Well who knew I would ever go see a horse race at the Kentucky Derby (Derby) as my first ever racing experience. The fastest two minutes in sports is a 0 to 40 mph sprint in three strides done by Thoroughbred horses over a 1 1/8 mile or 2 kms track. The fastest humans takes just under 5 minutes to run this distance. We instead have 2 legs and don´t weight 1000 pounds like these Thoroughbred horses nor do we have a 121-126 pound person (jockey) on top of us nor receive any force with a whip. It is an experience worth checking out, mind you there is more than one race and they run once an hour with plenty to do in between…though I think 6-7 races is plenty for one to watch in a day.
In early May I made my way to Louisville for the second time in a year but this time to attend the 148th Kentucky Derby! I packed 4 hats, 4 shoes and 3 dresses which is a lot for me but going to the Derby is all about flaunting the most flamboyant hats for ladies and suits for men so I did my part and packed differently. Churchill Downs (Downs) where the horse track is has races all the time throughout the year but the week leading up to the main event; Derby, there are races and events nearly every day as over 1400 horses fly in (yes, on special planes) to compete and lodge in the Downs´ stables for a chance at winning bigger prize money.
Of the five day trip we found ourselves at the Churchill Downs almost daily while in town. Wednesday, Thursday and Saturday we were at Churchill Downs for various events. The actually Kentucky Derby has run consistently for 148 years in May, usually the first Saturday in May, since 1875 (exceptions: 2020, Sept. 5; 1945, June 9; 1901, April 29). On Thursday we attended the local version of the Derby, called Thurby and Wednesday was museum and tour of Churchill Downs. Had we gone Friday the races held would be the Oaks which is pretty much Derby but instead of 3 year old male horses (called colt) it is the 3 year old female horses (called filly) for Friday´s race. Most horses retire at 5 years old so at 3 years old they are basically at their prime and around 5 years they usually retire on the ranch or become a stud. Friday and Saturday are when most attend and often are a package deal online. Derby is called a run for the roses while Oaks is lilies for the fillies…simply named because the winning horse of the main race on these day gets draped with their respective garland of either lilies or roses after. Sunday was Mother´s Day and had it not fallen the day after the Derby this year they normally offer a brunch with races and special treatment for the mom´s, which locals told me is great!
Wednesday we went to do something called Dawn at the Downs where you can tour the horses stables and might see them practices. Tours are run through the Derby Museum, adjacent to the Downs and is where I got my bearings about horse racing and Derby. Our tour turns out wasn´t actually Dawn at the Downs as that sells out quick (get tickets well in advance if that is calling you) but instead our tour got us out into the stands front row to watch the Derby and Oaks horses practice. The guide could answer any question and was super knowledgeable, she informed us about everything Kentucky Derby and horse racing that we needed to know while we watched the pony horses ride along side the race horses to calm them down and the Derby and Oaks race horses ¨breeze¨ (term for fast galloping sprints) by us. I would have loved the stables instead of a whole hour simply watching horses practice (7-8 am is practice and it was chilly) but I did learn a lot and was only bored the last 10-15 minutes. Keep your eyes peeled because there are other tour options; as we left we saw people arriving dressed up for a brunch event that looked fun too. Visiting the Derby Museum if attending the Derby is a smart plan even if you can´t or don´t want to snag a tour but do this outside of horse race hours.
The museum covers all the traditions of the Kentucky Derby, the culture, heritage and explains each piece of horse racing from horse hooves to jockeys (riders of the horse). You can see the championship trophies for the Derby and the Triple Crown (3 big money horse races; the first is the Derby). Loved the section on females in the sport, the black community and the Latins. Many jockeys today are from Latin America in fact the winner of the 2022 Kentucky Derby was Venezuelan. They also dip into the other events surrounding the Derby starting with the Thunder Over Louisville, one of the largest fireworks show in the World; the Kentucky Derby Festival Marathon; and ends with the actual Kentucky Derby (14 races, the 12th was the main event). More info about these events here.
Thurby is the Derby on Thursday and people get all dressed up and go to the races. Many are local Louisvillians but there is the occasional Seattleite aka non local such as myself. Thurby was created as locals got priced out of attending Derby about 10 years ago. I´m sure it will happen again and a new event will be created. Attending Thurby is an excellent idea for getting the whole Derby style horse race experience. Many still dress up and there is plenty of opportunities for media attention but know that generally the best dressed show up on Oaks (lots of pink outfits found in the crowd, guys and girls) and the actual Derby day. At Thurby you still have the chance to bet on horses (there were 11 races), watch horses walk around the Paddock just before their race, take in the details of Churchill Down´s Twin Spires (old grand stand and iconic Churchill Downs symbol) and have the famous drinks in the traditional collector cups. It is literally the real experience for a decent price. In fact, there is also a concert in the infield area in case you need a break from horse racing.
