There’s more than mint juleps and hats to this event.
From your living room or a bar stool, The Kentucky Derby seems simple enough: a crowd of well-dressed folks in seersucker and elaborate hats sipping mint juleps taking in a high-stakes horse race. But once you arrive in Louisville for your first Derby Day, it’s clear that while the horses may be in a two-minute, attendees are engaged in day’s long endurance challenge. Whether you’ve already bought your ticket or pondering the possibility of your first trip, here are five things to know beforehand.
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Learn the lingo
The easiest way to give up your status as a first-timer is to say “the Derby.” In Louisville, if you’re not referring to the race by its full title “The Kentucky Derby,” you call it simply “Derby.” While it might sound a bit funny at first, you’ll quickly notice locals say nothing else. And while it’s possible to have a grand time at Derby without placing a single bet, reading up on horse racing terminology beforehand, even if it’s just a glossary like this, truly enhances your appreciation of the occasion.
Plan your parking strategy
Over 150,000 people attend Derby every year—a fact that manifests itself in a hot mess of cars, Lyfts, vans, limos, trucks, and pedestrians all streaming into Churchill Downs at the same time. Many people who live near the stadium rent out spots in their front yards for a variety of prices, some incredibly reasonable and others comical. A few list their spots on Craigslist, but the best strategy is to show up early with your patient pants on, and prepare to spend between $30 and $70 depending on distance from the track. If you plan on hailing a ride share app, brace yourself for surge fees of up to six times the normal price the closer to the time of the race.
Dress the part
The fashion statements at Derby can vary from flip flops with a bow tie to haute-couture hats, and it’s not unusual to see them juxtaposed in the same section. Some people use this occasion to sport a headpiece that is more performance art than accessory, and bless them for it, but don’t feel pressure to procure an attention-grabbing topper if it isn’t your style. Even a simple wide-brimmed sun hat can look put-together with the right outfit or you could even try our DIY fascinator for a lightweight option. Louisville-native Summer Auerbach, the owner of Rainbow Blossom Natural Food Markets who hosts her own Derby weekend soiree, also recommends the fascinator. "They make it easier to navigate the crowds, they up your photo game by not shadowing your face, and you won’t have hat head at the end of the day if you want to transition into dinner or a party."
Find your scene
From the infield to Millionaire’s Row, each level of Churchill Downs has a different crowd and vibe. While other factors like financial circumstances might preclude you from a view at the top, there are plenty of moderately-priced places around the track in the Clubhouse and Grandstand levels with an outstanding view. And if you’ve come to party, the raucous infield puts you in the middle of the action. While it doesn’t include a reserved seat, a general admission ticket is the most affordable option and costs around $60-80 depending on how far out you purchase it. "Unless you are sitting in a suite or a room that offers sit-down meals, bring box lunches," Auerbach says. "They are much better than what you would find at the track, and you don’t have to make the journey to the food court and wait in line. Just be sure to tell the place where you are ordering them that they are for Derby and they’ll pack them up in compliant clear containers and a clear plastic bag."
Get your gamble together
If you plan on placing a bet, it helps to prepare beforehand so you can make your wager quickly and effectively. Fortunately, The Kentucky Derby website makes it easy for Derby newbies to learn the basics of betting with their 101 guides. "To increase your odds, place your bet “across the board” which places a bet to Win, Place, and Show and increased your odds of cashing a ticket," says Auerbach. "If you place an exacta or a trifecta, be sure to “box it” so your horse can finish in any order."