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Racing Down the Ohio River at 10 Miles per Hour : Passengers aboard paddle-wheelers in annual rivalry may also get tickets to the Kentucky Derby.


LOUISVILLE, Ky. — It's not often you get to witness two famous races in the same week, but passengers who book the paddle-wheel steamboat Delta Queen for next April 23 may find themselves cheering both the slowest race in Kentucky--the annual Great Steamboat Race between the Belle of Louisville and the Delta Queen--and one of the fastest, the roughly two-minute running of the Kentucky Derby.

Since this is one of the most popular sailings of the year, potential passengers should book as early as possible. We took this nine-night cruise last April aboard the Delta Queen, and found it offered a terrific taste of Americana.

But anyone who can't wait for next spring has an opportunity to see and ride these steamboats, and 15 others, at the Tall Stacks celebration in Cincinnati Oct. 15-18, when the Delta Queen and the Belle of Louisville will race again.

In the 1992 Great Steamboat Race on the Ohio River, we cheered as the Delta Queen steamed majestically ahead during the hotly contested 12-mile race with a new speed record of 1 hour and 15 minutes, seven minutes faster than the previous record.

That's not bad for two dowager vessels that have both been designated National Historic Landmarks. The Belle of Louisville was built in 1914 in Pittsburgh for service on the Mississippi, Ohio, Missouri and Illinois rivers, and serves today as a seasonal excursion steamboat in Louisville--the oldest Mississippi River steamboat still in existence.

The Delta Queen, whose steel hull was prefabricated in Scotland and shipped to California to be assembled, was launched in 1927 on the Sacramento River and steamed on overnight luxury cruises between Sacramento and San Francisco until 1939.

Since 1948, the Delta Queen has carried passengers on the Mississippi River system, one of only two steamboats in overnight service. The other is the 400-passenger Mississippi Queen, built in 1976 and also operated by the Delta Queen Steamboat Co.

While offering the same menus and very similar entertainment, the two steamboats are so different in on-board ambience that most of the company's numerous repeat passengers pick one and stick with it.

What the Mississippi Queen offers that the Delta Queen does not are elevators, a swimming pool, continental breakfasts served in the cabin, telephones and individual climate controls in the cabins, a movie theater, a self-service hot dog and ice cream snack area, a sauna and fitness room, shuffleboard, more bar and lounge areas, hot hors d'oeuvres before dinner, a cage of pet birds and private verandas with some cabins.

In contrast, the Delta Queen, which carries only 176 passengers, offers a strong aura of history and tradition, a more intimate, friendly atmosphere and, despite a casual-to-informal dress code, a sense of elegance.

Fares range from $158 a day per person, double, for cabins with single upper and lower berths, to $560 a day for top-deck suites with bathtubs. Air fare is not included, but air add-ons are available.

The combination steamboat race/Kentucky Derby will be offered on the nine-night Delta Queen cruise departing for Memphis, Tenn., April 23, 1993, for Cincinnati.

Aboard the Mississippi Queen, there's a five-night Kentucky Derby sailing April 27 from St. Louis to Louisville, and an eight-night program between Louisville and Memphis April 27; the latter includes three days in a Louisville hotel before boarding.

For a free color brochure about the Delta Queen and Mississippi Queen, contact a travel agent or call the Delta Queen Steamboat Co. at (800) 543-7637. Families with young children and those with limited mobility should book the Mississippi Queen with its elevator and extra public room space, rather than the Delta Queen.

For details about the five-night Kentucky Derby package on the Mississippi Queen leaving April 27, call the charterer for that sailing, GROUPTRAV National of California, at (800) 877-3703.

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