The Kentucky Derby is a two-minute horse race, but Derby season seems to be getting longer every year. This year’s celebration officially kicked off on Wednesday, April 18 at Louisville Slugger Field with the Taste of Derby Festival, an annual fundraiser for Dare to Care Food Bank. More than 50 businesses, from Heine Brothers’ Coffee to Martini Italian Bistro, were serving bite-sized samples to 1,000 people who paid $80 a ticket. The Taste of Derby raised more than $100,000 for charity, but it was a reminder that the Kentucky Derby means big business in Louisville. Every patron sampling bread pudding or beef-stuffed mushrooms at one or another booth was a potential customer.

Alan Rupp, president of Kern’s Kitchen, was dishing out Derby Pie at a booth near the entrance. Rupp’s grandparents, Walter and Leaudra Kern, invented the recipe for Derby Pie at their hotel restaurant in Prospect and patented it in 1968. Rupp joined the company in the 1970s after studying business at Western Kentucky University. Over the last 40 years, he’s watched Kern’s Kitchen go from producing 2,000 pies a year to making 1,500 a day. In all, Kern’s produces more than 120,000 pies a year and the majority of the orders come in during the months leading up to the Kentucky Derby. Kern’s sells most of its pies wholesale to restaurants, hotels and Churchill Downs itself. The company also takes mail orders via its website and through A Taste of Kentucky, a store specializing in Bluegrass-centric products.

Rupp has six regular employees, but after Christmas he usually adds 10-12 people to get ready for Derby. “Derby is like our Mount Everest,” he quips. “We’ve been climbing it for about six weeks now and we’ll be going hard for another two weeks.”

Kern’s Kitchen is just one of hundreds of companies that depend on the Kentucky Derby as an economic engine. In 2001, Wilkerson & Associates studied the race’s financial impact on the city. The study found that people attending the event – including racing fans, horse owners, trainers, corporate sponsors and media representatives – were responsible for more than $137 million in direct spending during Derby week. That spending had a ripple effect, pumping another $80.1 million into the local economy. The expenditures related to the 2001 Kentucky Derby resulted in 3,608 jobs in the Kentuckiana economy, and direct expenditures by travelers accounted for 2,731 of those jobs.  

A more recent study by the University of Louisville’s MBA Program estimated the economic impact of the 2011 Kentucky Derby Festival at $127.9 million. With an annual operating budget of $5.7 million that year, the study found that for every $1 spent by the KDF, more than $22 was generated for the Greater Louisville economy. The largest economic impact for a single event was Thunder Over Louisville – with an estimated $56.6 million impact on the local economy – followed by the Pegasus Parade at $22.4 million.