The Complete Guide to the Kentucky Derby Infield Party

Kentucky Derby track with Infield
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When you imagine going to the Kentucky Derby, you probably picture yourself dressed in your finest suit or wearing a fancy derby hat, cheering on the horses from the stands with a refreshing mint julep in hand. However, most attendees who come out to Churchill Downs in Louisville, Kentucky, are at the Derby Party on the infield, which is nothing like the Derby experience you're imagining.

The infield is the stretch of lawn that is inside of the racetrack and on Derby Day, it turns into a giant outdoor party. Watching the race from the infield might sound like having a courtside seat at a basketball game, but in reality, only the first couple of lines of spectators will even get a glimpse of the horses, and the Derby Party is really more about the debauchery than it is about the actual race.

When Is the Kentucky Derby Party?

The Kentucky Derby always falls on the first Saturday in May, and the ever-popular Derby Party takes place at the same time. The festivities start bright and early, and those who want a chance at actually seeing the race typically arrive before sunrise to grab a spot by the outer fence of the infield. If you arrive late, don't worry. The party continues all day long, although since the day drinking begins around 8 a.m., it gets progressively rowdier as the day goes on.

While the day of the race and the party—known as Derby Day—is the most important date of this massive event, the Kentucky Derby celebration is stretched out for two weeks around the big race with all kinds of festivities. It all starts with Opening Night on the previous Saturday and goes on with the Thunder Over Louisville fireworks show and even more races like the Kentucky Oaks horse race and the steamboat race on the Ohio River.

What to Expect

On average, 80,000 people spend their Derby Saturday partying in the infield. Be aware that the Derby Party is first and foremost just that—a party. If you're expecting a refined going-out event or genuinely want to watch the races, this isn't the activity for you. Only the first few hundred people to arrive will be able to get a spot close enough to see the horses.

The infield is crowded and the only sitting area is the ground. If it's raining or has rained recently, expect to be walking through mud (or even sliding through it or mud wrestling as some partygoers like to do). The vibe on the infield is very much like spring break in Miami, and the crowd trends toward college students.

Admission

While tickets to sit in the stands can cost hundreds of dollars if not more, entrance into the Derby Party is much more affordable. Tickets start at around $40 when they're first released—usually about six months before the race—and then go up in price as the date gets closer. You'll save money by purchasing your tickets in advance, but there's no limit to the number of attendees, so you can also show up on Derby Day and get tickets at the gate. If you do, though, expect to pay about $85 for same-day admission.

Since the entire infield is standing room only, all of the tickets are general admission and there are no reserved seats.

Getting There

Parking in the Churchill Downs parking lot for the Kentucky Oaks and Kentucky Derby is available only to individuals who purchased a reserved space in advance. It's common for residents who live in the area to rent out their yards or driveways for visitors to park in, with those who live closest to the tracks charging the steepest prices.

If you don't have a permit, the nearest option is the parking lot at Cardinal Stadium, which is about a 10-minute walk to Churchill Downs. Farther out is the parking lot at the Kentucky Exposition Center, which also requires a pre-purchased parking pass but includes roundtrip shuttle service.

If you're using a ridesharing app or taxi, there's a designated drop-off area near the racetracks. If your hotel offers shuttle service to the racetrack, it will drop you off near the taxis.

Tips for Visiting

Derby Day can be a lot of fun, and is a bucket-list event for more than just horse racing enthusiasts, but there are some things to keep in mind before jumping into the infield on race day.

  • Bringing alcohol into the Kentucky Derby is prohibited and all attendees have to go through a bag check when entering. Outside food and drink are allowed, but water must be in a sealed bottle and food items must fit in a gallon-sized clear plastic bag.
  • Collapsable chairs and tarps that are smaller than 10 feet by 10 feet are allowed. If you bring nothing to sit on, you may be stuck sitting in the mud or standing all day.
  • Even though Derby attire is generally sundresses and big hats for women and pastel-colored suits for men, remember that the infield party tends to get messy. Comfortable clothing is the most important dress code, and make sure you wear something you don't mind getting dirty. Over-the-top outfits and Derby-inspired costumes are always encouraged.
  • If going to the Derby Party at Churchill Downs sounds too boisterous, consider throwing your own Kentucky Derby party at home. You can invite your friends, dress up, serve mint juleps with Kentucky bourbon, and watch the race live on television.
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