A trip to Churchill Downs is more than a trip to the most hallowed grounds of horse racing. A ticket to the Kentucky Derby is more than a ticket to the sport’s most venerable event. Spending the first Saturday of May in Louisville, Kentucky is an invitation to become a part of history. It presents the opportunity to witness an event that transcends sports, an event that transcends entertainment, an event that transcends time.
Spending the first Saturday of May at Churchill Downs means celebrating pomp and circumstance, all the while walking among legend and lore. The “Run for the Roses” is more than the singularity of its many individual aspects of greatness, for it is the combined minutes and moments of the day that make a day spent at Churchill Downs into what it truly is: a spectacle.
From its humble beginnings in front of 10,000 spectators in 1875 the Derby has grown to the massive incarnation we now know it to be 139 years later. It is hard to imagine that what we see today is what Col. Meriwether Lewis Clark, Jr., the grandson of William Clark of Lewis & Clark expedition fame, had in mind when he returned home from a trip to England with intentions to start a local jockey club for the purpose of constructing a race track on the then outskirts of Louisville.
If Col. Clark could only see the spawn of his simple race track today he would undoubtedly be astonished. What he would see is a multi-week festival that overtakes the nation’s 27th largest city, culminating on Derby Day, when at 6:30 in the evening over 150,000 rabid fans are brought to a roar as the gates swing open and the field of three-year old Thoroughbreds streak down the track in a two-minute blaze of glory.
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Churchill Downs on race day is very much like a large state fair at its peak: brimming with endless food choices, of the familiar and not quite so familiar. The price markup is also similar but to be expected. It is one of those deals where you know what to expect going in so you should not experience sticker-shock, just be prepared to shell out the cash. You will most certainly be able to purchase a big turkey leg or a nice large deep-fried funnel cake. All of the usual suspects are also on the board, items such as pizza, hamburgers, hot dogs, nachos, popcorn, and soda.
Speaking of cash, bring it, lots of it. Many of the concessions, especially the tent and kiosk vendors, do not accept credit/debit cards so it would be wise to be prepared. ATM machines are quite literally all over the grounds in addition to those nagging surcharges you will also most likely find long lines, only serving to prolong your wait for that extra-large frozen lemonade.
Another word of advice: skip the food. I know that it is a long day and it is virtually impossible to not eat something while on the grounds but if at all possible try to eat a big breakfast and hold out for a big dinner after leaving the Derby. With the money saved you can partake in some Derby originals, and maybe even purchase an extra t-shirt or ball cap for a jealous friend.
The first must purchase is the famous Kentucky Mint Julep. These can be purchased at almost every turn and range in price from $10 to $20, depending on variation. However, do not let that fool you to believe that there are not "better" juleps available for purchase, including the famed $1,000 julep. The added bonus when going with the exclusive julep is that you get to keep your gold-highlighted cup which contained your now digested 4-figure investment. If that julep sounds a bit too extreme for your financial taste you can always go with the aforementioned soda, reasonably priced from $4 to $6.
Time for a hidden gem alert: Over on the track's backside, near the paddocks, and just off the turn 3 rails is a small café that generally caters to jockeys, trainers, and those familiar with the grounds. It is small and does get busy, but a table was available after about a 5-minute wait and I was able to purchase a hot dog, fries, cookie, and soda for $11, a relative steal by the standards set forth on the front side of Churchill Downs. Add in the amazing view of the track's backstretch running off into turn 3, and you cannot beat the deal. You will want to make the walk to visit this place, if you have the time, and the hunger.
It is here, within the sphere of "Atmosphere", where the Kentucky Derby truly becomes more than just another big-time sporting event, or championship game. The aura at Churchill Downs on Derby Day is where this spectacle earns its points.
