The countdown is on for the 142nd Run for the Roses. It’s just a week out from the Kentucky Derby, and you are probably feeling a bit of Derby Fever by now. Hopefully, you are all set with your tickets, your transportation, your hotel, and your hat. Now, it’s time to take a closer look at Derby Day and get familiar with some of the important things to know before you go so you can have the best experience for this bucket list event.
1. Track Hours
Gates Open at 8:00AM. The first race starts at 10:30AM, and the last race is at approximately 8:05PM. I like to arrive by 10:00AM to get some photographs around the paddock area before the major crowds set in. Guests can enter through Gate 1, Gate 17, Gate 10 and Gate 3 as indicated on the top of the ticket. If you do not have a designated gate number on your ticket (e.g., General Admission tickets), you can enter through any of these gates. If you have a GA ticket and want to bring in chairs, you must enter through Gate 3. Remember, there is no re-entry for the Kentucky Derby.
You will be required to go through a security check, and this includes a bag check. Be sure to review the list of permitted/prohibited items here and make sure you abide by the bag restrictions both for ladies’ handbags (no larger than 12” in any dimension) and for carrying permitted items into the track (clear plastic bags or containers with a maximum size 18″ X 18″ – no trash bags). Although you can’t bring in large bags, I carry in a cheap foldable tote the size of a small wallet that easily fits in my handbag. Then as the day goes on, I pull it out to store my programs, my souvenirs, etc. Trust me, you’ll want to do this, too!
3. Accessing your seats
In the past, you simply proceeded to your seating section where you received a wristband to gain access to your seats. This year, it appears they are using a “wrist-band booth” by the ticket scanners that you must stop by before going through the turnstiles into the track. Keep your eye out for this and do not go through the turnstiles without your wristband. If you don’t see a wrist-band booth, at least ask someone before going through the turnstiles to be sure you are not missing it.
It should be obvious, but I do get questions about alcohol from readers, and NO, you cannot bring in your own alcohol. But no need to worry, there are plenty of places to buy it at Churchill Downs. Drink stands at Churchill Downs start serving as soon as the gates open at 8:00AM, and the last call is at post time of the last race, 8:05PM. If you plan on drinking, be sure to bring lots of cash. Not only are drinks expensive, most kiosks only accept cash (I’m not sure if this has changed for 2016).
Your two classic cocktails, the Mint Julep and Oaks Lily, are served in a souvenir glass and cost approximately $11 (2015 price). If it’s a hot day, check out the ground level by the Paddock area for a “frozen Lily” stand – it’s refreshing and will cool you down. Stella Artois also serves its beer in a glass chalice that you get to keep. Some of the Stella stands have bags with separators to hold your glasses when you’re done with your drink. Be sure to ask for one if you plan to save your glasses. I also bring in a few pieces of thick tissue paper to wrap up my Derby souvenir glasses so they don’t break while storing them in my tote bag.
Wagering windows open 30 minutes before the first race at approximately 10:00AM. You’ll find some decent sized lines at the windows, but this is usually for the small bets. If you are betting $50 or more per bet, there are special windows for you “big” gamblers where you won’t be required to stand in much of a line, if any.
6. View the Horses at the Paddock
For each of the 14 races, you can view the horses in the paddock area 20 minutes before the post time. Even for the first few races, it’s a challenge to get up to the rail of the paddock to view the horses and take a few pictures. During the afternoon hours, it’s nearly impossible. General Admission folks tend to claim a spot on the rail early on, so they can get an up close view of the Derby horses for the big event. Be careful walking around this area after 3:00PM, it’s littered with empty cans, cups, broken glass, and sometimes vomit. ewwww.
7. Red Carpet
Celebrities will be walking the red carpet from Noon to 2:00PM next to Gate 10. The viewing area is quite small, and star-struck attendees will be getting a spot in front quite early. Last year, I stopped by and didn’t recognize one person walking the red carpet. I’m honestly not so sure the A-list stars actually walk the red carpet, so don’t be surprised if you don’t get a glimpse of Hollywood royalty here. I recognized more “celebrities” (e.g., athletes, ESPN sportscasters) when I was casually walking through the Paddock area than I did over on the Red Carpet.
8. Bring Lots of Cash
At Churchill Downs, cash is king. You’ll want to bring enough not only for placing your bets, but for your food and drinks as well. Most food and drink stands don’t accept credit cards, and the last thing you will want to do is waste time standing in the ATM line (if you can find one). I swear, each year, the lines for the ATM are the longest you’ll find at the track.
9. Souvenir Shopping
There is a souvenir shop located to the right side of the paddock area on the ground floor where you can pick up your Derby souvenirs. By noon, two years in a row, the line has been out the door. Alternatively, you can buy Derby souvenirs at kiosks located in the general ground floor area. There was a decent size kiosk over by Gate 1 last year. I think it’s best to get your souvenirs as soon as you arrive to avoid lines and to ensure you get what you want.
Alternatively, if you are in town on Thursday, stop by the Kentucky Derby Museum (highly recommended for a visit). They have a great store that carries all the Derby souvenirs that you’ll find at the track on Derby day, and you can still visit the museum shop without paying admission to the museum. Finally, the easiest option is to simply buy your souvenirs online here. Also, if you are looking for Derby souvenirs from previous years, you’ll want to stop by the pop-up store next door to Wagner’s Pharmacy. They are only open on days leading up to the Derby. (I’m not sure if they are open on Derby day, but they were closed and already packing up on Sunday after Derby).
Rain or shine, the Kentucky Derby goes on. Spring in Louisville is unpredictable, so be prepared for anything. Two years ago, it was 48 degrees in the morning, forcing me to wear a light jacket to the Derby, but by 2:00PM, with the sun high in the sky, I was sweating. Last year, it was simply picture perfect with comfortable temps from morning til the last race. For the ladies, be sure to bring at least a sweater or a wrap for the chilly spring mornings and evenings in Louisville.
If it rains, it appears that everyone still gets dressed up. I’ve been fortunate enough to not have experienced a rainy Derby. But from pictures, the clear plastic poncho is the way to go to still show off that Derby outfit while staying dry because umbrellas are not permitted. Don’t forget to buy a plastic hat cover, too, to protect your costly headwear, as the rain does not keep the hats away either. But the good news is, the forecast is looking good for this year’s Derby, once again. Now, I just ask that everyone keep their fingers crossed so it stays that way!
Have you been to the Kentucky Derby? If so, do you have any good tips for the day? Please share in the comments below.