For four years in the early 1980s, the University of Louisville featured its very own run for the roses that rivaled the grandiosity of the renowned Kentucky Derby.
The Intramural Turtle Derby did generate enthusiasm on the Belknap campus and even beyond, attracting competitors from as far away as Florida State University. The event was first held in 1980 in Bigelow Hall, but was discontinued after 1983 when Ellis Mendelsohn, then-director of Intramurals, became sick. Dr. Mendelsohn is credited with developing the intramural sports program at UofL and passed away in 1994.
According to Dale Ramsay, UofL’s current director of intramural sports, the Turtle Derby was modeled closely after the Kentucky Derby, down to the garland of roses as the winning prize. There was even a veterinarian on site to take care of the competitors, who were set free in a nearby creek after their race.
“I was responsible for putting them in a creek and sending them off to live their lives. I got to send them on their way,” Ramsay said.
Also, like the actual Kentucky Derby, the Turtle Derby featured preliminary races throughout the day. Competitors raced out of a circular, makeshift starting gate down a 6-foot-long track.
They were entered into the races through a $5 sponsorship fee, which went toward event necessities such as the roses, a turtle cake, trophies and food. Both campus and community organizations sponsored turtles, who bore names such as Buck, Fred, Gonzo I and Mickey. A number of schools sent representatives to the event, including FSU, Memphis, Cincinnati, Bellarmine, Spalding, UK and Eastern Kentucky University, which owned the record-holding turtle.
John Smith, now assistant director of intramurals at UofL, was the “trainer” of EKU’s turtle, which completed the course in just 6 seconds.
“Some of the turtles, like that one, were friskier. Some of them just weren’t as motivated,” Ramsay said.
Intramurals also used to host a fashion show in April and a balloon race in the fall. But it was the Turtle Derby, Ramsay said, that generated much of the buzz.
“It was a real novel event that got a lot of publicity,” he said. “Someone once said we’ll race anything down here – horses, rodents, balloons … and we even used to race turtles.”