Royalty for a Day

Jocelyn Robinson

Like something out of a fairy tale, the five princesses wore white ball gowns and sparkling tiaras as they stood in their castle, smiling and waving at the people.

Only, in this case, the princesses are college students. Their castle is a parade float, and they were waving at the hundreds of people who came to the Pegasus Parade preview Tuesday night at the Louisville Convention Center.

The five on the float were the Kentucky Derby Festival Princesses – students from colleges across the state.

This year, two Western students, Louisville seniors Lauren Knopf and Rebecca DeSensi, are among the chosen five. Recently DeSensi was named Queen of the 2003 Royal Court.

The role of the Derby princesses is to serve as ambassadors for the Kentucky Derby Festival, DeSensi said.

Both Knopf and DeSensi grew up with the dream of becoming a Derby princess.

“I always knew when I got to college, it would be something I would want to do,” DeSensi said.

Knopf agreed.

“It’s been a dream ever since I was a little girl growing up in Louisville,” she said.

In addition to being fellow Western students, DeSensi and Knopf have known each other since high school.

The process

Their journey towards becoming a Derby princess began in September Fillies, Inc., the volunteer group that runs the princess program, held an orientation seminar for interested women.

The program is open to all female residents of Kentucky who are full-time college students.

At the orientation, the candidates learned what would be expected of them, should they win, and picked up applications.

Of the 80 women who applied and went through the first interviews, 28 were called back for a second interview. For that interview, applicants were required to bring letters of recommendation from professors and employers.

“The Derby Festival princesses are selected based on knowledge of the festival, poise, intelligence, personality and campus and community involvement,” said Mark Shallcross, communications manager of the Kentucky Derby Festival.

On Dec. 9 of last year, the five princesses of the 2003 Royal Court were named at a press conference.

“I was totally surprised,” Knopf said of the moment her name was announced. “I really, honestly didn’t expect it. I didn’t expect they’d name two Western students as well as two (Sacred Heart Academy) grads.”

The group, which also includes Danielle Herriford and Leah Pepper of the University of Louisville and Whitney Weber of the University of Kentucky, made sporadic appearances at various events throughout January, February and March.

The selection

The Derby Queen was chosen by a spin of a wheel on April 11 at the Fillies Ball.

The five women were escorted into the room in alphabetical order and assigned a number to stand on. Each stood anxiously awaiting to see where the wheel would stop, deciding who would be the next Derby Queen.

“It’s funny,” DeSensi said. “The wheel kind of stopped, rocked one way, then the other way, then back in the opposite direction.”

DeSensi said that she couldn’t see where the wheel finally stopped and thought she hadn’t won.

“I expected the other person had won, so I was shocked,” she said. “I was just lucky.”

Queen mother

If DeSensi is the queen, then Susan Smith is the queen mother.

During the Pegasus Parade preview, Smith, vice president of Fillies Inc., stood by the float watching the princesses wave to the crowd at the convention center.

“Everywhere they go, I go,” said Smith, who acts as a chaperone. “That’s my job as vice president of the Fillies.”

Smith has grown close to the young women during the time they’ve spent together.

“I’ve had five adopted daughters since December,” she said. “I’m really going to miss them.”

The life of a princess

In the weeks between the Fillies Ball and the Derby, the princesses will have made nearly 70 appearances at various Derby events.

Although some events are optional, they’ve made an effort to attend each one, Smith said.

On the day of the Pegasus Parade Preview, the five women had been running on only three hours of sleep.

Although the dark circles under their eyes sometimes leave the princesses looking a little drained beneath their smiles and makeup, the young women don’t seem to mind the long day.

“Once we get our second wind, we’re fine,” DeSensi said. “It’s not like this is a pain. It’s fun, and that makes it easier to do.”

As they stepped off the float, the princesses were mobbed by a swarm of children seeking autographs.

Even through the chaos that always seems to surround groups of small children, the princesses maintained their poise and grace as they talked with each child who wandered through the line.

“It’s the kids that make it great,” DeSensi said. “I want to keep a smile on my face to make the kids happier.”

After spending almost four hours at the convention center, the princesses were ready to leave.

Their day was over, but they knew that another long day of Derby events awaited them tomorrow. Still, they left the convention center laughing, enjoying the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity they’ve been given.

Reach Jocelyn Robinson at [email protected]