Arts & Culture

Down the River They Come: It’s the Ken-Ducky Derby

This Saturday, one lucky duck among 50,000 will putter to eternal glory. I’ve got my money on Larry.

A crane dumps yellow rubber ducks by the thousand into a river

Photo: Courtesy of Harbor House/Bill Wine

The dumping of the ducks.

Larry, my duck, is not a bathtub duck. He is not intended for squeaking purposes. He doesn’t really possess what you might describe as any mollifying duckie properties, like being soft. Or having a nightlight inside that can be turned on by pressing against his plastic wings. He does not loll in the same manner as the type of yellow ducks that are famous, that just sit there in the suds before bedtime. Larry is not really a “rubber duck” in the way anyone might think he should be. He was technically born to race. Like Bill Nack’s Secretariat, for instance, Larry has a weight inside his chest that makes him sturdier than a regular duckie, and faster—hopefully!—when the bugler plays and he hits the Ohio River exactly five miles north of Churchill Downs in this weekend’s Ken-Ducky Derby. Larry wears sunglasses and is kind of more elongated, that weight inside helping him float and propel when dropped, via crane, from a height. In this case, behind Joe’s Crab Shack on the banks of the city of Louisville. 

Stay in Touch with G&G
Get our weekly Talk of the South newsletter.

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply.

I “adopted” Larry online. And named him in the comments section of the credit card application—This duck is named Larry—which is to say I put $5 on him to hopefully finish first so I could win a Hyundai Kona (with a rubber duck picture on the side), or a thousand bucks for second, or $500 for third place and a chance to then win, somehow, a million bucks. I had the option to spend more, for a Quack Pack of six ducks or a Big Quack Pack of sixteen or a Mega Flock of thirty, but I chose one to let it ride. Proceeds go to Harbor House in Louisville, an intergenerational organization that supports adults with disabilities and children with and without disabilities, their goal being to “create a self-sustaining supportive community with everyone in it.” Harbor House CEO Maria Smith came up with the idea in 2003, starting with 12,000 ducks, and now the Ken-Ducky Derby is by far the most humorous event in the “Fest-a-ville,” the weeklong party that builds to the slightly more famous horse race next weekend. 

photo: Courtesy of Harbor House/Bill Wine

This Saturday, the twenty-first Ken-Ducky Derby will consist of 50,000 ducks “racing,” which is described by the Derby’s manager, Kelly Green, as “more like puttering” with the current, which the city will commemorate by lighting some of its buildings, including that famous one in the skyline with a dome, 400 West Market, yellow. Churchill Downs will also turn its famous spires yellow in the evening. Five hundred people or so will press together by the Crab Shack. Balloons will loft. The mayor of the city, chief “duck plucker,” will use a net or some other means to get the winning duck from the water. I would be there, if I could, and have dreamt about the event since my wife and I were in Louisville for the Kentucky Derby five years ago and saw fliers for the Ken-Ducky Derby while drinking at a local brewery.

But Larry (I would not actually be able to spot him) will be there, along with 49,999 other rubber ducks. He will be driven down to the water in a twenty-foot long container and then suspended in the air with a crane, between the two bridges connecting the city to Indiana; it takes about three minutes for all 50,000 ducks to exit the container. Steve Buttleman, the bugler for the actual Kentucky Derby, will play My Old Kentucky Home on the waterfront, then the Call to Post, just like he does for the horses, and for that matter the whole world. 

“When [the bugler] is done, they tilt the big container down and the ducks start to come out. It really is surreal,” Green says. “You’ve seen five or ten rubber ducks, or if you’re at Target you’ve maybe seen one hundred, but if you see thousands pour out, it’s almost like a…where are they coming from? It’s an unreal feeling of suspended reality.” 

Though he will not have his name, Larry, as any kind of demarcation, he will have a sticker placed by one of the dozens of Derby volunteers and corresponding to my adoption number online, so they can tell who he is in case we win. The Ken-Ducky Derby is around two hundred feet long and sometimes the ducks need a bit of reassurance to move at all, so the race volunteers will churn the water with a boat motor. The ducks gather, knock into one another, coalesce, turn, float, putter, somehow arrive into a type of canonical finish line that separates winners from the rest. Afterward, volunteers will dry Larry, making sure he has no cracks or holes, and the other ducks for shipping to various duck competitions across the country, the biggest being in Chicago, in what amounts to a recurring and an eco-friendly second life. “Our ducks winter,” Green says. “They flock down. The last race is in September or October, it gets too cold outside, nobody really races in winter. The ducks fly south and take a break.” 

photo: Courtesy of Harbor House/Bill Wine

Over the years volunteers have used various items besides their hands, like fishing nets and big trash cans, to get the ducks out of the water. Once a local frat even held a contest to see who could get the ducks out the fastest (frats are no longer used as volunteers). A lady actually took her baby out of a stroller and then tried to fill the stroller with ducks. “We’re very strict with people around the water. We went and told her, ‘You can’t have those ducks!” Smith says. “When we first went to [duck race] training in St. Louis, we had live ducks cross the road on us during the training. We said that must be an omen!” Two decades later, it seems like it was.

“We have people come in all week long from all over the U.S. and buy ducks, and then come down and see the duck race. This year we’ll have our Harbor House Stompers—they’re going to come down and do one of their routines. What have I learned about rubber ducks? Well, I have heard every duck joke there is, and they quack me up every time!”