Are you planning to attend the Kentucky Derby for the first time?  Want to know what to expect? There’s plenty of things to do at Churchill Downs during Derby day as you wait for the post time at 6:24 for the big race. Here’s our guide for how to spend a perfect day at the Derby.

8 clockBreakfast at your hotel

Whether it is bellinis and bagels in your room or a hearty breakfast at your hotel’s restaurant, plan an early rise to get something in your belly before you start your long, exciting day.  Reminder, the gates at Churchill Downs officially open at 8:00 AM, but there’s no need to get there that early! The first post isn’t until 10:30 AM.

10 clockCatch your ride to the track


On a typical day, it should only take 10 minutes to get to Churchill Downs from downtown Louisville or from across the river in Jeffersonville.  However, on Derby day, you are going to hit traffic even if you leave at 10:00 AM.  Granted, the traffic won’t be as congested yet, but there’s still a bit of traffic on the final approach to the track.

If you are planning to drive to Churchill Downs, don’t expect to park at the track’s lots unless you have a prepaid parking pass. The streets around Churchill Downs are residential, so you do have the option of paying a local resident for a spot on their lawn as an alternative.

If you prefer not to park around the track, two good options include parking at the Cardinal Stadium for $20 and the Kentucky Fair and Exposition Center for $8.  Both lots are in walking distance to the track (about 15 minutes) but you can also take a 5 minute shuttle from the lots for an additional $15 (round trip).

Alternatively, you can leave the car at the hotel and plan to take one of several public shuttles that make various stops in downtown Louisville for $20 (round trip).  If you plan to do this, check with your hotel for the closest shuttle stop.   Finally, you can book round trip transportation directly from your hotel.  Just look around the hotel lobby and chances are you’ll find a representative from a shuttle service provider who will be more than happy to assist you with setting up transportation to and from the Derby.

11 clockArrive at Churchill Downs


When you arrive at Churchill Downs, you’ll have to walk a little bit to get to your entrance gate unless you are fortunate enough to have a parking pass for the onsite lots.  Be sure to look at your ticket and know the correct gate for entrance based on your seats.  Add some time for the security check, which includes a bag check.  Make yourself familiar with what items are permitted at Churchill Downs during the Derby by reading more here.

1130 clockBuy your souvenirs

Kentucky Derby Souvenir

When you arrive, the track won’t be too crowded yet.  The crowds start to roll in around 1:00 PM.  This gives you a great opportunity to get your souvenir shopping out of the way.  As the day progresses, the lines will get longer. You’ll be happy you didn’t waste your day at the Derby waiting in a long line for a souvenir mug or t-shirt. Also, keep in mind that a lot of the Derby souvenirs sell out before the big race, so getting there early assures you that you’ll have a good selection of Derby paraphernalia. You can find the gift shop located by the paddock area in the center of Churchill Downs.

Tip:  If you arrive to Louisville prior to the Derby, consider a visit to the Kentucky Derby Museum located at Churchill Downs.  Even if you don’t have time to visit the museum (which I highly recommend), you can visit the gift shop without having to pay for admission to the museum.  The gift shop will carry everything Derby related, so it’s a great place to go for your Derby souvenirs a day or two before the race to get want you want and so you don’t have to bother carrying it around all day at the Derby.  You can also buy all your souvenirs ahead of time by shopping the Official Online Store of the Kentucky Derby!

12 clockTake your photos


Don’t forget to take some pictures of yourself all dressed up, and more importantly, do it in front of some of the iconic locations around the track like in front of the Aristides statue and the Garland of Roses.  Check out our recommended spots for some great photo ops on Derby Day, here (coming on 4/30). It’s great to get your pictures out of the way early before the crowds move in.  You are not the only person who wants a beautiful photograph to remember your Derby experience.

