And, they’re off! The first Saturday in May is almost here, and that means Derby time in the Bluegrass is upon us. As a lifelong Kentuckian and former Derby Princess, I have many fond memories of the most exciting two minutes in sports, and I look forward to dressing up, picking my favorite horse, and toasting friends with a mint julep every year. If you’re one of the lucky few who will be spending Derby Day at Churchill Downs, I offer a few tips that might make your day a little more fun.
It’s pronounced Looavul. If you’re visiting from out of town, make sure you know how to pronounce Louisville. It’s not Lewis-ville or Louie-ville. It’s Looavul. (Mr. Wanderlust is convinced that the closer you can get to a one-syllable, Lou’v’l, the more Kentuckian you are.) Locals will look at you strangely if you say it incorrectly, so get it right.
Cash is not optional. Bring more cash than you think you’ll need. Cash is required to place a bet, pay for parking, and buy from some beverage vendors, and you don’t want to be that person holding up the line while you search your wallet for spare change. Plus, the ATM lines are always long, and it’s no fun spending an hour waiting on a cash machine and missing the festivities.
You’ll be walking (a lot!), so plan your shoe wardrobe accordingly. Derby Day is a very fun and very long day at Churchill. The gates open at 8:00 a.m., and the first post (race start) is at 10:30 a.m. If you’re like me, you’ll want to get there early and soak up every minute. That’s a great attitude for the day, but it means that your feet will be put to the test. I’m never willing to forego the perfect stilettos to bring an outfit together, but I am a realist and hate that burn in the ball of my foot that only a woman who’s worn heels for too long can understand. These insoles designed for high heels are a lifesaver. If you’re one of the crazies who insists on wearing heels and giving up some comfort, I highly recommend picking up some insoles. I also recommend bringing a pair of sandals in your purse to put on when your feet just can’t take it anymore. Just remember, you can’t carry a purse that’s more than 12″ x 12″.
Wear a hat or fascinator, and own it its ridiculousness. One of my favorite things about Oaks and Derby is the parade of adorable (and sometimes ridiculous) attire that invades Churchill Downs. Ladies, pick your hat or fascinator first, and then pick your dress. I’ve worn both a hat and a fascinator, and I prefer a fascinator. Although hats look great, they’re big, and the seats at Churchill are small and close together. Most of the “boxes” have six metal folding chairs, and the dividers are metal rails. In such close quarters, I find it annoying to be constantly thinking about the position of my large hat compared to the location of my friends, so the fascinator is the more enjoyable choice for me. That said, whatever your fancy, wear an outfit and headpiece you love and rock it out. That goes for gentlemen, too. Pick a tasteful straw hat, pair it with your favorite pastel threads and the perfect bowtie, and strut your stuff all day long.
Wear sunscreen, even if it’s cloudy. Spring in Kentucky means that the weather can change in an instant. Even though the forecast for this year’s Derby looks bleak now, you never know when the sun will come out and shine bright on our Kentucky home. If that happens, and you have seats without a cover, you’ll want sunscreen and could quickly be miserable without it.
Speaking of weather, bring a poncho if there’s even a slight chance of rain. I’ve spent a Derby Day in the beautiful sunshine, and I’ve spent an Oaks Day waiting on race delays under the grandstand because of severe storms. I have fond memories of both, but I’m guessing that wouldn’t be the case if I hadn’t brought a poncho on the rainy day. You may feel silly, but I promise that you’ll feel less ridiculous wearing a clear poncho over your perfectly planned outfit than you will if your once-fabulous attire is dripping wet. Another tip: bring a trash bag that will fit your entire hat. It will keep it safe if you have to walk back to your car in the rain, and it doubles as a cute (ha!) cover for your hat if the rain slows to a drizzle just before post time.
Bring a few comfort supplies. No matter where your seats or infield patch of grass are located, you’ll be in a demanding environment for the day, and that can wreak havoc on your body. If you can fit it in your 12″ x 12″ bag or pocket, I suggest bringing a small stash of band-aids, aspirin, bobby pins, hair ties, blotting paper, and baby wipes. It may seem unnecessary, but if you’ve ever been in need of one of those items and didn’t have it, you’ll understand the value of lugging them around just in case.
