The first Saturday in May is synonymous with the Kentucky Derby. There’s no doubt that every year’s “Run for the Roses” should be as great with 160,000+ fans cheering for whoever they wagered on. What makes the Derby great is not just that it’s the first of horse racing’s Triple Crown, but the upscale party atmosphere that surrounds the grounds. Between women in big hats, celebrities in classy attire, and a few Mint Juleps, the Kentucky Derby will always have an aura about it unlike any other sporting event. Don’t blink or you’ll miss “the most exciting two minutes in sports” at Churchill Downs in Louisville, Kentucky. The cost of attending isn’t always cheap, but it’s definitely one for the bucket list. Whether you want to gaze at the crowd in the grandstand or enjoy the party in the infield, there’s a place for you to take in one of America’s great traditions.
Believe it or not, going to the Kentucky Derby is pretty easy. You can even walk up on the day of the race and pay $60 for general admission. (General Admission is also available for $55 if you buy from January 1st until the day prior to the race.) General admission only gets you entrance to the track, access to the infield, and access to the paddock, so it’s not the most prime way to witness the race. The party in the infield is a lot of fun, but you won’t get the best view of what’s happening on the track.
If you’re looking for a better view of the race, you can easily buy tickets in the Grandstand. If you register for notifications on the Kentucky Derby website before mid-October of the previous year, you’ll receive an email in late October alerting you of when tickets go on sale in the premium presale. The sale begins online in mid-November with almost all seats up for sale. (Seats right near the finish line never see the public sale.) Tickets are sold as a package that includes tickets to both Friday’s Kentucky Oaks (the female horse equivalent of the Kentucky Derby) and Saturday’s Kentucky Derby. The cheapest tickets in the Grandstand go for $319 total for both sessions. Tickets not sold through the premium presale go on sale a couple days later.
If you don’t get tickets through the primary market, you can always look to the secondary market. Obviously you have the well-known options to grab tickets like Stubhub or a ticket aggregator (think Kayak for sports tickets) like SeatGeek, which doesn't list tickets from Stubhub. Secondary market ticket prices will increase as the race gets near because the event doesn’t gain much national attention until the week of the race. There’s a nice dead window to buy tickets from February to early April.
Flights to Louisville are priced higher than normal (known as event pricing) because the Kentucky Derby is coming to town and airlines know that demand will be high. Direct flights, especially from major cities, will touch $1,000 or more when availability is at its highest and that number will only go up. This presents a great opportunity to use your airlines miles to pay for the flights rather than cash because the cost in miles won’t change as dramatically from regular price compared to what the cost in dollars will. It’s worth looking into flights with connections if you’re looking to save some money on your travel. The easiest way to look for flight is with travel aggregator Kayak unless you specifically know what airline you want to travel on.
You can also drive to Louisville from various cities in the Midwest. Louisville is less than two hours from Cincinnati, Indianapolis, and Lexington. Dayton is about two hours away, while Columbus and Nashville are about three hours away. You can also look into the idea of flying to one of those cities and driving from there if you don’t mind adding a few extra hours to your trip.
Once you’re in Louisville, you’ll likely want to use a car to get to Churchill Downs. (Don’t forget you’ll have to pay for parking, so looking into a parking pass would be something you’d want to do.) The alternative option includes the bus, which goes from downtown Louisville to the track for $20 round-trip. Pick-ups and drop-offs begin at 7:30 a.m. and continue until 8:30 p.m. both Friday and Saturday. Taxis can also take you to the track, but expect supply to be limited given the demand during Kentucky Derby weekend.
Where to Stay
Hotel prices in and around Louisville are astronomically high because of the Kentucky Derby. Brand name hotels in downtown Louisville go for $800 or more per night. Hotels close to the airport aren’t much better because the airport is actually located right near Churchill Downs. To save money you can look at hotels slightly further away from downtown or Churchill Downs, which includes looking at hotels across the river in Jeffersonville, Indiana. Your best option for finding hotels will be by using Trip Advisor as they can provide an aggregated search of available hotels while also providing high-quality reviews from previous customers.
Alternatively you can look into renting houses in the Louisville area. There are a lot of options and home owners will be looking to make a few bucks with the Kentucky Derby taking place. The supply in the marketplace should be pretty good because of this and the competition of inexperienced sellers should lead to some panic. That will result in some good deals out there for you, so you should constantly be checking websites like AirBNB, VRBO, or HomeAway.