I tried my first attempt at betting on horses at Thurby and kind of learned the ropes. Together we put down $16 dollars at the wagering window and won $25. Two dollars was minimum bet on either a horse to win, place or show. Place means the horse finishes top two in the race and show means the horse places top 3. Obviously, more money goes to a win bet and less to a bet of show. We put money down together and came out on top which is not always the case. People place bets based on names, jockey´s, horse odds of winning and any other way. There is really no guarantees in horse or sport betting. I am not a big gambler or into betting so putting minimum down and just having a bit of fun to experience it was perfect for me.
I bet one other time and this was at Derby. Betting on Derby had long slow lines but you can also bet on the app or at the electronic betting stations (unless your state doesn´t allow betting). We choose the long slow line and bet just once for the main derby race; race number 12 of 14 total races. We could have done the shorter line but why lose the experience of placing a cash bet your first time at the Kentucky Derby. We had two tactics, I placed $10 total down, choose 4 horses for a win and one for show while my boyfriend placed $2 down on each horses to win plus an extra $3 on his favorite to win ($43 total). I choose Zandon, Epicenter, Rich Strike and Mo Donegal all to win, with the last one for show as well. Epicenter was my boyfriends favorite to win. We both came out on top winning $163.60 each as Rich Strike (the underdog) stole the win coming out of the 20th gate (farthest away), with the highest odds to win (80-1) and was only racing because one horse dropped out the day before! Epicenter took 2nd, Zandon 3rd and my Mo Donegal 5th! This is where betting get´s you, I felt excited that I won but wished I had put more down on my horses! Same rings true on opposite end, had we not won, I might have felt I needed to bet on the next races to get my money back. Instead we just happily stood in line to cash out while many were quite upset. While cashing out we heard someone nearby had won $16,000…can you imagine!
Another thing on Thurby that was great is you can try the famous Derby drinks in the collector glasses. Although they were no cheaper ($17 each) than Derby I was able to try the traditional Derby drink, the Mint Julup, and the Oaks famous drink, the Lily in their respective glasses. Both are made with local bourbon…in fact with the oldest bottled bourbon in the USA, Old Forester. There are other options to drink too, with the cheapest alcoholic beverage being beer. In case you did not know Kentucky has tons of bourbon, Woodford Reserve has a special Derby bottle every year and Angel´s Envy is supposed to be very good bourbon at a decent price…if that is your thing. Kentucky prides itself on the alcohol’s flavor given the crazy amount of limestone in it´s land which filters the water used to make the local whiskey aka bourbon but it may also just be the barrels they use to store this whiskey. It is a fact that Kentucky has some of the best tasting water in the US which comes rich with minerals due to the limestone and the filtration system invented here. They also say this limestone helps breed some of the fastest Thoroughbred horses because they eat the grass growing from the bourbon…ha I mean limestone below the soil.
To attend Thurby prices are between $30 to $100. Our seats were near the finish line post and below Millionaires Row (yes, name rings true, ridiculously expensive box suites area). Our seats cost $40 on Thurby, were padded in a reserved area near the track, but in reality these same seats are approximately $4000 each for the actual Derby (Oaks too)! You get bleacher seats if you pay just $30 and will be on the other side of the original Twin Spires grand stand; farther from the finish post. If you want the box experience with food included, pay the $100 and ta da heaven! If you are going on Derby it is advised to get tickets well in advance (January of same year at least) as ticket prices go up as dates approach (same with airplane tickets!). Thurby prices remain the same though (for now).
Since I usually prefer the local version of experiences Thurby was most definitely the perfect place to be. All the jazz without the exaggerated pricing on Derby day and shared with plenty of locals! No worries though I did also attend the actual Kentucky Derby too just again done so in a way that was more local. For Derby we headed to the infield (general admission ticket; about $40).
Derby was on Saturday, May 7, 2022 and we dressed up again. This time a notch down on fancy since the infield dress code changes a bit. Instead of attending the races in the grand stands you have a whole mini city where you can play around. You are on the grass infield meaning you may encounter mud although there are paved areas too. You can bring chairs, blankets and some items in a clear plastic bag, such as water and snacks. People attending infield for Derby were varied but I did see an abundance of college students in this area and in general people wanting the experience or in person viewing without all the cost or expected fashion. This also tends to be the party area where in the past drunk people ran across the tops of the port-o-potty´s or climbed the flag pole. The good news is that you can always get infield tickets day of if you decide to go last minute (prices do increase but are accessible around $70). By the way, if you are single, know that Derby week in general seemed to be a great place to mingle.
