The Kentucky Derby

On the eve of the 2012 Kentucky Derby ‘the greatest 2 minutes in sport’, it feels like the whole nation has suddenly gone crazy for horse racing, when in fact you hardly hear about this much loved ‘sport of kings’ in the US until the first Saturday in May.  Attending the races in Australia is something I have enjoyed my whole life with family and friends, and the Spring Carnival in Melbourne is my favourite time of year so attending the Kentucky Derby was very high on my bucket list for a long time.  Last year I was lucky enough to make it happen – and even picked the winner!

Churchill Downs famous two-spired Grandstand

Being one of the most renowned sporting events in the world, at the world’s most legendary racetrack, you could be forgiven for thinking it too difficult to get to the racetrack, get a ticket and actually see a horse.  But with some good planning and well invested dollars it is an unforgettable experience that any race fan must do.

The Kentucky Derby is a race for 3 year old thoroughbreds, run over 2km on the hallowed dirt track, Churchill Downs in Louisville, Kentucky.  The big race culminates a 2 week long Kentucky Derby festival in which parades, parties and the largest fireworks display in the US build up the excitement amongst royals, the rich & famous, overseas visitors and locals.  Most people don’t arrive until a day or two before and with this influx of eager racegoers, comes the the logistical issues with getting to Louisville and finding a bed not 20 miles out of town.

Accommodation in fact is probably the first thing you need to lock in.  The city is not huge and although there are many hotels, the good ones go early, booked by regular attendees and the prices of others shoot up.  The prime locations are near the racecourse or in downtown.  The course is not really walkable from the main tourist stays and be warned cabs do rise their fares considerably.  Try to get accom with organised shuttles or at least share a cab with others to keep costs down.

The hallowed dirt track

Flights to Louisville seem to move up and down in the months leading up. The average price from Houston on United is approx. $400 return, however this can easily creep up by a few hundred so keep an eye on it.  We only purchased our flights 3 months out but they were cheaper than 5 months before..??  Other airports to consider flying into and hiring a car from include Lexington and Cincinnati.

Tickets into the infamous Infield are about $40 and can be bought online or on the day, but don’t expect to see a horse run down the straight!  It is packed to the railings, party central in there and whilst is a great atmosphere, you didn’t go all this way not to sit in the famous Grandstands and see the action!

View from the Grandstands

Unless you are somebody or money is no object, a ticket in Millionaires row, a box, lounge or even parts of the Grandstand close to the finishing post are going to be tough a tough ask.  However you can buy Grandstand tickets a little bit away from the post from $250 up on various ticket selling websites.  We recommend the Infield Club package available through Churchill Downs on the official Derby website.  We took up the Infield Club VIP package for the 2 days which included grandstand seat, access to VIP marquee with buffet snacks and lunch, easy access to bars, toilets and betting and a relief from the unpredictable Louisville weather.  Once we ventured out to the Infield for a look(as you have too)and saw the lines for the loo’s and drinks we were very thankful we chose this option.

Mint Juleps

The atmosphere in the stands is lots of fun and every seat(or standing spot on your seat!) is a good view.   When the horses step onto the track for the Kentucky Derby post parade and the band strikes up “My Old Kentucky Home” the whole crowd is singing along.  When the horses are in the gates on the main straight ready to jump the atmosphere is electric.   Even if you don’t fancy bourbon you must try a Mint Julep, a mix of mint leaf, bourbon, sugar and water, which you receive in a commemorative glass(collect the set!)

The facilities and services are pretty good with mint juleps and beers being served up to you all day. You would expect with 165,000 people packed in it would be unbearably busy but it certainly didn’t feel like that many there and I have felt more squashed at Flemington race track in Melbourne.

Be sure to get there early to give yourself time to explore and people watch.  A must do is to walk around the back of the famous twin spired Grandstand to the mounting yard and take in all the hype.  This is people watching at its finest and is probably as close as you’ll get to a horse.  The lovely colonial style architecture just adds to the grander and spine tingling history of the place.

Derby Fashion

Traditional Fashion for the Derby is big hats and southern belle style dresses of pastels and frills for the girls and seersucker suits for the guys.  I have to say the fashion in no way comes close to that of Melbourne’s Spring Carnival but you certainly do see some innovative designs that’ll keep you snapping photos all day.

The Kentucky Oaks preludes the Derby on the Friday and is a great day in itself with quality racing, slightly less crowds and as its 3 year old champion race for fillies suggests – a great day for the ladies to dress up and take centre stage.  In fact our favourite cocktail, the Oaks Lilly is served only on this day, which we found considerably more appealing than the famous mint julep.  It is also a day where pink adorns the grandstands and patron outfits to recognise those women who are fighting or have survived cancer.

Woodford Reserve Distillery

If you can afford some extra time in Kentucky you should as it’s a very pretty state with rolling green hills and cute little farming towns.  Two popular attractions are the Bourbon Trail and the professional thoroughbred breading Horse Farms near Lexington.  These can be seen on an organised day tour from Louisville or hire a car yourself and take your time to pick out your favorite distilleries.  We went to the Woodford Reserve Distillery whose famous bourbon is actually served in the mint juleps at the Derby.  http://www.woodfordreserve.com

The Kentucky Derby Museum at Churchill Downs is worth a look also if you can get there a few days before the big race or you are in Louisville another time of year.  In town the Sluggers Museum is a must for any baseball fan. http://www.sluggermuseum.org/

Catching up with the jockeys

If you’re not lucky enough to be at Churchill Downs this year, The Derby will be shown on NBC from 3pm with the race on at 5.24pm CST or better yet you can head out to the Sam Houston Race Park for a simulcast of the 13 race-card from Churchill Downs from 9.30am, live racing from 1pm, a hat judging competition and mint juleps served in a commemorative Kentucky Derby glass with official Kentucky Derby merchandise also available.  More importantly if you would like a flutter on the Derby, unless you are at the Sam Houston Racetrack, there is no off-track betting in Texas!  More details @ http://www.shrp.com/liveracing_may5.html

So mark the first weekend of May 2013 in your calendar and start planning your outfit and biggest hat to attend this fantastic US event and be part of racing folklore.

Official Kentucky Derby Website: http://www.kentuckyderby.com/

Third party ticket sellers to try: Derby Box or Stubhub.

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