Written By: Tiffany Felts | Photos By: Jolea Brown

In the heart of Louisville, Kentucky, amidst the excitement of the Derby Festival, lies a tradition that transcends mere pageantry. The 2024 Kentucky Derby Festival Royal Court is more than just symbols of elegance and grace, these young women embody the essence of civic leadership, academic excellence, and community service.

Rooted in a legacy spanning over six decades, the Princess Program has been a cornerstone of the Derby Festival since its inception. Established in 1957, just two years after the Festival’s inception, the program has evolved under the careful stewardship of The Fillies, Inc., a non-profit organization comprising 250 community volunteers dedicated to supporting the Derby Festival. Through their tireless efforts, The Fillies have transformed the Princess Program into a platform that celebrates the state’s most outstanding college students, recognizing their intellect, character, and commitment to service.

The selection process for the Royal Court is rigorous, with candidates required to maintain a minimum 3.0 grade-point average and undergo evaluation by a panel of out-of-state judges. Criteria such as knowledge of the Derby Festival, poise, intelligence, personality, and campus and community involvement are carefully considered, ensuring that each Princess epitomizes the values of the Festival.

Throughout their reign, these young women serve as official ambassadors, attending over 70 events throughout the spring season. Their roles extend far beyond ceremonial duties; they are the face of the Derby Festival, embodying its spirit of community and celebration.

Through their remarkable achievements and unwavering dedication, these Princesses inspire us to strive for greatness, reminding us that true beauty lies in the depth of character and the impact we make on our communities.





Meet Paighton Brooks, a 21-year-old senior at the University of Louisville whose passion for justice and service knows no bounds. Currently pursuing a double major in Political Science and Criminal Justice, with a focus on pre-law and public policy, Paighton is a force to be reckoned with. As a McConnell Scholar and the Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) Chair, she spearheads initiatives aimed at fostering inclusivity and representation within her university community. Additionally, as President of the Woodford R. Porter Scholars, Paighton leads by example, inspiring her peers to strive for greatness.

Beyond her academic achievements, Paighton is a proud member of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, and was crowned the 2023 University of Louisville Homecoming Queen.

Volunteering with The Hope Buss, she channels her passion for social justice into tangible action, advocating for those in need and making a difference in the lives of others. Rooted in her upbringing as a proud daughter and big sister in a large family, Paighton’s commitment to serving her community runs deep, shaping her identity as a compassionate leader and changemaker.

Amidst her busy schedule, Paighton finds solace in creativity, expressing herself through fashion and social media. As a self-professed lover of reading and reality TV, she cherishes moments of leisure, finding inspiration in the simple joys of life.

For Paighton, the Kentucky Derby symbolizes more than just a horse race—it represents the essence of Kentucky’s vibrant culture and heritage. As she eloquently puts it, “the Derby serves as a beacon of excellence, vibrancy, and opportunity, inviting people from all walks of life to partake in a shared experience and celebrate the beauty of Kentucky.”





Sarah Downs, a 23-year-old dynamo from Springfield, KY, is not your average medical student. Having graduated summa cum laude from Bellarmine University in 2022 with a Bachelor of Science in Biology, Sarah’s academic prowess is evident. However, her journey extends far beyond the laboratory. Currently in her second year at the University of Louisville School of Medicine, she is a member of the Distinction in Business & Leadership Track, bringing a unique blend of medical expertise and entrepreneurial spirit to her endeavors. Sarah also serves as the Social Chair of her class, fostering camaraderie and connection among her peers, and as the Public Relations Chair of Project Heal, she advocates for important causes in her community.

But Sarah’s talents don’t stop there. Sarah is an avid pianist and the proud owner of her own Kentucky Proud certified bakery, combining her love of baking with a commitment to supporting local agriculture and promoting sustainability. And as reigning Miss Central Kentucky, she’s set to compete for the title of Miss Kentucky in June—a testament to her grace, poise, and dedication to service.

