Churchill Downs, Louisville, KY.
Since I don't have to worry about a hotel, I don't have a lot of recommendations (but here's a good list). The area that Churchill Downs is in is not the best, so I would recommend staying downtown, the Highlands or in another area if you're planning on being in Louisville for more than the Derby. Lots of people rent their houses out, but it's crazy expensive (as are hotels). If you can stay with someone that will be your cheapest bet, that's for sure!
First Saturday of May
How many people
2012 saw over 165,307 people in attendance. 2015 saw 170,513.
General Admission $55 (advance online) $60 (day of) - you're charged a fee online though, so you don't really save any money!
2nd Floor Grandstand $610 for a two-day ticket package including one (1) reserved seat in Section 227 and one (1) ticket to The Taste of Derby, held on Thursday April 30, a food & wine event. Prices do NOT include the $5.00 per seat per day ticketing fees or $25 handling fee)
Luxury Trackside Club $3,400 per person.
Update: the prices increased in 2017 and you can find the info here.
I'm pretty sure most of the people reading my blog will be good old general admission folks, so that's the experience I'm going to be talking about.
Furlong: an eighth of a mile. The Kentucky Derby is approx 10 furlongs.
Hand: a measurement equaling 4 inches used to measure the height of a thoroughbred.
Win bet: a wager on a horse to finish first.
Place bet: wager on a horse to finish first or second.
Show bet: wager on a horse to finish third or better.
Exacta or perfecta: a wager on two specific horses to cross the finish line in first and second place in exact order.
Trifecta: a wager picking the first three finishes in exact order.
Superfecta: a wager where you have to pick the first four finishers in exact order.
Scratched: when a horse is scratched from a race, it will not be running. I heard different accounts on whether you get a refund or not if this happens.
Bridge jumper: a person who bets an unusually large sum on a single horse. As in, if they lose they'll be jumping off the nearest bridge.
Where to go
General admission can get you into the paddock area or infield. Basically anywhere standing room only. You can walk back and forth in between the areas (and pass all the fancy people in their roped off areas).
The paddock area is basically all concrete and cobblestones. It's slightly more fancy - not by being fancy, just because it has less drunk college kids. You can see the horses walk buy as well. However, 8 hours on those cobblestones hurt and there is nowhere to sit down and it's packed. In 2012 & 2013 we went to the paddock area and it was a good time but my whole body was sore the next day.
In 2014 & 2015 we were in the infield, and they were both 10 times better than 2012 & 2013. Yeah, it's not super classy but it's not as bad as I thought it would be. You can bring chairs and relax, the portable toilets are right there. There are also 'real' toilets close by, we rarely use the portable ones. There are parts of the infield that are supposedly more family friendly, but I guess we don't go there.
What to eat
You can bring a food in a plastic bag, or box lunch in a clear container, but we had never done it before 2015. This year, we (our friends) brought chips, sandwiches and all sorts of goodies. Plus, you are allowed to bring bottled water as long as it's sealed. Otherwise, there is a ton of food at the Derby. No, you're not gonna get sushi or a salad, it's all pizza, turkey legs, chicken tenders and hamburgers. Nothing wrong with that, it goes well with the beer.
What to drink
If you like fruity stuff, I recommend the Oaks Lily. If you like mint and bourbon, go for a Mint Julep. I normally have one or two Lily's and drink Bud for the rest of the day. This year - and I think it's happened in previous years as well - they run out of Bud Light, so we drink Budweiser till they run out of that.
- 2 cups sugar
- 2 cups water
- Sprigs of fresh mint
- Crushed ice
- Early Times Kentucky Whisky
- Silver Julep Cups
- 1 oz. Grey Goose® Vodka
- 4 oz. Cosmopolitan Mix
I really love my Lily's.
What to wear
This is a mix. I've seen people wear jeans and a tshirt (infield) and people in fancy evening gowns. I like to think I go somewhere in between. Don't forget your hat or fascinator - though it's not mandatory.
Oh quick tip - don't be 100% on any outfit. The weather is fickle and if it turns out to be a cold day, that romper won't be such a good idea - or if it rains, you might want to wear jeans and sneakers. Just have a backup idea!
I love to use Rent The Runway for dresses, but you do run the risk of someone else wearing the same thing.. Although with 170,000 people, you should be fine. Except if you wear a Lilly Pulitzer dress, then I can almost guarantee that you will see someone wearing the same thing. My black dress was from JC Penney's and my mint maxi was from Francesca's. Both my 2015 and my 2013 dresses were from Rent The Runway.