Drink at least one Mint Julep. Kentucky is famous for its bourbon, and the Derby is famous for its signature bourbon drink: the Mint Julep. Some Kentuckians like them, and others don’t. They’re certainly an acquired taste and not something I would recommend if you don’t like bourbon. However, if you’re going to the Derby, you have to at least try one and keep the souvenir Derby glass. A word of caution: they’re basically bourbon, sugar, and water over ice, so pace yourself and stay hydrated with something other than juleps. You’ve spent all that money on the tickets, the outfit, and the transportation, it would be awful to be sick and miss the main event because the bourbon hit harder than expected.
While you’re at it, try an Oaks Lily too. The Kentucky Oaks is always the Friday before Derby Day and celebrates the top fillies in thoroughbred racing. Pink is the signature color of the day, and the Oaks Lily is the signature drink. It’s one of my favorite cocktails and contains vodka, Triple Sec, cranberry juice, and sweet and sour mix. It comes in a collectible stemless wine glass with a fresh fruit garnish. Very refreshing!
Make your Derby bet early. The lines at the betting windows are always long, and even though people-watching with a drink while you wait is fun for a few minutes, the new wears off quickly. I suggest reading the Racing Form on your way to the track, making your picks, and placing bets on multiple races each time you go to the window. For the Derby, make your pick early, and make your bet early. That way, there’s no risk that you’ll miss the betting opportunity, and you won’t spend the day second-guessing your pick.
At least learn the basics of reading a program, even if you don’t understand it all. Pick up a program when you walk into the track so that you’ll know when each race is scheduled to start, what horses will be running, and what jockeys will be riding. The program contains a wealth of information about every horse: its breeder, its trainer, its jockey, its hometown, its parents, how it performs on different surfaces, how it performs in races of different lengths. You want to know it? It’s probably in the program. If you know how to read the details, they can be a big help when picking your winners. However, it’s just as acceptable to pick your favorites based on fun things like names, lucky numbers, and silk colors, and if your long-shot bet comes in, you’ll walk away happy with your unstudied choice!
Walk around, and see all the things. Although it may be tempting to stay in your seat and rest your tired feet, muster the strength to walk around and see as much as you can while you’re at Churchill Downs. Many Kentuckians never attend an Oaks or Derby, and it’s a once-in-a-lifetime experience for many who do. Seize the opportunity to see everything you can while you’re there. Visit the paddock, walk over to the infield, go to the gift shop, buy an Oaks Lily or Mint Julep in a souvenir glass, take way too many pictures with your friends—do it all, and remember how much fun you had.
You can still buy a ticket! You can buy a ticket at the gate at Churchill Downs on Derby Day, and for $80, you’re in the general admission mix. You’ll be able to walk around the Paddock, where you can see the horses warming up before every race, and you can visit the infield. You might not see the horses run in a race, but you can certainly see horses preparing to run and watch the races on the Downs’ enormous jumbotron screen (the world’s largest 4K video board). Word to the wise: if you’re planning to spend the day in the infield, do not wear your nicest clothes. With thousands of people occupying a relatively small patch of grass, mud often occurs, and things get messy. Dress in something that makes you feel cute and comfortable, and you’ll be good to go. Just leave the stilletos and white bucks at home.
Consider going back to Churchill Downs on a day other than Oaks or Derby Day. Churchill Downs has racing in April-June, September, October, and November, and the crowds on virtually any other day except Oaks, Derby, and Thurby (the Thursday before Derby) are exponentially smaller. That means you can wander around most parts of the grandstand, leisurely explore the Paddock, and make a stop at the Kentucky Derby Museum. The Museum is wonderful with exhibits that both adults and children can enjoy. I highly recommend it!
P.S. If you can’t make it to Derby at Churchill, consider watching it at Keeneland in nearby Lexington. Keeneland is one of the oldest racetracks in the country, and (in my humble opinion), it has a beauty that Churchill Downs just can’t match. Although Keeneland only has races during April and October, its grounds are open to the public on Oaks and Derby Day for the biggest Derby party outside of Louisville. You can bring in coolers and chairs, have a picnic, place your bets, and watch the race with thousands of your closest friends on Keeneland’s big screen.
Whatever you do, enjoy the beauty of Kentucky on its favorite holiday!
Copyright © 2018 – Amelia Adams