In her downtime (what downtime?) Sarah is also an enthusiast of romantic comedies, always eager to engage in lively discussions about love, laughter, and happily ever afters.

For Sarah, the Kentucky Derby “is a celebration of Kentucky’s rich heritage. Being part of this tradition ignites a fire in my soul, and it’s an honor to contribute to the pageantry that makes my Old Kentucky Home shine.”




Ankita Nair, a 25-year-old powerhouse from Louisville, KY, is making waves both in the medical field and beyond. Graduating Summa Cum Laude from UCLA in just three years with a Bachelor’s Degree in Human Biology and Society, Ankita’s academic achievements are nothing short of impressive. Currently in her third year at the University of Louisville School of Medicine, her impact extends far beyond the classroom. As the reigning Miss University of Louisville and a Quality of Life finalist at Miss Kentucky, she uses her platform to improve healthcare outcomes in her community.

Ankita founded “Let’s Live Kentucky,” a preventative health initiative aimed at addressing healthcare disparities in the state. Additionally, she has played a pivotal role in leading her school’s Medical Spanish program, bridging the gap between healthcare providers and Spanish-speaking patients.

Outside of her academic and advocacy pursuits, Ankita finds joy in music and sweet treats. With a passion for playing the piano and a love for sampling the local Louisville ice cream scene, she embodies the perfect blend of intellect and indulgence.

For Ankita, the Kentucky Derby “represents a celebration of unity and community spirit. As Dan Fogelberg’s song Run for the Roses says “It’s the chance of a lifetime, in a lifetime of chance” and I am so grateful to have the chance of a lifetime as a Derby Princess.”




24-year-old Emma Rhodes stands as a shining example of versatility and passion. Currently pursuing her Master’s degree in Elementary Education at Bellarmine University while teaching third grade at Saint Agnes School, Emma is dedicated to shaping young minds.

A former member of the Bellarmine University Dance Team and a three-time national ballroom dancing champion, she effortlessly blends grace and athleticism in her pursuits. Beyond the dance floor, Emma’s involvement in various organizations, including serving on the Executive Board of Phi Mu Fraternity, showcases her commitment to leadership and community engagement.

Emma’s thirst for adventure has led her across the globe, where she’s taught English in Italy and Austria, immersing herself in new cultures and experiences. A fervent conservationist, she advocates for environmental preservation, embracing a deep respect for the natural world.

In her free time, Emma indulges in her passions for travel and K-pop music, finding inspiration in exploring new destinations and musical rhythms. As a proud aunt to her baby nephew and a devoted cat parent, family holds a special place in Emma’s heart.

For Emma, the Kentucky Derby “is such a special time in the community, where the city comes alive, and everyone unites around tradition and celebration. As a native Louisvillian, I am honored to continue my family’s legacy as the third woman to join the Royal Court, following my mother and younger sister’s footsteps.”





Hailing from Bardstown, KY, 22-year-old Laurel Riggs embodies ambition, leadership, and Kentucky pride. A senior at the University of Kentucky, Laurel is on the brink of embarking on a journey that promises to leave an indelible mark on the world of law and beyond.

Currently pursuing a dual degree in Political Science and Writing, Rhetoric, and Digital Studies, Laurel is also a Lunsford Scholar and a member of the esteemed Lewis Honors College, exemplifying her dedication to scholarly pursuits and intellectual curiosity.

Set to attend UK’s Rosenberg College of Law in the fall, she is poised to make waves in the legal field. Her civic service includes serving on the Executive Board for UK Panhellenic and Student Government Association.

As the Director of Programs at Hugh O’Brian Youth (HOBY) Leadership Kentucky, Laurel plays a pivotal role in shaping the next generation of leaders—a responsibility she carries with pride and passion.

For Laurel, the Kentucky Derby “serves as a thread that binds families, friends, and businesses together, transcending time and bringing joy to every household in the Commonwealth and beyond.”