The What, Where and When Buying Guide for Kentucky Derby Tickets
I was always under the impression that it was nearly impossible to get tickets for the Kentucky Derby unless you were a millionaire, celebrity, or somehow connected to someone in the horse racing industry. Another option was to write a letter to Churchill Downs and simply request tickets, but there was a slim chance that you would be one of the lucky ones whose request was granted.
Thankfully, that is no longer the case. It’s actually quite easy to get tickets for the Kentucky Derby, much easier than I thought it was going to be. The hard part is trying to figure out how much you are willing to spend, where you really want to sit, and which online ticket broker to trust. Here is what I learned from my ticket buying experience. Hopefully this guide will help you when it’s time for you to buy your ticket to the Run for the Roses.
Note: For a short, general overview of the seating options and information about the ticket offerings from Churchill Downs and Derby Experiences (the official ticket package partner for 2016), click here. Also, please come back and tell me more about the tickets you went with so I can start to share this information with everyone else going forward. Simply fill in this short form.
Your Kentucky Derby Ticket Options
Box Seating vs. Bleachers vs. Stadium Seating
Before I get started talking about location! location! location! (and price), I want to address the seating situation at Churchill Downs. You will find 3 options: bleacher seating (raised, tiered rows of benches with no back), stadium seating (rows of tip-up seats with a back), and box seating (folding chairs). Bleacher seating and stadium style seating is pretty self explanatory. But when it comes to choosing a box seat, it can be a bit confusing so here’s the low down for you.
Box seating is found in the clubhouse seating areas (except for the new Section 110 clubhouse area) as well as the third tier grandstand. These small boxes typically contain 6 folding chairs (boxes on the third tier level under cover have 8 chairs) squeezed into a tiny space. I’m not kidding you, there is not much leg room in these boxes. As a result, most folks will line their chairs sideways with 3 chairs on one side, and 3 chairs on the other side of the box facing each other. This opens up the center of the box making it easier to enter and exit, socialize, and spread out a bit. This is not a problem at all if you are sharing a box with friends. However, if there are just two of you, it isn’t very polite to start moving chairs around especially when others in the box already lay claim to the front row.
What to buy
When you are considering your seating options, two factors are at play: what is available and what you can afford. Unless you are very wealthy, a Hollywood A-lister or know someone in the horse industry including PSL holders at Churchill Downs, your seating options are pretty much limited to the following, which is everything below the fourth tier or Millionaire’s Row:
General Admission. General Admission seats include access to the Infield, the paddock area and standing room only areas. With these seats, you will not have a view of the racetrack nor a seat. The paddock and ground floor areas get packed with people by early afternoon making it very difficult to stand let alone walk and mingle in the area. However, the beer and food lines weren’t too bad on the ground floor but the betting lines were definitely crowded except the $50 or higher betting window; there was no line there.
By late afternoon, you’re very quickly reminded that you are at the track and not a fancy party, as the paddock and ground floor area really starts to get littered up. You’ll be dodging broken glass, empty cans of beer and even empty cases of beer (and some small spots of vomit if you are unfortunate enough). The few benches available on the ground floor will be taken by very tired looking young people who probably bought a general admission ticket (and thus, don’t have a seat), and you’ll see quite a few folks sitting on the floors up against the walls resting their tired legs and feet. By late afternoon, I was more than happy to retreat to my seat to get away from these overcrowded areas.
Infield. Hopefully you already know what the infield is all about, and if you don’t, Google it or search for videos on YouTube to get a better idea. These are considered General Admission tickets, and they are the cheapest tickets for the Derby and the easiest to obtain. However, you get what you pay for. You can buy these tickets as late as the morning of the Derby. Many say that the infield is one big party, but honestly, anywhere you sit at the Derby, people are in a festive mood. All of Churchill Downs is one big party on Derby Day, not just the infield. However, the infield does take the party to an entirely different level. This year they added the “big board” (the world’s largest 4k video board) making it easier for not just the infield folks, but all attendees, to see the action on the track. Although you will find folks here from all age groups, it’s mostly a younger, rowdy, frat party-like crowd. I think it’s a great experience to do the infield of a big race at least once in your life. It’s a fun, laid-back experience. If you plan on doing the infield, get there early (as soon as the track opens) to claim your spot on the lawn. ($50+)
Lower Grandstand, 1st and 2nd tier. The lower grandstand seating is located along the front stretch of the track just before the finish line. It offers bleacher-style seating over two levels. The closer your section is to the finish line, the more expensive your ticket will be. Overall, tickets in this section are reasonably priced; however, there are a few things to keep in mind. First, everyone stands on the bleachers in this section when it’s Derby race time. If you aren’t very tall, there’s a good chance you aren’t going to see anything but the person in front of you. Second, you will be sitting on bleachers. I can barely tolerate sitting on a bleacher at Yankee Stadium for a 3 hour game in shorts and a t-shirt, let alone 8 hours while wearing a dress and straw hat in the Louisville sun.