Most people are found in the infield, while the grand stands hold approximately 56,000 people, the infield has no real limit which has allowed the derby to get to record attendance of 175,000 spectators in the past. All attendees (even grand stand) watch the races on the huge video screen but there are plenty of areas even in the infield where the horses race by and you can totally see them through the chain link fence. Viewing most of the races on the big screen was fine, it is really high definition and super helpful for viewing the whole race. I mean it wasn´t a perfect view like Thurby but I actually felt closer to the horses being in the infield since they race the inside of the track. Take a look at the program because some races take place on the turf track of the inner circle right along that infield fence! To keep things interesting, not all races are the same distance or start location. Some are shorter while others are longer although a good chunk are on the dirt track composed of 25 feet deep sandy soot taken from the Ohio river (which passes through Louisville) while others are on the turf track (unless it´s raining because it get´s slick).
Most infield attendees popped up their chairs in areas viewing the big screen or on the grassy fields near the track to watch the horses races through the fences. It was comforting to be able to set out chairs or a picnic spot in the infield given the more laidback vibes here. There is a lot of room to wander, more food options offered than in the grand stands (pricing was around $12 for most items at the Downs), more bathrooms available (less of a wait) and plenty of entertainment in addition to the races. Bathroom lines existed but in reality the infield has tons of them so you can avoid a line by walking a tad farther and you won´t wait long at all (not the case in grand stands). Lines are very typical even in the grand stands unless you purchase a box suite which for convenience has betting and food included in price.
One major downside to general admission in the infield is the way in and out. You enter via one tunnel and if you enter at the opening of gates or end of the main derby race you can expect a long bottleneck with patience needed in order to pass through this tunnel leading in/out of Churchill Downs (entrance to infield is separate to that of grand stands). We never planned to go at the start of the races but instead arrive after 1 pm and in reality we arrived at 2pm. On the news they mentioned people sleeping outside the gates to enter so I was glad we choose to arrive later. Usually the main race is around 5 pm so we got there still with plenty of time to set up our chairs twice (we found a good screen viewing spot then moved to a closer track view), got drinks, placed bets, watched a few races and even collected our winnings. Remember races are basically an hour apart. We missed any entry craziness but found the exit a mad house of people trying to escape the field into a single tunnel. You sure would not want to be in this situation in an emergency! …Technically there are four exit tunnels. The bottleneck exiting was comfortable; as in no one was pushing, but there were too many people and all tried to find the quickest way to the front (including ourselves) and then somehow find space to enter the tunnel. Once in the tunnel, all moved better but we were still sardines just now surrounded by enjoyable chants (tradition is to sing or make noise when passing through the tunnel, it is an experience) as we made our way through this rather long tunnel. Outside the crowd maintained until we were over the bridge and crossing the street to the stadium parking area, literally only one way to exit completely. There is another tunnel that takes you to the grand stands from infield but unfortunately, you are no longer allowed to go through the tunnel over to the grandstands during Derby or Oaks to watch the horses in the Paddock or even meet up with friends over there.
Take note that in the infield drinks are no longer in traditional derby glasses but instead are served in representatively designed plastic cups even though pricing remains the same ($17).
Besides the tunnel (…and drinks) the other main downside with infield is the potentially muddy conditions in this area. I wasn´t excited about this since I wasn´t prepared for mud, I was just informed that I needed to dress up for the occasion but in reality the infield is very weather dependent, had it rained hard or is raining this area would be very muddy…luckily boots are totally an option. Thankfully the rain on Oaks didn´t make the infield too muddy and we were able to go in regular shoes without any problems instead of rain boots which I didn´t bring on the trip! The fact that it is more casual is nice but that means you see less of the incredible fashion found in the grand stands with the wide brimmed hats, fancy suits, beautiful dresses and unique matching combinations or creativity. The infield has some interesting characters and some fashion but it is down played quite a bit. I mean anything goes for Derby day in reality but if you want to dress up this is your time to shine and it is best not to do that in the infield.
Derby fashion options change depending on location. In the infield, fashion existed but was less plentiful compared to Thurby. Shoes were the biggest difference here; some had sandals, tennis shoes, cowboy boots, rain boots, dress shoes, high heels, crocs. Everything was ok shoe wise and really even clothing wise although overall people dressed up, just a level down in most cases for the infield. In the grand stands you could get away with some of this but you stand out for dressing down too much since nearly everyone has a hat of some sort and wears a suits or dress. Hats by far seem to be the most important item to have! There were full on designed sculpture hats, wide brimmed hats, cowboy type hats, fascinators (British style headpieces) and more. One thing for sure besides the hat is to wear comfy shoes since 8 hours is a long time wandering around. I wore elegant sandals on Thurby and Birkenstocks on Derby. My date did dress shoes Thurby then tennis shoes on Derby.