1 clockCatch a glimpse of the celebrities

In the paddock area, you may spot a celebrity or two making their way through the crowd, but if you really want to see stars, mosey over to the Red Carpet area between Gates 10 and 17.  In 2008, Churchill Downs introduced this entrance for celebrity guests where national and local media could easily photograph the stars.  The celebrities walk the Red Carpet between 12:00 PM and 2:00 PM. Be warned, it’s awfully crowded in this area.  If you aren’t into celebrities, spend this time making some bets on the other races and grabbing a bite to eat.

2 clockGrab a drink and mingle


By now, the crowds are starting to move in, and you’ve probably worked up a thirst.  It’s time to have a drink and mingle.  You’ll have no problem finding drink stands throughout the ground floor.   Seek out a mint julep or lily stand for a traditional Derby drink.  For $11.00 (as of Derby 2014), you’ll get your julep in a Derby souvenir glass and your lily in an Oaks souvenir glass.  My preference is for the lily made with Grey Goose vodka, cranberry juice and sours mix.  Even if it’s a bit on the weak side, it’s still refreshing.  Some vendors sell a frozen version.  The juleps are worth trying, but it’s made from a mix by Early Times Kentucky Whisky, so don’t set your expectations too high.  There are beer stands throughout as well as bar service, too (try a refreshing lemonade vodka as an alternative to the classic Derby drinks).


3 clockHang out in the paddock area


The paddock area is going to be packed, but it’s where all the horses will be 20 minutes before a race, and it’s pretty much where you’ll want to go to check out the scene. It’s a great place to hang out for awhile just to do some people-watching. As you get bumped and dodge a few large hats in this congested area, be on the look out for the national and local press.  You’ll see them with their camera crews wondering through the crowd looking for the most outlandish outfit or craziest hat to feature on their pre-race program.  If the national press is not taking your picture, someone else probably is. Be sure to wear a smile, as chances are, you are going to end up in someone’s photo.

4 clockPlace your Derby bet

If you want to avoid long betting lines before the Derby race, you should make your Derby bet now.  If you only bet based on the colors of the jockey silks, the names of the horses, or the popular horse that everyone is predicting to win, then just get your bet out of the way now.

Tip:  If you like to bet closer to the post time, you can avoid the long lines by placing a bet of $50 or more. There are several windows open for larger bets, and there is never a long line at these windows, not even close to post time for the Derby.

430 clockTake your seat


It’s time to make your way to your seats and hunker down for the Derby race.  Although the race isn’t until 6:24, the pomp and circumstance starts well before that with the National Anthem kicking things off at 5:00PM.  Check me out in the video below at 1:23 (white hat with yellow flower), which was part of NBC’s live coverage of the Kentucky Derby.

6 clockWatch the post parade


Take a look at the back track, you’ll notice a large group of people starting to walk on the track with their horses.  This is the Derby post parade where the contenders and their connections walk from the back side stables to the paddock area.

Fifteen minutes later, as the horses begin their walk from the paddock to the starting gate, you’ll hear the bugle play the “Rider’s Up” call signaling the jockey’s to mount their horses.  An announcement is then made to rise for the singing of “My Old Kentucky Home.” This is probably one of the most moving moments of the day as the University of Louisville’s Marching band starts playing,  It’s really something special when the crowd goes quiet and then over 150,000 people starting singing this traditional Derby song.  You know you are apart of something very special at this moment.

derby clockCheer for your horse


Post time for the Derby race is 6:24.   You now will experience the most exciting two minutes in sports as you watch these majestic animals roar past you. There’s just as much adrenaline pumping in the stands as there is on the track in front of you.  It may have only been a two minute race, but you will not be able to erase the smile from your face for at least 2 hours after it’s over.

Have you been to the Kentucky Derby?  What are your some of the things you like to do on Derby Day?  Share in the comments below.

Don’t miss picking up a Kentucky Derby Souvenir!  Get all your souvenirs in advance at the Official Online Store of the Kentucky Derby!

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