The UofL Cardinal Marching Band has been the “Official Band of the Kentucky Derby” since 1936.
The UofL Cardinal Marching Band has been the “Official Band of the Kentucky Derby” since 1936.

There are several ties between UofL and the Kentucky Derby. Churchill Downs, home of the Most Exciting Two Minutes in Sports, is a mere 1.3 miles away from Grawemeyer Hall, after all.

Arguably, the deepest tie is the music – the auditory traditions that evoke emotion and pageantry throughout the city on that first Saturday each May. Indeed, if an official soundtrack existed for the Kentucky Derby, the University of Louisville would appear several times in the credits.

Take, for instance, the event’s signature opening of “My Old Kentucky Home.”

The rendition is performed by our very own Marching Cards. It has been since 1936, in fact, when the group was first recognized as “The Official Band of the Kentucky Derby.” The lyrics, meanwhile, are brought to life by the UofL Cardinal Singers.

A few years ago, a Courier Journal columnist best described what this experience is like: “I’ve interviewed Kentuckians who haven’t set foot in the state for 30 years who still stand in front of their televisions and weep when they hear the woodwinds and brass instruments strike the first few notes of ‘My Old Kentucky Home.’ The lyrics tell us that there’ll be hard times, by and by. But at the crescendo, it’s as if 150,000 voices nudge us to weep no more.” 

Those are our students playing those woodwinds and brass instruments and creating such sentiment, courtesy of Stephen Collins Foster’s lyrics. Such an experience is not lost on the group.

“I’m extremely proud to be a part of this tradition. Some of the most important work the CMB does is that which impacts the Louisville community. To represent not only the city, but the state at such a highly respected sporting event is truly humbling. Further, this experience creates a unique bond between current and former members of the CMB that no other marching band can relate to. Like the rest of the band, my memory of this Derby will last a lifetime,” said Michael LaRoche, a Marching Card and mechanical engineering major.

“Hands down my favorite part is hearing everyone sing at Churchill Downs. When the song begins, voices are a bit subdued, but then a strong rise of voices is heard on ‘Weep no more my lady.’ It is a powerful and unifying event that makes you feel connected to people all over the world and so proud to live in Kentucky,” Amy Acklin, director of the Cardinal Marching Band, said in 2019.

So important is this tradition to our students that when the Derby was canceled in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, UofL drum major Natalie Humble recruited marching band students from schools across the state to record a virtual version of “My Old Kentucky Home.”

Meanwhile, that emotion shifts to excitement whenever the sound of the trumpet rises above the crowd to beckon horses to the starting gate for each race. The signature “Call to the Post” has been used at racetracks since the 1860s, according to the Courier Journal. At the Derby, it’s performed by UofL School of Music alum Steve Buttleman, who earned a bachelor’s degree in music performance in 2007.

The fulltime bugler, who also kicks off the day with “The Star-Spangled Banner,” performs at hundreds of special events throughout the year. But it’s his Derby assignment that stands out most.

“There isn’t another office in the world with a view like mine. I step out onto the balcony and I am looking across the racetrack at the Twin Spires … I never take what I do for granted,” he told the Courier Journal.

Derby Week is here, which means our city is in the spotlight of a global stage once again. And positioned in that metaphoric orchestra pit, ready to set the tone for the festivities, are our fellow Cardinals. Follow UofL’s Instagram page Saturday, May 7, for a Marching Cards takeover from LaRoche.

Check out a performance from the Marching Cards and the Cardinal Singers from a few years ago: