11 Best Things to Do for the Kentucky Derby in Louisville, Kentucky

The Kentucky Derby

Eclipse Sportswire / Getty Images

Held each year on the first Saturday of May, the Kentucky Derby brings hundreds of thousands of spectators to Louisville, Kentucky, for the race. However, festivities for the Kentucky Derby aren't limited to the race itself; in fact, the Kentucky Derby Festival takes place over two weeks packed with dozens of different events. If you're trying to decide what Kentucky Derby Festival events to attend, though, you'll want to pick the best and biggest like the annual fireworks show, marathon, balloon festival, and parade, along with the actual race, of course.

In 2020, the Kentucky Derby has been postponed from May to September 5. Check the website for updates.

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Opening Night

Kentucky Derby Opening Ceremonies Air Show

Stephen J. Cohen / Getty Images

Although the Kentucky Derby always takes place on the first Saturday of May, the official kick-off for Derby Week takes place the Saturday before the big race. In 2020, Opening Night is held on Saturday, April 25 from 5 to 11:30 p.m. and features a wide variety of artists, live performances, and art installations throughout the event as well as 10 special thoroughbred races. Presented by Budweiser as a partnership between Churchill Downs and the Fund for the Arts, this 18-and-over event requires tickets to attend and provides the perfect way to kick off the Kentucky Derby Week in style.

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Dawn at the Downs

Horse and rider at Dawn of Downs Event

Courtesy of Churchill Downs 

On Tuesday, April 28, and Wednesday, April 29, 2020, from 6:30 to 8:30 a.m. you can enjoy a delicious buffet breakfast while watching Kentucky Derby and Kentucky Oaks racers conduct their morning workouts during the annual Dawn at the Downs event. A popular tradition for both Louisvillians and visitors alike, the event also includes expert commentary as each horse is introduced on the track and evaluated for their workouts and past performances.

To attend this event, guests are encouraged to buy tickets well in advance, as the best tables and dining areas typically fill up. Tickets include a reserved unassigned seat at a table in one of 20 different dining areas surrounding the track as well as access to the Paddock area, Paddock Plaza, and Food Court. However, some select dining rooms do not have a direct view of the track.

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Champions Day

Sharp Azteca with Edgard Zayas

Horsephotos / Getty Images

Although suspended from the lineup of Derby Week events for several years until its return in 2018, Champions Day has once again become a popular event for both locals and visitors alike. Champions Day highlights the history and sport of the Kentucky Derby and allows guests to meet famous jockeys and trainers, learn about Derby Week betting from industry experts, and even support thoroughbred aftercare once the races have all concluded.

In 2020, Champions Day takes place all day on Tuesday, April 28. Tickets must be purchased in advance and provide access to the day's festivities. Tickets are available for a dining experience from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. that includes a full meal and assigned seating reservations at a table in one of the Churchhill Downs' dining areas. Additionally, the Champions Day Package, which can be purchased separately, includes Stakes Room seating for Dawn at the Downs, Starting Gate Suites seating for Day at the Races (including lunch), and a tour of the Kentucky Derby Museum.

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Donald Vish / Flickr / CC BY 2.0

Providing a more relaxed and casual vibe than the Kentucky Oaks or Kentucky Derby events, Thurby is a great way to mingle with local and international race fans while enjoying Kentucky bourbon and taking in a full day of racing at Churchill Downs. Thurby takes place from 11 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. on Thursday, April 30, 2020. Tickets for general admission, which are significantly cheaper than tickets to the Oaks or Derby events, grant visitors access to the Paddock area, the Plaza, and the First Floor Grandstand.

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The Longline Kentucky Oaks

Serengeti Empress, ridden by jockey Jose Ortiz

Justin Casterline / Getty Images

Held each year on the Friday before the Kentucky Derby, the Longline Kentucky Oaks is one of the longest-running horse races in the United States. Originally established on May 19, 1875, the race is one of the few horse races that is still held at the original site of its inception. During this one-million-dollar Grade 1 stakes race, 3-year-old fillies (female horses) compete to take home the grand prize and a garland of lilies known as the "lilies for the fillies."

The Longline Kentucky Oaks takes place on Friday, May 1, 2020, from 8 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. Tickets are available for Infield and Paddock general admission as well as assigned seating and dining hospitality packages that include breakfast and lunch service. Along with the thrill of the main race, fans also celebrate fashion and fundraising for critical women's health issues during the event. Portions of proceeds from the Oaks event go to support breast and ovarian cancer research, and guests are encouraged to incorporate pink into their race-day attire to match the pink garlands adorning the Churchill Downs track. After the event, guests are encouraged to stick around for the Survivors Parade that honors breast and ovarian cancer survivors.

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The Kentucky Derby

Sculpture of Kentucky Derby Winner Barbaro in front of Kentucky Derby Museum at Churchill Downs, Louisville, KY
 Barry Winiker / Getty Images

Known as the "most exciting two minutes in sports," the Kentucky Derby is the main attraction of the Derby Week festivities and always takes place on the first Saturday in May. In 2020, the event will occur on May 2 from 8 a.m. until 8:30 p.m. During the day, you'll have a chance to witness 14 separate races (the Derby is the 12th) in preparation for the crowning of the Kentucky Derby champion, but this full day of festivities isn't limited to just the racing.

As soon as you arrive, guests are welcome to grab their first mint julep of the day, and 30 minutes before the first race of the day (slated for 10 a.m.), the betting windows open to allow ample time for betting on the races. Afterward, watch the Garland of Roses arrive at Clubhouse Gate at approximately 9:45 a.m., then visit the Red Carpet at VIP Gate to spot a celebrity from noon to 2:30 p.m.

During the event, guests are required to wear their finest attire, and fashion has become a huge staple of the Kentucky Derby. Tickets are available for seats in the Grandstand and Clubhouse boxes as well as the First and Second-floor hospitality areas; additionally, non-seated access is available in Clubhouse Walk and General Admission areas for the duration of the event.

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Thunder Over Louisville

Thunder Over Louisville Fireworks

Stephen J. Cohen / Getty Images

Each year, close to half a million people gather around Louisville's riverfront to watch Thunder Over Louisville, the largest fireworks show in the world and the opening event for the Kentucky Derby Festival, which takes place on Saturday, April 18, 2020. Additionally, the 28-minute fireworks show is preceded by the Thunder Air Show, one of the top five air shows in the country. The Thunder Air Show features more than 100 planes performing hours of diving and acrobatic stunts. Both events are free to attend and can be seen from rooftop bars and restaurants across the city as well as the riverfront itself.

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Kentucky Derby Festival Marathon and miniMarathon

miniMarathon runners

Courtesy of Derby Festival Marathon

The 26.2-mile Derby Marathon and the 12-mile Derby miniMarathon are two of the top annual Kentucky Derby Festival events. The miniMarathon is the more popular of the two and has been named among the nation's top 50 races by USA Track and Field magazine.

During the events, more than 12,000 people from all over the world gather together on the last Saturday in April to run one of these two scenic races through Louisville's parks and neighborhoods and past some of the city's biggest attractions. The 2020 Kentucky Derby Festival Marathon and MiniMarathon will take place on April 25, 2020, starting at 7:30 a.m. Advanced registration is required to participate, but you can watch from anywhere along the route.

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Great Balloon Festival

U.S. Bank Derby Festival Great Balloon Glow

Stephen J. Cohen / Getty Images

The Great Balloon Fest is a series of four Kentucky Derby Festival events that lead up to the main event, the Great Balloon Race. The first Great Balloon Race was held at Iroquois Park in 1973 and featured only seven balloons; however, the Great Balloon Race quickly became one of the most popular Kentucky Derby Festival events, and what was once just the Great Balloon Race is now an entire weekend festival of hot air ballooning festivities.

Events for 2020 take place at the Kentucky Exposition Center from April 23 through 25 and include the Great Balloon Glow, a race between hot air balloons lit up with twinkling lights, and the Great Balloon Glimmer, a smaller version of the Glow event. Each of these events is free with a Pegasus Pin, though you may be required to pay a parking fee.

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Great Steamboat Race

Kentucky Derby Festival's Great Steamboat Race

LuAnn Snawder Photography / Flickr / CC BY-ND 2.0

The Great Steamboat Race is an annual Kentucky Derby Festival event that occurs on the Wednesday before the main event. The Great Steamboat Race is a competition between the Belle of Louisville and the Belle of Cincinnati on the Ohio River.

Prior to 2009, the Belle of Louisville raced the Delta Queen in the Great Steamboat Race, but federal regulations forced the Delta Queen to dock permanently at the end of 2008. It is now kept as a hotel in Chattanooga, Tennessee.

During the event, guests can either purchase tickets aboard the Belle of Louisville or the Belle of Cincinnati (the latter is cheaper but includes fewer amenities). The Great Steamboat Race takes place on Wednesday, April 29, 2020; boarding opens at 4:30 p.m., and the race itself starts at 6 p.m.

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Pegasus Parade

Stars Lead Kentucky Derby Pegasus Parade

Stephen Cohen / Getty Images

The Kentucky Derby Festival Pegasus Parade was the first-ever event of the Kentucky Derby Festival; although the festival has grown since the days where it consisted of just the parade races, the Pegasus Parade remains one of the biggest and best Kentucky Derby Festival events. During the event, parade participants march, walk and roll down Broadway in Downtown Louisville while spectators watch the amazing series of floats, inflatable characters, marching bands, celebrities, and horses pass.

The 2020 Pegasus Parade will take place on Thursday, April 30 starting at 5 p.m. The parade runs west for 17 blocks on Broadway, starting at Campbell Street and concluding at 9th Street. Advanced registration is required to participate in the event, but spectators are free to watch from along the route free of charge.

Purchase Tickets Well in Advance

To attend any of these official events, you will need to purchase a ticket well in advance of the Kentucky Derby Festival; prices can be quite expensive to start, but the occasions are certainly worth the cost. If you're planning on attending the festivities for the Kentucky Derby, it is recommended that you purchase tickets no later than the first of February of the same year—though the earlier you book, the more likely you'll find cheaper and better seats for the events.

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