An Insider’s Guide to the Kentucky Derby
Known as the “fastest two minutes in sports,” the Kentucky Derby is one of the most exciting and prestigious sporting events in the United States — if not the world.
Held annually since 1875 at Churchill Downs in the Southeastern city of Louisville, Kentucky, this race of 3-year-old thoroughbred horses is the longest-running continuous sporting event in the U.S.
For the 155,000 people who typically attend Derby (as locals call it) annually on the first Saturday of May, it’s more than just a horse race. It’s a weekend-long celebration. On Friday, Churchill Downs hosts the Kentucky Oaks race. That night, the parties move to Louisville’s ballrooms and mansions for black-tie galas, as well as the city’s restaurants and bars (many stay open all night during Derby weekend) for more informal festivities. Then on Saturday, Churchill Downs hosts another full day of races, with the marquee event around 6:30 p.m.
Don't worry if you can’t make it to Kentucky for the celebrations. Many U.S. horse-racing tracks take a break from their own live races to show Derby on their big screens. And bars around the nation throw Derby parties, where guests often dress up to take part in Derby-day traditions.
How to Get Tickets to the Kentucky Derby
Temperatures in Kentucky in early May can be scorching hot or cold and wet, so you’ll want covered seats with easy indoor access. For a shot at grandstand seats, visit the Kentucky Derby website in the fall and register in a lottery for a chance to buy tickets. If that doesn’t work, other seats are usually available on Churchill Downs’ website until the last minute. Part of the Derby website allows fans to resell their tickets, so be sure to check that area too.
And you can buy a general admission infield ticket for US$50, but the cost increases over time — it’s US$60 on race day. Keep in mind that it’s a party scene in the infield, but it can be hard to see the races.
From Millionaires Row to the infield, spectators can experience a number of different viewing options at Churchill Downs.
What to Wear
The Derby’s renowned for its fashion. Hats, usually the bigger the better, are the key item for women. While Louisvillians debate whether their city’s in the South or Midwest region of the United States, on Derby day, they — and their guests — embrace Southern heritage. Also, a big hat is practical for what can be a long day in the sun.
For men, a suit will suffice — bonus if it’s khaki or seersucker. Pair it with a straw fedora.
What to Drink
In addition to being known as horse country, Kentucky is known as bourbon country for the variety of whiskey it pioneered. So it comes as no surprise that the official drink of the Kentucky Derby — the mint julep — is bourbon based. The recipe: simple syrup (water and sugar), mint and bourbon are poured over crushed ice and garnished with more mint.
Where to Stay
Hotel rooms can be scarce Derby weekend. Book your room early (ideally the day the hotel opens up reservations for Derby weekend). Cancellation policies can be strict for those dates, so ask about the policy before you reserve a room.
Downtown is the prime area to stay because of its proximity to restaurants, bars and the track. It’s also the site of most of Louisville’s top hotels. Otherwise, look for a hotel near the airport, which is close to Churchill Downs.
Hotels in downtown Louisville offer Derby attendees proximity to the city’s excellent dining scene.
Where to Eat
Louisville restaurants excel at New American cuisine (a take on traditional dishes that uses influences from other cultures or modern cooking techniques) with a strong Southern influence. The NuLu (New Louisville), Highlands and downtown neighborhoods are home to many of Louisville’s better dining options.
What Else to See in Louisville
To learn about the history of the race, visit the Kentucky Derby Museum. Located at Churchill Downs, it offers two floors of exhibits, including a 360-degree immersive sound and visual experience. It’s closed on Kentucky Oaks and Derby days but opens at 8 a.m. the day after Derby.
Louisville is also the hometown of legendary boxer Muhammad Ali. Located downtown, the Muhammad Ali Center celebrates his life and legacy with an interactive museum. And on Grand Avenue, his bright pink childhood home was recently renovated to include exhibits on his formative years.
Before or after Derby, pay tribute to Louisville’s hometown boxing hero at the Muhammad Ali Center.