Third, the concessions, bathrooms and betting windows are fewer and not as nice as other seating options such as the clubhouse and higher. I heard that the lines in the grandstand area for concessions and betting can get terribly long. Lastly, it’s a more casual environment, so although you will still have a few folks dressed up in this section, it won’t be over-the-top, and casual attire will be more common. What makes the grandstand attractive is the reasonable price and the fact that you’ll get to see the horses go by twice for the Derby race. ($300 – $900).
Exception: Churchill Downs has expanded the 2nd tier Grandstand seating by adding on to the original structure with Sections 226-228. The seats in these sections are stadium style seating.
Grandstand, 3rd tier. This section is a good option for price conscious folks who want a great view of the track, some cover from the elements, and a seat with a back
First, you are elevated over the rest of the grandstand, so you’ll actually be able to see the races. Second, only the first 3 rows are exposed, so you have covered seating options in this section. Third, you don’t have bleacher-style seating on the 3rd tier, rather it is box seating with folding chairs; you’ll be more comfortable sitting here all day. Folks tend to get a bit more dressed up in this section than in the regular grandstand seats. ($800 – $1200)
Grandstand Terrace. New for 2014, an extension to the second and third tiers of the grandstand was created adding 2,400 stadium style seats. When I get more information about this section, I’ll update this post. If you have sat here, please let me know what your thoughts are on this section. Stay tuned!
Clubhouse Section 110. This stadium style seating section offering cover is located along the first turn and opened in 2013. It is the only section in the clubhouse seating area (there is an exception to this with third tier clubhouse seats and the winner’s circle courtyard, see below) that includes hospitality, so your drinks and food are included in the price of the ticket.
Churchill Downs sells these tickets bundled with the Kentucky Derby Oaks, so you get two days of races in the price of your ticket. The ticket price for this section is very reasonable and appealing considering you get access to the Oaks and the Derby, and all your food and alcohol is covered.
I think this section would be my pick if it weren’t for the view. Being on the turn, you really aren’t going to see much of the races. However, these are the easiest tickets to buy from Churchill Downs during the pre-sale in November. Because the tickets are usually available through Churchill Downs, this section is a great option if you are going to the Derby with a group; it is easy to buy seats together. A reader informed me that for the 2015 Derby, the buffet was always filled with food, and there were no lines for alcohol, and overall, it was a pretty good deal but for the view. You will, however, get a great view of the post parade before the Derby race. ($800-$900).
To get a better idea of what to expect with regards to the crowd, the hospitality tent, and the view from Section 110, check out this video (starting around 1:00 minute into the video).
Lower Clubhouse. When I think of seating at the Derby, it is the image of the lower clubhouse that comes to mind thanks to the many photos of it on the internet and in the press. The seating here consists of folding chairs in 6 seat boxes. Here, you’ll find everyone decked out in nice dresses, seersucker suits, and fancy hats. It is a very festive section.
The downside here is that all seats are exposed to the elements, and you won’t have a full view of the track because you are sitting so low (but at least there are no bleachers for folks to stand on in front of you). The upside is that with the addition of the new large screen, you don’t really need a great view of the track – you can just watch the screen.
There are a few things to note about this section. It appeared that all the trash from the 2nd and 3rd tiers found its way down to the 1st tier. By early afternoon, the walkways were filled with paper and garbage. The walkway between the first and 2nd tier turns into a smoker’s lounge throughout the day, so if you don’t like cigarette smoke, don’t sit in the last row of the 1st tier or the first row of the 2nd tier.
Finally, the concessions and bathrooms are not that great on the first and second tier levels (and there are some wait times to use them). If they are considered more upscale than the grandstand, then I would be afraid to see what it is like over there. That being said, If you are planning to get dressed up, want a festive environment, and want to have access to somewhat better amenities while still paying a reasonable amount for your ticket, this is your section. Of course, similar to the grandstand, the closer your section is to the finish line, the more you will pay for your ticket. Try to get a seat on the rail, row A. ($400 – $1900)
Second Tier Clubhouse – There is a unique little section that you’ll be able to find from the ticket brokers, section 212. It is under cover, and consists of just two rows. In late February, I was quoted $1000 per ticket for the first row, row A. Three weeks before the Derby, it appeared this section was still available. However, I was told that if you are going to sit here, you are going to want row A. So, if you are interested in sitting in the first row of your section with cover, this is your section. However, if you don’t get row A, you might want to skip sitting in this section if you are claustrophobic. The ceiling is low, the boxes are tight, and quite honestly, you don’t really get a great view of the track at all. It was also extremely loud and noisy in this section because the sound had no where to go except bouncing off the low ceiling. There are two other second tier clubhouse sections along the finish line, sections 218 and 220. These tickets are closer to the $2000 price point. ($1000 – $2200).
Third Tier Clubhouse – If you are looking for an upscale environment without paying a pretty penny, a full view of the track and nice amenities, but are not part of the “millionaire’s club”, then this tier is for you. Seating is box style, folding chairs, and all seats beyond row C are under cover. If you plan to sit in this section, definitely dress to impress. This section is by far the dressiest section of all the seating areas below the fourth tier.
The third tier is where you used to find many of the industry folks, especially in the sections closest to the finish line where many of the owners used to be seated with their families and guests. That changed in 2015 with the introduction of the Winner’s Circle Suites, a new addition to the track, which is located in the center of Churchill Downs.
You’ll still find a well-healed crowd in the third tier, especially closest to the finish line. However, your best value in this section is not in the box next to them, but further down and away from the finish line in sections 312-314. If you are going to sit in either of these sections, section 312 is the best value, preferably in boxes 12 to 19. It will cost about an additional $250 per ticket to move over to Section 313 and close to $500 more per ticket to move over to Section 314. Save the extra cash for gambling as all these sections are past the finish line, and it does not make much of a difference as far as your view is concerned.
One thing to keep in mind is that section 312 juts out a bit from the rest of the building, so you not only have a full view of the track, but you have a view of the stands, too. I think you get better pictures in section 312, especially if you sit in the center (boxes 10-15) and in the front in row A.
The amenities, betting windows and bathrooms were definitely nicer and had less lines than the second tier and ground level. I think the third tier clubhouse seats are the best bet. ($1000 – $4000).
The Courtyard – This premium section was introduced in 2015, and it is located right in front of the owners’ suites. The section is considered “clubhouse” and is split into two sections (Sec. 118 and 119), divided by the Winner’s Circle and the paddock walkway. The seats are rows of padded folding chairs on a lawn. I sat in these seats for the 2015 Derby.
I have mixed feelings about this section. There’s no doubt about it, these track side seats are nice. However, one of the best things about these seats, hospitality, is also the worse thing. You will get hospitality that includes food and alcoholic beverages, private bathrooms, and private betting windows. That’s great, but what tends to happen is you end up spending all your time in just this section because you have everything you need. The Kentucky Derby is so much more than that. It’s about meeting people in the paddock area. It’s about celebrity spotting over on the Red Carpet. It’s about getting your photo taken in some of the iconic spots at the track. It’s about mingling and making new friends as you walk around Churchill Downs. When you sit here, you pretty much stay here, and these seats can easily become very isolating.
So, although you have a nice track side seat with hospitality, there are quite a number of downsides to this section. First, you have no cover from the elements, and the sun hits you pretty much all day. Second, although you are track side, your view is really limited. Because you are on the first tier, you can’t see anything past what is in front of you. Worse, it’s also where all the press photographers congregate. So, if you can snag a spot on the rail, you get stuck with the press in front of you snapping that perfect photo causing you to miss yours.
That being said, for someone who has never been to the Kentucky Derby, I would probably advise buying tickets in another section or at least think hard about it before you shell out some serious cash for these seats.
Churchill Downs has priced these tickets out of range for many people. When they were introduced in 2015, they went for $1200/ticket, which included your ticket for both the Oaks and Derby. For 2016, they are no longer selling these tickets with the pre-sale offerings. Instead, if you want a Courtyard ticket, you have to go to Derby Experiences to buy it for $2900. (For Derby only – $1600-$2200)
Where to buy
Now that you know where you want to sit, you will need to know where to go to get your tickets.
Churchill Downs Pre-Sale. In the past, the only way to get tickets for the Derby directly from Churchill Downs without a Personal Seat License was to submit a formal request in writing. This was a very subjective way of getting tickets. Thankfully, Churchill Downs now offers a pre-sale for tickets opened to anyone who registers in advance on their website. You can register for next year’s Derby as soon as this year’s Derby ends.
As the pre-sale date approaches (usually early to mid-November), you receive an email with instructions and rules for purchasing tickets. All tickets sold by Churchill Downs give you access to both the Kentucky Oaks on Friday and Derby on Saturday. You are not given an option to just buy tickets for one or the other. Also, if you plan to sit in the clubhouse or third tier grandstand sections, you are required to buy a box of 6 seats from the limited sections up for sale. Section 110 and lower tier grandstand tickets can be purchased individually (but there is a maximum limit of 6 per purchase).
