Louisville, Ky. — For the incurably romantic, the greatest race in town this spring won't be run in the Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs. It will churn down a 7.5-mile stretch of the nearby Ohio River.
Lining up at the gate on April 28:
* The Cincinnati-based Delta Queen,m a 56-year-old sternwheel steamboat weighing in at 1,650 tons and rising 55 feet to the top of its single, hinged stack; and
* The Belle of Louisville,m which at 350 tons draws a mere 4.5 feet of water and sports a steam calliope behind its ornate, gazebo-like pilothouse.
Up from New Orleans to watch the event will be the Natchezm -- the third of only five sternwheel steamboats left in the country.
When they come puffing down the river at 12 miles per hour, they will be fighting over a 16-year race record that currently stands at an 8-to-8 tie.
Fighting off challenges, however, is nothing new to the Delta Queen.m She and her sister ship, the Mississippi Queen,m are the only paddlewheel steamers in the world still carrying overnight passengers, according to Perry Moran, vice-president of the Delta Queen Steamboat Company.
As such, the Queensm are a scant reminder of the heyday of 19th-century riverboat travel, when more than 3,000 paddlewheelers plied America's rivers.
In fact, the Delta Queenm always has been an anachronism. She was built in 1926, some 40 years after the paddlewheeler ceased to be the dominant mode of transport on America's rivers. Prefabricated in Glasgow, Scotland, she was constructed in Stockton, Calif., and ultimately towed through the Panama Canal to New Orleans -- complete with the elegant paneling, stained-glass windows, and European upholstery that characterized her ancestors.
So richly detailed was her interior that in 1970 she was entered into the National Register of Historic Places. And in 1979 she enjoyed a splash of publicity when President Jimmy Carter and his family boarded her for a cruise.
But her first brush with the federal government came earlier. When Congress passed antifire hazard amendments to the Safety of Life at Sea Act in 1967 (designed with ocean-going vessels in mind), the Delta Queenm inadvertantly fell within its ambit.
Because of her wooden superstructure, she couldn't meet the safety regulations. So Congress has regularly voted her a special exemption, the latest one extending until 1988. Company officials, however, emphasize that more than $ 5.5 million has been spent on such things as sprinklers, alarm systems, and fire-retardant paint.
The reason: the boat is still a money-making venture -- a cruise ship for those who like to stay in sight of land, says company spokesman Russ Varvel.
Accommodating 192 passengers, the Delta Queenm offers two-to 11-night luxury trips between New Orleans and Pittsburgh -- for prices up to $2,585 per person.
One key to her success, says Mr. Varvel, is the lure of nostalgia. Likening the steamboat to a time machine, he notes, ''we're offering people a trip into America's past'' -- complete with the ''steamboat gothic'' architecture of the Mark Twain era and side trips through antebellum cotton plantations.
The public appeal of southern Americana has been so strong that in 1976 the Delta Queen Steamboat Company commissioned an even greater anachronism -- the 445-passenger Mississippi Queen, the largest and most luxurious sternwheeler ever built. Constructed in Jefferson, Ind., where more than 4,800 steamboats were built in the 19th century, she began her career by stranding her owners on serious financial shoals when design problems with the 22-foot-diameter paddlewheel forced cancellation of thousands of bookings.
Now, says Mr. Moran, Mississippi Queenm is back in ''perfect service.'' And the company, which split in 1980 with its former owner, Coca-Cola, showed a $440 ,000 profit last year and a healthy 80 percent occupancy rate.
Does that mean America's inland waterways soon will have a third overnight paddlewheeler? Company officials refuse to say -- but they clearly have not ruled out the possibility of expanding their fleet.