I would highly, highly, highly discourage wearing heels. Seriously, learn from my bad experience. It's never a good idea. I would also recommend a fascinator over a hat. Hats get hot and they bump into people. I would recommend you have a fabulous best friend to make your fascinator because those things are expensive! If you don't have that option, try and plan ahead - they go on super sale right after Derby.
As for guys - I mean, you can see what our husbands wear. It's quite warm and they both hate being hot, so shorts and a polo is where it's at. KC might wear a suit or at least a button down if it was cooler, but there's no chance when it's 70 or above. But plenty of guys do dress up.. Also, plenty of guys end up with their shirts off by noon, so there's that.
I gathered a few sneaky pictures of what people were wearing this year.. as you can see, it's a whole lot of everything. Cowboy boots, jeans, shorts, no shirts, hawaiian shirts, fancy dresses, summer dresses, hats, fascinators, beer hats - you name it, you'll see it at the Derby.
What to do
Some guy asked us 'what is there to do?' and the answer is... Not much. It's like a big tailgating party, with horses that run by every so often. There is a Vineyard Vines tent that has a band and people cram in there to get free stuff. Other than that, you walk around, people watch, eat, drink, bet. There isn't much 'to do' at the Derby. It's still a fun day though, in my opinion.
What to do afterwards
If you are game enough (or sober enough) to go out afterwards, people might tell you to go to Fourth Street Live. I personally would not recommend that because it's for the super young crowd, it's expensive and it's just not my jam. I recommend Bardstown Road - if you are catching a taxi (which is really your only option), ask to be taken to O'Sheas at Bardstown Road. It's full of everyone, from 21-50 (or older!) and around O'Sheas there are plenty of other bars. Lots of live music, DJs, beer gardens, dance floors - whatever you're after, I recommend Bardstown Road.
1. Don't wear heels. I promise, even if you wear heels everyday and can run 6 miles in heels, the Derby will kill your feet. The cobblestones, the standing around, just don't do it. I know my flip flops don't look as cute as heels but guess what? The one year I wore heels, I could barely walk the next day my feet were in so much pain. I am sitting on the floor in the picture below (so classy) because I just couldn't stand anymore. If you think I look miserable, it's because I was.
2. Bring cash - and lots of it. The ATM line gets insane after 1pm or so. You will waste 45 minutes or more in that line, to what - wait again in the betting or drink line? Bring more cash than you need. A bud light (in 2015) was $8 and the Lily was $11. A pizza was $8. Add in tips and your money will be gone before you can say Mint Julep.
3. Get there early. We've arrived at all different times - after 12, before 12, 10am... the earlier the better. The lines to enter Churchill Downs can be half a mile or longer. Not to mention with 170,000 people around you, it gets a bit crowded and it's nice to be there before that. Because we got there so early, we got a huge patch of grass for our group, people who arrived after 11 had no chance and started setting up on the cobblestones and such.
4. Buy your tickets in advance. I know I said above that it doesn't really save you money, it's still a great idea to buy your tickets in advance because then it's not such a huge hit in one go, and you can go straight to the entrance without also having to buy your tickets first. Highly recommend.
5. Sunscreen. Sometimes I'm a bit cocky / stupid - I'm Australian, the Kentucky sun can't burn me! Guess what, it can and it has and it will again. Only on Derby though. Bring sunscreen, lather it on several times a day. Believe me. I hope this guy was wearing sunscreen.
6. Buy a program and bring a sharpie. Pens don't really work. Programs are good if you want to bet, they are only like $5.
8. Place your Derby bets well before Derby. The day itself is called the Kentucky Derby, but race 11 is the actual Derby. There are races before and after the Derby, but the Derby is the big one. Anywho, don't wait until race 10 ends to attempt to place your bets for race 11 - you can line up and the chances of you getting to the betting window before race 11 are so slim it's not even funny. Did I mention there is like an hour in between race 10 and 11? Seriously. This was one of the betting things at like race 7, and we'd been in line for at least 20 minutes already.
9. Leave before or well after the Derby. As mentioned above, race 11 is the big one. If you're sticking around, try and wait like half an hour. Leaving immediately after race 11 is insane. We stood in a herd of people, barely moving for like 20 minutes. The tunnels were not designed for 100,000 people to leave at once. Imagine a zillion more people in the below photo.
10. Don't drink too much. It's a long day. I have seen it all - sleeping, inappropriate PDAs, passed out in the bathrooms, screaming and fighting, vomiting, climbing the porta potties and falling off... Just don't do it. Be responsible and courteous.
Most importantly - Have fun!! Don't stress, go with fun people and have a blast. It's such a fun day!
So there you have it - this is all the info I can think of, if you have any specific questions don't hesitate to ask.
Have you ever been or is it on your bucket list?