Easily the most iconic horse race in the world, the Kentucky Derby draws in thousands of visitors annually. If you’re looking to experience the Run for the Roses for yourself (or just trying to get a little closer to the action), there are a few things you should know to make the most of your trip.
So find your best derby hat and pour yourself a mint julep, because this is the Good Sam guide to the Kentucky Derby.
History of the Kentucky Derby
Taking place annually at Churchill Downs in Louisville on the first Saturday in May, the Derby has been a Kentucky staple since 1875. Created by Meriwether Lewis Clark Jr., who was inspired by the Epsom Derby in England, the southeastern tradition serves as the first leg of the Triple Crown of Thoroughbred Racing – which includes the Preakness Stakes and Belmont Stakes. The race itself has touted some of the most famous horses in history including Secretariat, Seabiscuit, American Pharoah, Seattle Slew, and Affirmed. Aside from being labeled the “most exciting two minutes in sports,” the Derby has evolved into a fixture of culture and American tradition.
Tickets and seating
The Derby offers a variety of ticket options, from general admission to VIP packages. GA tickets will give you access to the infield, allowing you to watch the race on large screens while enjoying your share of food and mint juleps from local vendors. That being said, the best seats in the house (and perhaps most iconic) are the grandstands – where you can see the horses up close and feel the rumble of the stadium. Be advised that tickets can range widely from $65 up to $10,000 on Millionaire’s Row.
What to wear
Part of the fun of attending the Derby is its nostalgic approach to fashion, with colorful dresses and extravagant hats. As you pick out an outfit, keep the weather in mind as temperatures in Louisville (while generally warm and humid), can be a bit unpredictable in May. That being said, here are a few ideas to get the creative juices flowing.
Attire for ladies
More often than not, women tend to wear wide-brimmed hats adorned with ribbons or flowers and specifically tailored to the Derby. The goal is to “peacock” and wear something that expresses your personality and creative spirit.
Attire for gentlemen
You’ll generally find men adorned in a colorful necktie or bowtie, along with some sort of dapper-looking suit — usually made out of linen or with an expressive pattern.
Derby weekend events
While the big race falls on the first Saturday of May, there are still plenty of festivities kicking off as early as the previous weekend. Here are a few highlights.
- Opening Night with a “dress to impress party” – Saturday, April 30
- Champions Day with a celebration of the history of horse racing – Tuesday, May 3
- Thurby (aka a celebration of Kentucky) with plenty of locals in attendance – Thursday, May 5
- Kentucky Oaks (the second biggest race of the Derby) with three-year-old fillies – Friday, May 6
- Kentucky Derby (the big one) — Saturday, May 7
You know the history, you’ve got your tickets, and now you look the part. In order to truly look like a pro, here are a few things to keep in mind.
- Plan ahead: As you can imagine, Derby weekend gets pretty busy in Louisville, so you’ll want to get a jump on things and book your tickets and lodging sooner than later.
- You can’t make bets with a credit card. Apparently, this is the state law. That being said, debit cards are totally fine.
- Bring cash: Even in 2023, there are still a number of vendors who will only take cash.
- There is an ordinance allowing you to only carry two drinks at once — which is probably good for pacing yourself.
- You can bring food in from outside — making it possible to enjoy a thriftier day at the race.
- There is no public WiFi during either the Oaks or the Derby, so plan accordingly.
- Be an early bird: Churchill Downs opens early on Derby Day, so why not beat the crowds to find a good spot to watch the race?
- Stay hydrated: And not just on mint juleps. Louisville is hot and humid, and you’ll feel it — especially if you’re dressed up.
- Enjoy it!: The Derby is one of the all-time destinations for sports fans, and the experience is sure to be memorable.
Make the most of your Derby adventure
In terms of day-of travel, Churchill Downs is pretty accessible to the Louisville International Airport, with plenty of shuttles, busses, and rideshare options within a 10-mile radius.
That being said, Kentucky has a number of beautiful national parks and trails, from Mammoth Cave to Abraham Lincoln’s birthplace. If you’re already making your way out to the Derby, why not extend your trip to take in the splendor and history of the American Southeast?
If you’re ready to make the most of your stay, Good Sam can help, from RV rentals to highly rated campgrounds nearby.