As far a clothing for Derby the usual is a dress or suit and people really get particular about matching elements (hat, shoes, purse, tie, etc). The chosen outfit is meant to stand out, think flamboyant, Southern Belle, eye catching and spring colors! The best outfits and hats get plenty of compliments and photo requests from everyone. A nicely designed suit will have people staring and reaching over to touch it. If you down play the fashion you will miss out on fun Southern friendliness and if you are looking for attention this is the place to go. The best spot for people watching is the Paddock area (of the grand stands) and if you came dressed to the nines you should be here too and reap all the media attention there that you deserve! Reminder, shorts still work well here for men as long as you have the suit jacket and attire. We got our media attention on Thurby and ended up in the local newspaper. Our outfits were fantastic which I´m glad were seen and appreciated on Thurby but I now know that for Derby I doubt we would compare to the competition. Derby maintains a really high standard; so much so, that there is even a fashion show you can enter!
Another thing to consider is the weather, the Derby is in spring and in Kentucky the weather could make a showing, it has even snowed once! Oaks was a rainy affair and Thurby was fair weather. Last year´s Derby was nice and sunny and the week after we attended forecast was for 80s/90s. You never really know and you must be prepared for any and all. It is like heading to a marathon out of state or country and you must pack for all types of weather conditions. When we went to the Kentucky Derby it was quite cold and most wore a jacket the whole time (including myself). Speaking of the most important item; the hats, don´t forget to pack a plastic bag! Most hats can´t withstand much rain, they are literally glued together and will be destroyed by rain. Most hats you see here start at $200 and up and are unique handmade pieces. I thought it was hilarious during Thurby when it rained before leaving and all these ladies were walking around with clear plastic bags on their head instead of their body. LOL Know that if a thunderstorm comes through the races will be delayed as to not frighten the horses or harm electronics such as the high quality video screen which is the largest in the world (three basketball courts wide or 171 x 90 feet)! Many locals buy tickets to attended Derby almost yearly and may reconsider day of due to the uncertain weather. For those who live there and have been, they know it isn´t worth going when the weather is bad so they pass (which a group of my boyfriend´s friends did this year). Instead, locals know there is always a Derby party at someone´s house to attend and that either way they will watch the race on TV like nearly everyone else in Kentucky. The option to pass or attend a party elsewhere is not really something a visitor has the option to do so go prepared for the elements!
Lastly, consider parking. For Thurby and Dawn at the Downs we parked at the Expo Center and took a shuttle bus for free but we tried that on Derby and it was $120 to park (reserved online only)! We laughed, asked where to go instead and left. Streets outside the Down´s are closed and used only by shuttle buses and emergency vehicles. For day of Derby or Oaks, consider either public bus, Uber (ride share) to the Cardinal Football Stadium, parking at the Cardinal Football Stadium for $30 and then walking over. Another option is to park in the the yards of homes just across from Churchill Downs for a cost and walk over. We heard this can be expensive, a hassle and has horrible traffic afterward. Leaving after races does produce some traffic but we didn´t find the shuttle or stadium parking to be bad at all. In fact, leaving the stadium was really quick. More parking information here.
I found it fascinating arriving to Louisville as many houses decorate for Derby. You find Jockey jersey´s, fleur de lis and horses among other things decorating the entryway to homes and all over businesses. The Derby is literally an actual holiday for Louvillians and most take the Friday before the Derby off. In fact, Derby is considered the end to the school year; many schools in Kentucky have that Friday off then they either take finals (high school in general) or graduate (university usually) the week/end following the Derby. Schools are closed and many businesses seemed to close by noon this day so be mindful if you plan to eat out for lunch this day! Friday is also the day celebrities make a showing at the biggest gala in town. The Barnstable Brown house hosts a party which has a red carpet and viewing area for celebrity sightings. Not to mention how fun it was arriving to the Louisville Mohammed Ali (SDF) airport during this time. It was highly decked out with themed Derby décor, full of horse planes on the tarmac with their interesting ramps and an overall good energy.
We left Louisville the day after and at the airport we were filled with free bourbon ball candy, live music and plenty of announcements of ¨If you left your hat box at the security check point please come and claim it¨ blaring over the loud speaker every few minutes. ha ha Truly a unique experience worthy of partaking in out in Kentucky.
Remember: Get your entry and plane tickets real early, research hotels and activities in advance, prepare for any weather, don´t forget the hat and plan to have an amazing experience no matter the weather or betting losses. 😛