The Derby is not one of those arrive at the last-minute and find your seat/standing spot sort of events. It is a sun-up to sun-down all-day experience, one of those sporting events where after all is said and done you find yourself falling into bed with sore feet and a smile on your face. The atmosphere of a day at the Derby will drain you, literally and figuratively. Some of you might be left with a less-than-enthusiastic response at the thought of shelling out potentially exorbitant amounts of money with the advance knowledge of knowing that come nightfall, you will find yourself in shutdown mode after a day of intense sensual overload.
Let me put it this way: the Kentucky Derby is sports answer to those with ADD. The Derby is Christmas morning, a birthday, and an anniversary all rolled into one. The sights, the sounds, and the smells are all overwhelming, and I mean that in the most positive way possible. From the minute the spectator gates open the buzz begins to build.
Upon entrance you will notice smoke rising from grills ablaze, betting windows cranking up with action, to vendors hawking every souvenir imaginable from $10 cigars to special limited-edition $15,000 Longines watches. KFC and YUM Brands signage adorns every nook and cranny of the property, a perk of being the presenting sponsor of the Derby and Churchill Downs. All of this is happening with the backdrop of the twin spires looming large as the most beautiful sports going crowd on the planet assembles.
The crowds for the Derby have always been beautiful, but this was not the case for the facility itself. If one was to arrive here in the late 90's, they might have remarked that the facility was a bit "bland". After all, this is a facility that caters to equines and that does not host spectators for a majority of days each year. Nonetheless, Churchill Downs Incorporated knew that the Kentucky Derby needed a venue that lived up to the race, a first-class venue with all the amenities that the modern sports fan has come to expect.
Early in the century a massive renovation project was embarked upon, a project that would transform Churchill Downs from a bit dark and dank to bright and modern. The ironic thing that even with the renovations, which still continues most years to some extent, Churchill Downs has been able to maintain a feeling of its prior self, and that is a good thing.
A venue that is too polished can be too good for its own being and some of the venues in sport which provide the best atmosphere are those with a past, but updated with a modern hodgepodge bent. Think Fenway Park, Wrigley Field, Lambeau Field, or Indianapolis Motor Speedway, all updated venues that retain that charm and grittiness of their past.
It is from this place that character and atmosphere originates and Churchill Down oozes it from every paddock, from every portal, from every cobblestone paver. On raceday every portal and every paver becomes a blur of humanity, some in a rushed hurry, some simply standing and gawking as celebrities from all realms of famous society pour in on the red carpet before heading upstairs to the lavish luxury suites high about the racing surface.
Churchill Downs is located just a few miles south of downtown Louisville, not far from the University of Louisville. In fact, the University of Louisville's Papa John's Stadium is located just a short walk from the track and is visible from many spots around the property.
The area immediately around the track could be termed "blue-collar" at best, manifest as a mix of smaller homes, neighborhood service style retail, mom and pop restaurants, and industrial/manufacturing complexes. This is not an area of town where you will want to park and walk from bar to bar, or find live music on every corner.
For those activities I would definitely recommend the downtown area, specifically "4th Street Live" which offers a collection of restaurants & bars, clubs & music venues, retail, etc., all targeted to visitors and those looking for an enjoyable evening out in Louisville.
If you are a fan of Kentucky Bourbon then you must check out Maker's Mark Bourbon House & Lounge while at 4th Street Live. Bourbon in Kentucky is an experience to not be missed and speaking from a personal perspective there is simply none better than Maker's Mark.
One place very near Churchill Downs that I must also mention is Wagner's Pharmacy, located within a stone's throw of the paddocks and the track's turns 3 & 4. This hole in the wall is a Louisville landmark. The front is as the name implies, a pharmacy. But continue on to the back of the establishment and you will find a diner, a dated but charming diner. Countless photos adorn the walls of previous Derby winning horses and their jockeys. If you are looking for a quick and unpretentious bite before making your way inside the track gates, not to mention the chance of bumping into a recognizable jockey, then Wagner's Pharmacy is the place.
