KDF President Mike Berry reflects on career ahead of his final festival

By SHANNON COGAN | WAVE 3 News

The man who’s been leading the Kentucky Derby Festival for the last 22 years is making this year’s festival his last.

Mike Berry
For Mike Berry, running the Kentucky Derby Festival was a dream come true.

The festival has always been a huge part of Berry’s life. His house is filled with Festival mementoes. In fact, he has every Festival poster in the series going back to the first one from 1981, as well as the festival pins.

“I’m running out of wall space,” Berry said with a laugh.

His love affair began early. A Courier Journal photographer captured Berry as a child aboard the Delta Queen for the Great Steamboat Race.

“It’s vivid,” Berry said. “I guess I was 8 years old the first time I went on the Great Steamboat Race.”

In the mid 1980s, Gov. Martha Layne Collins chose Berry as her representative on the KDF Board. In 1987, he took a full-time role as event manager.

“As a local kid, who grew up here, Derby was bigger than Christmas at our house,” Berry said. He grew up in Middletown and attended Waggener High School, and went on to Georgetown College in Georgetown, Kentucky.

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His family had a horse farm and raced and bred race horses. The first Derby he attended was in 1974 — the 100th Derby — when Cannonade won.

“I’ve been to every Derby since then,” Berry said, adding that these days he’s been known to nod off at the table during Derby because it’s the end of the Festival.

Berry became Vice President and Managing Director of KDF in 1990 and took over as CEO in 1997 after his mentor, Dan Mangeot, died. It’s a role he’s held since then.

“There’s something about the Derby Festival and the community that we’re able to capture magic in a bottle,” Berry said.

He’s attended hundreds of events over the years and met many celebrities, including Muhammad Ali.

“Gladys Knight was one of my favorites,” Berry said. “Because not only am I a fan. She may have been the nicest person I think I ever met in my life.”

One of his more memorable celebrity moments involved Cyndi Lauper at the 2012 Pegasus Parade.

“Dropping the F bomb that went out not only the loud speaker but the television,” Berry said.

He quickly got in front of the camera on WAVE 3 News and read from a paper the Festival’s PR person handed him.

“She’d taken her lipstick and written, ‘Sorry, family event, apologize,'” Berry recalled.

So why step away from his position now?

“I want to be able to travel,” Berry said. “To do grandkid stuff. I’m a little jealous because everyone gets to pick them up after school and Poppy’s working.”

Berry’s partner, Bill Petter, has been retired.

His advice for the person who follows him?

“If I had to say one thing, it’s to be very, very protective of the brand,” Berry said. “What we have here in Louisville is very special.”

And he plans to return often to Festival events, and actually enjoy them.

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