As you all know, we’re from Louisville, KY, the home of The Kentucky Derby. Over the many, many years that we’ve been in Louisville, we’ve experienced The Derby in nearly every way imaginable. And since our goal is to bring you stories from our travels and ideas for your own, we thought we’d share a little bit about the different ways to experience The Kentucky Derby.
We’re rather lucky…Patricia Schultz calls this one of the 1,000 Places to See Before You Die and we grew up just a short distance from Churchill Downs. Every Louisville schoolkid knows the major names in Derby lore. There are the famous Triple Crown winners, like Secretariat, Seattle Slew, and Affirmed. There are the jockeys, like Pat Day, Calvin Borel, and Gary Stephens. Most of us can even name all three races of the Triple Crown: The Kentucky Derby, The Preakness, and The Belmont.
You can probably feel our intense bias, but The Kentucky Derby is the one to see if you can only see one. There’s a reason it’s known as “The Most Exciting Two Minutes In Sports”. And now, here are the ways you can experience this famous horse race.
Most anyone from the Louisville area has done the infield, either for The Kentucky Derby or The Kentucky Oaks, which takes place the day before. So what are some good ways to describe the infield experience? Hmm…well, “wild and crazy” come to mind. “Drunken debauchery” does too. In some ways, it’s Louisville’s answer to Mardi Gras, complete with 80-100,000 people partying with you.
In other ways though, “something for everyone” is probably the best descriptor. If you want crazy, alcohol-fueled antics, the third and fourth turns are the place to be. Here, you’ll see everything from women flashing everyone to people running across the top of the Porta-pots (while others chuck bottles at them). You might see a few arrests. A drunken guy might even ask your friend’s pregnant wife to play naked Twister before getting arrested for running across the betting booth canopy (true story!).
In the first and second turns though, the action is rather family friendly and low-key. The drunks tend to stick to their end of the track and many pass out early (look for the bright red sunburns indicating someone that passed out in the sun for a few hours), so you can lounge under your canopy with a cold beverage and enjoy time with family and friends without too many concerns.
Either way, you’re unlikely to see much of the racing action. You might catch a glimpse of one of the beautiful ponies running by, but that’s about it. On a warm and sunny day, you can dress up in the infield without too many concerns of ruining your suit or dress. Many people do. On a rainy day though, wear clothes you don’t mind never wearing for anything nice again. If it rains, you can be sure that an impromptu muddy Slip & Slide will break out.
The infield is an experience that everyone should have once…and maybe no more than once. It’s a fun party where the hot Kentucky sun beats down on you (or the rain turns it into a mud pit), the mint juleps flow like water, and half of the fun is trying to sneak in as much alcohol as you can. The infield experience can be yours for just the price of general admission, $40.
For the same $40 that gets you into the infield, you can spend your day in the paddock (you can walk back and forth between the infield and paddock). The paddock is a large, mostly open area where you go to see and be seen. Dresses, suits, and giant Derby hats are the order of the day.
Let’s get real…The Paddock is a very tame Derby experience. You’ll see some horses as they’re paraded through the Paddock before the race. You’ll see plenty of well-dressed men and women, big hats, and zany outfits. Mostly though, you’ll stand in one spot most of the day, moving to and from the concession & betting lines, and only be able to watch the races on the Jumbotron.
If you actually want to watch the races live (rather than on the Jumbotron), you’re going to need a seat in the Grandstands, at the least. IF you can can get tickets at face value, plan to shell out several hundred dollars to a little over a thousand dollars…per seat. Most likely though, you’ll end up paying more than that for scalped tickets. That’s just the way it goes.
The Grandstand seats run from the first to the third floors of Churchill Downs. Technically there are second level seats, though not many and we don’t know anyone that’s ever been to the second level. If you manage to score a seat for The Derby, plan to dress nice. Men, press those suits. Seersucker works especially well at Derby. Women, get out your best dress and start planning your Derby hat.
The way the Grandstand seats work is that you buy a box of 6 seats and you get to spend the day with a guaranteed seat surrounded by 5 of your favorite friends and family members. You’ll have to go fetch your own food and drinks (unless you can snag a beer or julep from one of the roving vendors!), but at least you can see the action.
The first floor boxes are a different experience than the third floor boxes, which require a ticket to get up to. Those of you on the first floor will have to share your bars and betting windows with the riff-raff from the paddock and possibly the infield, should any of them stumble through the tunnel into the paddock. Oh, the humanity!
Moving up the line, we have the Suites. There are the Jockey Club Suites and the Finish Line Suites, which encompass the 4th through 6th floors of Churchill Downs. The Jockey Club Suites sit on the far end of the front stretch near the 4th turn and the starting line, while the Finish Line Suites sit by the finish line, as you’d expect.
Most of the Suites are owned by corporations, banks, doctors, lawyers, etc. You will pay through the nose for one of these tickets, with prices starting around $1500 per seat and going up from there, if there are even tickets available. On top of having a lot of cash, you will have to be connected to get one of these tickets. For that price though, your food and drinks are often covered (so make sure to get your fill of Woodford Reserve bourbon!), and you get an outdoor area to watch the races.
Up in the same area are large rooms with buffet dining and bartenders, but you’ll still have to jockey for a spot on the rail to actually see the races. If you’ve ever seen The Derby, you’ve heard of Millionaire’s Row. This large room on the 4th floor is the place for the richies to hobnob. Neither of us have managed to pull off getting to these levels for Derby, though we have been for Oaks with tickets provided by Edie’s former employer.
The Derby Party
Finally, there’s the off-track Derby experience at one of the numerous Derby parties around town. It seems that virtually everyone in Louisville is either at the track, throwing a party at their house, or attending a party at a friend’s or family member’s house. This is the way we’ve done Derby the past several years.
While there’s no one “experience” that every Derby party shares, there are a few things you can expect. First, there will probably be bourbon. If there’s no bourbon, it’s not a real Kentucky Derby party, y’know, bourbon being the only truly American spirit and as much a part of Kentucky heritage and pride as Daniel Boone.
Second, there’s probably going to be a cookout and twice as much food as is necessary to feed the attendees. For us, the annual tradition is a Bacon Explosion and whatever else we end up making.
Finally, there will be betting. For those of you that actually place real bets on the ponies, you can bet online or through your smartphone. For the rest, there’s the betting pot. The way this works is that all of the horse names are thrown into a hat. You buy a horse, reach your hand in and pull out a name, and that’s your horse. Betting pots are typically in the $1 to $5 per horse range. If there’s a full Derby field of 20 horses, your $1 bet can net you $20, if you’re lucky enough to pull the winner. This is a good way to get involved without worrying about losing too much cash or having to know a thing about betting.
Beyond that, anything goes.
Go, Baby, Go!
Regardless of which way your wallet and desire lets you get to The Kentucky Derby, it is a fantastic experience and a terrific spectacle. If you’re on the track, you’ll have easy access to betting windows anywhere you go. If you’re off-track, you can still place your bets through smartphone apps or online betting. We’re most certainly biased, but we think everyone should get to The Kentucky Derby at least once in their lives.
What’s your favorite way to experience the Derby?