I suppose this would be the ideal time to explain how the Derby presents distinct fan experiences depending on where you find yourself enjoying the events of the day. In all actuality you could probably break down the Derby fan base into numerous categories but for the sake of brevity I will divide the 150,000 spectators into two categories, the grandstanders and the infielders.
Both groups are equally as passionate about their day at Churchill Downs but the day unfolds quite differently for each. The grandstanders grouping consists of all those watching the day's events from a physical seat, in other words, from the various seating levels (terrace, clubhouse, mezzanine, suites, etc., ringing the front stretch and first turn of the track.
The infielders refer to all those general admission ticket holders occupying standing room areas, primarily located within the infield confines of the track. The grandstanders fan could be generally grouped by the following attributes: upper-middle class and higher, older, more discerning, more likely to drink mixed drinks such as the famed Mint Julep, and generally more likely to wager, and wager more significantly, on the day's races.
The infielders could be generally grouped by the following attributes: middle-class, younger, a bit "louder", more likely to be drinking a Yuengling than a high-dollar Mint Julep, and probably wagering significantly less on average than the grandstanders. Obviously, these are not hard and fast rules and abundant exceptions exist but on average I think these groupings ring true on Derby day.
The one thing that is certain is that regardless of which group of fan one finds themselves belonging to on raceday, they will be excited and they will show emotion. Horse racing is not for the faint of heart, and the higher the purse goes the more this is likely to be the case. You cannot help but get caught up in the moment and when that starting gun sounds all classifications go out the window and all that matters is cheering on your favorite as they round the track and stretch for the finish line.
Louisville is a very accessible city, from the well-connected airport located not far from the track, to the major interstate highway system traversing the metropolitan area. In fact, Churchill Downs sits in a crux, just a half mile or so in either direction from Interstates 65 or 264. This makes the track quite accessible by automobile, but that does not necessarily mean I would recommend arriving via car, at least not your own vehicle. This is especially true if you are seeking a spot close-by, within close enough walking distance that you do not accumulate a mile plus walk in simply getting to the track and back from your vehicle.
I imagine parking for most days on the race calendar would prove not too difficult, but for the Kentucky Oaks (held annually on Friday, the day before the Derby) and Derby parking can be a nightmare! Do not get me wrong, spots can be found but "good" spots will set you back $40 to $50 and most likely put you in someone's front yard.
My suggestion is to park in one of the large lots at Papa John's Cardinals Stadium and take a shuttle to and from Churchill Downs. The shuttles will drop you off very near the front main entrance to the track and the service will only set you back $15. Once on the property you will have a vast selection of entry gates to choose from. Some of these gates are reserved for those accessing certain areas of the facility, such as Millionaire's Row or the Jockey Club Suites.
If you are a general admission ticket holder you will have two pedestrian gates to choose from by which you can access the Churchill Downs infield. One of these tunnels is located along the front stretch while the other tunnel is located in between turns 3 and 4. If you are among the throngs planning on partying in the infield it is best to arrive early as these tunnels become quite congested, especially for those bringing in items that require screening.
In fact, due to recent events security measures have been stepped up around the entire property, including the banning of all coolers (a previous highlight of a general admission infield ticket), and the ever-popular pop-up tents, as well as more stringent restrictions on bag sizes and allowances. Your best bet, if you can afford it is to simply leave it all at home and purchase your concessions, etc. on site.
The infield at Churchill Downs has never been known for its great race viewing vantage points, what it has been known for is crazy and rambunctious parties. Think a frat party meets Bonnaroo, with a side of horse racing thrown in for good measure.
You will see all sorts of things in the Churchill Downs infield, from games of football, cards, and hacky sack, to corn hole and beer pong. I have even witnessed a fierce musical chairs battle among scantily-clad college girls, an impromptu moonwalk competition, and spotted one random gentleman propped up against a wall playing a saxophone, for apparently no one at all.