When at Churchill Downs
Remember that it’s worth getting dressed up to attend the Kentucky Derby. Many people are dressed to the nines, which means men are wearing suits or sports coats and ladies are wearing dresses and big hats. The dress code varies depending on the various areas of Churchill Downs, so refer to their website to see all the relevant restrictions.
Once you get to the track you'll probably want to figure out where you can wander around. Gates open at 8 a.m. with the first race starting at 10:30 a.m. Given the seating of the Grandstand, you can’t get right to the rail like you would at a normal racetrack because there’s seating in those areas. Instead you’ll be able to wander around the outside of the Grandstand and see the jockeys mount the horses in the paddock area. If you’re in the infield with general admission, you won’t be able to leave the infield area.
Unfortunately you can’t bring any drinking supplies into Churchill Downs during Kentucky Derby weekend. Alcohol, backpacks, coolers, cans, glass bottles, and containers are all prohibited. You can bring in food items in clear plastic bags as long as you meet the size requirement. Full details on what is and isn’t allowed can be found here.
The restrictions on what you can bring in to Churchill Downs don’t mean you won’t have a good time at the race. The infield is a non-stop party with a younger crowd. You’ll feel like you’re at a frat party and won’t get to see the race other than on the big screen, but chances are you won’t care. Meanwhile over on the other side of the track, the dressier crowd is enjoying their Mint Juleps and having just as much fun. The food options aren’t that memorable, but you’ll appreciate the barbecue more than the other options. You can also wander into the infield from the Grandstand to check out the scene and buy cheaper food.
You’re wasting your time if you don’t check out a bourbon distillery while in the area. Bourbon is the hottest alcohol going in America these days and Kentucky is the home of it. If you don’t want to wander far outside of Louisville, you can get a taste of the action with the Evan Williams Experience and Bulleit Experience. If you’re willing to travel, I’d recommend making it over to Maker’s Mark, about an hour south of Louisville, or Buffalo Trace, which is an hour to the east. There’s tasting options, which are always fun, and you can even create your own bottle to take home at Maker’s Mark.
Out in Louisville
Downtown Louisville has gotten much better in recent years. If you’re in the mood for a great steak, you’re in the right place. You won’t go wrong between St. Charles Exchange, Z’s Oyster Bar and Steakhouse, or Jeff Ruby’s Steakhouse, where you’ll specifically feast on the 65-day aged bone-in strip. The burgers at St. Charles Exchange and Z’s Oyster Bar and Steakhouse are memorable too, specifically the St. Chuck Burger at the former, which brings you a tremendously topped lamb burger on an English muffin. Proof on Main also offers a great bison burger, which can you can get with the best French fries in town. And if you aren’t sick of burgers by now, B&B offers a really good one with habanero jam, brie, and bacon.
You can’t come to Louisville without having the local sandwich delicacy, known as the hot brown. The Brown Hotel brings to life this open-faced turkey sandwich with bacon and Mornay sauce. Fried chicken is a way of life in the south, so you’ll want to grab some Southern Fried Jumbo Chicken Wings with some cornbread at Shirley Mae’s Café. Those looking for something simple in the form of a diner can make their way to Wagner’s Pharmacy, which showcases a Derby Sandwich, a wonderful mix of ham, cheese, and mayo.
Just a little outside of downtown, you’ll find amazing pork cakes at Feast BBQ. If you’re in the mood for barbecue, however, you can’t leave the area without some of the best barbecued mutton, which is similar to lamb. You’ll find that the Ole Hickory Pit, which is remotely close to the airport. You might not expect to find great pizza in Louisville, but that’s what you’ll get at Garage Bar. The Margherita may seem simple, but it’s fantastic and adding country ham to it isn’t a bad idea either.
Those looking for a nice cocktail have a few options. The whiskey-focused menu at The Silver Dollar is a local favorite. El Camino may seem odd for showing vintage movies, but their house-made syrups mix well in their rum-focused tiki drinks. Proof on Main has some nice art in the 21c Museum Hotel, which houses the bar, to match the drinks. If dives are more your thing then Magnolia Bar & Grill is your spot. The drinks are cheap, the girls sometimes dance on the tables, and the jukebox will keep you there all night. Of course these parts are known for their whiskey, so what better place than Haymarket Whiskey Bar, which offers over 100 bourbons and live music.