from the late 1900s, not the early 1900s like the Belle and Queen, and in some cases are four times as big and with four times the horsepower, Berry said.

Competing with a more modern steamboat would make it a different race, one requiring handicaps and other concessions, he said. Competing against boats that are not steamboats would mean the end of the longest-held consecutive steamboat race in the country, Berry said.

Whatever route is taken, the race may never be the same. The festival plans to hammer this home today with a series of activities devoted to the Queen. The festival will retire the Golden Antlers, which are presented to the winning boat -- if it does not return.

Still, Belle of Louisville Capt. Mark Doty hopes to nab the trophy. His first and most memorable race was in the early 1980s when he was a deckhand. Back then, he said, the steamboat race was the festival's "big event" and "to hear the cannon go off to start the race and seeing both riverbanks lined with people" was something.

Doty recalled that in 1984 the Belle unloaded about 500 passengers at Cox Park after a bomb threat, only to load 800 or so on again later.

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