In the past, for the privilege of buying tickets during the pre-sale, you had to pay a 20% premium on the total price of the tickets plus administrative fees (except for Section 110). For 2016, Churchill Downs has decided to sell tickets through Ticketmaster, and they are no longer charging the premium.
For the 2014, 2015 and 2016 Derby, I participated in the pre-sale. In 2014, I hoped to buy a box in the third tier clubhouse with hospitality at the Secretariat Lounge (approximately $6600). In just 5 minutes, all third tier clubhouse tickets were sold out. After 45 minutes, there were still seats available in the far third tier grandstand, the lower grandstand and Section 110. The next day, any remaining tickets from the pre-sale went on sale to the general public with no premium attached, but the only seats remaining were Section 110 and a few in the lower grandstand.
For the 2015 Derby, I was targeting the new Courtyard seating with hospitality. I had a problem accessing the system for almost 10 minutes, but when I finally got in, the Courtyard seats popped up as available, and I was able to purchase exactly what I wanted.
The Secondary Market – Online Outlets. After failing to get my desired seats during the pre-sale in 2014, I had no other choice but to look to online outlets. StubHub is typically the most expensive outlet to buy from thanks to the fees. The seller is going to inflate the price they want for their tickets to cover their 15% seller’s fee, while the buyer is going to get stuck paying a 10% fee on top of the listed price. However, you’ll find the best offering of seats on StubHub to fit all budgets and can typically buy with confidence knowing you’ll get a real ticket.
When to buy
The decision on the best time to buy a ticket is a personal one – it’s different for everyone. Some folks don’t like to wait until the last minute, especially when they have a specific seat in mind (e.g., front row, rail, undercover, etc.) or they have a large group and want to sit together. Others don’t mind waiting until closer to Derby to see if they can get a better price because the seat location is not a big priority. One thing is for sure: if you are going with a group of friends and need more than 2 seats in a box, then you are best to buy earlier to ensure you can all sit together. I noticed that closer to Derby, most of the tickets were singles or pairs. Here are some things to consider as you try to decide on the best time to buy.
The Early Bird Gets the Worm. If you purchase your tickets prior to early April, chances are that you will be buying a ticket that is not yet in an assigned seat, but rather a random ticket in a particular section. What happens is the brokers will sell tickets online months before the actual tickets are issued to the PSL holders by Churchill Downs. Tickets are issued in mid-April, and it is only then when the online brokers actually know what specific seats they have for sale (depending on which PSL owners are keeping or selling their tickets). Of course, individuals who were lucky enough to purchase their tickets directly from Churchill Downs may also be selling their seats, so in those instances, you’ll see an exact section and row in the listing instead of a range (e.g., Row A, Box 8, S.312 or A-8, S.312 vs. Rows A-C, S.312). By buying your ticket early, you can guarantee you’ll get the seat you want, but you will definitely be paying top dollar for it. Prices are the highest through late March.
Getting Antsy – 4 Weeks Before Derby. Online brokers’ prices, as well as StubHub prices, don’t generally budge until about 4 weeks out from Derby Day. But don’t expect a bargain, as prices tend to only fluctuate slightly (about $100/ticket, more for the expensive seats). You’ll still have a good selection of tickets available during the month of April right up to the weekend before Derby. Many people tend to buy their tickets at about two weeks out for the best prices with the best selection.
Bargain Hunting the Week of Derby. If you looking for the best price and location is not as important to you, then the best time to buy is the weekend before Derby. Chances are that you will have to use StubHub as many of the brokers will have sold out most of their tickets by now. Three important things to note for the bargain hunters or anyone waiting until the last minute: 1) selection will be limited; 2) the more expensive tickets are usually the most that remain; and 3) ticket availability is mostly limited to pairs or singles.
You’ll find that availability and selection becomes significantly limited come Monday of Derby week, with a lot of sellers making final reductions on their tickets over the weekend to unload them to avoid dealing with the Last Minute Ticket Service the week of Derby (which requires sellers to mail their tickets into StubHub on Monday afternoon). If you do wait until the last minute to buy your ticket, plan on either overnight mail or check with the broker or seller regarding a last minute pickup (e.g., for many major events, StubHub has a Last Minute Services location (LMS) set up in proximity of the event. They notify you of the pick up location when you buy a last minute ticket). The Kentucky Derby requires a hard ticket, so plan accordingly to ensure you’ll receive your ticket in time.
Good Luck with your ticket purchase, and please come back to rate your Derby tickets using my simple form so others can benefit from the information. Also, check out my other posts for more information about the Derby, like how to spend your Derby day at Churchill Downs, what to do in Louisville while you are in town, what souvenirs to pick up, what foods to try, and the top 10 things to know before you go to Derby.
Have you gone to the Kentucky Derby? What seats would you recommend? Share in the comments below.
© 2015, Tripping Blonde.
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