As one t-shirt read, "I came to party and a horse race broke out". One of the most frequent horror stories involving the infield concerns the availability of restroom space, specifically permanent restroom space. I took note of two permanent restroom structures both of which appeared to be quite busy and that was early in the day.
A very large number of Porta-Johns are dispatched throughout the infield but as the day progresses and the crowds grow in number and restlessness the issues seem to mount exponentially. It might be the combination of alcohol, long lines, heat, and crowded conditions that sometimes lead to infield disturbances, thus the large presence of police on the scene, including armed military police standing guard atop buildings.
If you are there to see the races rest assured that although the actual views may be limited, the infield does feature a number of large truck mounted video screens to provide viewing of the races as they go off around you.
One unique seating option that did exist in the infield was the Bacardi Infield Club, which occupies a massive portion of the infield, and features suites (similar to those found at many professional golf tournaments) placed down a large strip of the front stretch. These suites featured restrooms, a kitchen, and living space on the main floor and a tiered and covered viewing area with seating on the upper level. If you must be in the infield, this is the way to go.
If you are lucky enough to be a grandstand patron then you are generally immune to many of the issues found in the infield, the women's bathrooms do become extremely crowded and can be quite cramped, especially in the most "historic" areas of the structure.
The concourses are also quite narrow in spots which lead to a lot of waiting to move very short distances. Due to the vast variety of seating levels and ensuing access points, a great number of ticketing checkpoints exists, which seem to compound the concourse congestion in spots.
Come prepared for the people jams, maintain your patience, and this also can be viewed simply as part of the spectacle.
One thing you will never hear uttered in regards to the Kentucky Derby is the relatively small investment it takes for one to attend. Yes, you can park a ways away from the grounds and shuttle in, purchase a general admission infield ticket, buy a limited amount of food and drink, and purchase a souvenir program and get out for $100 per person but if you have any hopes of being a grandstander you better be prepared to pony up, no pun intended.
First, actual seated tickets are not normally available for the average spectator to simply walk up and purchase. Many of these tickets, or the right to purchase these tickets, are handed down from generation to generation and many seats require purchasing racing season passes to secure the right to buy tickets to the biggest events, like the Oaks and Derby.
The cheapest face-value for an actual seat to the Derby is over $600, and that does not account for the premium you will most likely have to pay to purchase from secondary sources. It is not unusual to hear of tickets going for $10,000 and up. It is prices such as these that cause each individual to debate the pros and cons of attendance and to decide on their own personal return on investment.
Personally, I am a fan of "big" sporting events and as such the legendary A1 events like the Super Bowl and the Final Four move the meter for me. The Kentucky Derby certainly falls into this category and although I am not fortunate enough to have the means to attend every year, it does fall into the "bucket list" and "if only once" categories.
A word of warning: if you do choose to purchase tickets to the Derby via secondary sources then buyers beware. As a major international event, scalpers are ever-present and each year a number of counterfeiters are discovered, selling tickets at "not-too-good-to-be-true" prices. It would be tremendous blows to make it to the Derby, purchase the illustrious once-in-a-lifetime ticket for say $5,000, only to hear that dreaded tone noting a declined admission upon gate scanning.
Some might gauge the return on investment based on their winnings, or ensuing losses, from the day's races. Should you choose to participate in the wagering and are unfamiliar with protocol please take a few minutes before heading to the races to learn how to wager. Trust me when I say that everyone, from the attendant to the betting public, will appreciate it come race day.
The intangibles of attending the Kentucky Derby are off the charts. The Derby really is more than just a horse race; it is truly a multi-week party that offers something for everyone.
Locals always enjoy the free, or nearly free, concerts held downtown featuring major national acts leading up to race week and celebrities love the A-list Derby eve parties, soirées such as those hosted by Playboy or Maxim at hot spots around town like the Galt House Hotel, and the often imitated but never duplicated Barnstable-Brown Bash.
Once at the track be sure to take time to walk out to the backside and check out the Paddocks. It seems as if they go on forever and for the most part you are allowed to walk around them quite freely. If you see a crowd around a particular barn you definitely might want to check out the action, as you quite possibly might get a glimpse of a Derby horse before they are moved to the temporary stalls on the track's front side in the final hours before the big race.
Be sure to make it back to the front side, to the area outside the Kentucky Derby Museum (a must-visit but not open to the general public on Oaks and Derby days), by 9:45am in order to witness the arrival of the garland of roses. Rest assured this is not your local florist pulling up in a station wagon and dropping off some roses that will later adorn the winning horses' neck. No, most definitely not. Like most of the top shelf activities surrounding the event, Churchill Downs does the arrival of the blanket of roses in spectacular fashion. If you did not know better you would think the President of the United States was primed to arrive on the grounds.
There is a full formal processional, escorted by a security detail and specially made rose boxes constructed of glass and gold. All of this is accompanied by lovely live music, courtesy of either the University of Kentucky or University of Louisville marching band.
The bands also perform pre-race, assisting with the national anthem. The bands alternate performance years, so one year you will be witnessing the Marching Wildcats and the next year it would be the Marching Cardinals.
A couple final words of advice: First, for all the ladies who have spent weeks preparing for the Derby you will want to be sure to bring along two pairs of shoes, especially true if you will be spending the day as an infielder. Yes, those tall shiny stilettos look fantastic with your beautiful dress and adorning headwear (and the gentleman accompanying you appreciates the effort and loves having you on his arm), but after a few hours you know how your feet are undoubtedly going to feel, so best be prepared with a functional pair of sophisticated flats to make the change once the dogs begin to bark.
Also, with an event spanning so many hours the weather can fluctuate quite dramatically. The morning can start a bit cool and overcast while the afternoon can become very humid and warm. It is the first Saturday in May so not only is it the rainy season in Louisville but the risk is also present for mid-afternoon storms to build and make their way over the track. Bring a poncho just in case and also be sure to not forget the sunscreen as waking up on Sunday morning with a bad burn can make for an uncomfortable trip home.
I have been fortunate to attend some very special events during my life and I must say that attending the Kentucky Derby on assignment for Stadium Journey ranks right at the top of the list. It is the only sporting event that I have attended wearing slacks, sport coat, and tie, and felt under-dressed. The Derby does not only feel like a fashion show for the ladies, the same goes for the men and you simply cannot overdress for the Derby, so go for it and dress to the nines.
It is also a strange feeling to attend a sporting event and not have a rooting interest, but in a way that made for a more enjoyable day. So often we attend games with a vested interest in one team or another, one player or another, one driver or another, but I arrived at Churchill Downs with no favorite.
Granted, I did make a few small wagers and was fortunate enough to leave the track with a few dollars more in my pocket than I arrived with, but for me that was not what the day was about. The Kentucky Derby is about the very essence of America, our competitive nature, our celebratory flair. After all, a saying exists that equates the Derby to being as American as apple pie.
I will not go as far as to say that the Derby was the loudest sporting event I have ever attended, but I can say that when I heard the trumpet ring out with the call to post and the traditional rendition of "My Old Kentucky Home" blaring through the loudspeakers, you cannot help but feel chills. They began by rumbling deep down in your spine and quickly work their way up, reverberating all the way, culminating with a rush I have never before experienced as the starting gate fired, the gates flew open, and the one and one-quarter mile race was underway.
I think I said it best in my introduction when I called the Derby a "spectacle". The Kentucky Derby is, in my estimation, a Top-5 American sporting event and if at all possible it should be experienced at least once in a lifetime.
Once you have experienced it the first Saturday of each May will always feel a little different, regardless of whether you are in Louisville or watching on television from a far-flung locale. Churchill Downs on Derby day never quite leaves you, it becomes an etched memory that serves to illustrate why sports are so special and maintain such an important spot in our hearts, and in our lives.
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