The Kentucky Derby’s reputation as “the most exciting two minutes in sports” barely scratches the surface of this bourbon-soaked event, which draws as many as 170,000 spectators to the Churchill Downs racetrack. “It’s not just the two-minute race on TV, it’s two long, ten-plus hour days of fun and excitement at the track, plus all the galas, events, and activities surrounding those,” says Brian Learst, CEO of Quint Events, the official ticket package provider.
A basic ticket to the raucous infield party can be had for $60, while the poshest suites can run up to $8,000 per person. Whatever your budget, we put you on the fast track to checking this event off your bourbon-lover’s bucket list.
The Insider Tips You Need for the Kentucky Derby
Make a Flight Detour: Flights into Louisville are few and expensive. Save by flying into Cincinnati or Indianapolis and driving the rest of the way.
Dress the Part: Festive attire is a Derby tradition. Have fun, but keep your sartorial aspirations in check. Prioritize comfort and dress for the weather, advises Louisville native Dr. Michael Doyle, a Derby veteran. “It can be cold, hot; I’ve seen snowflakes.”
Keep a Cool Head: Ornate hats are a Derby signature for women, and more men are doffing fedoras and straw hats. Local Louisville shops, like Dee’s Hats, deliver directly to your hotel.
Arrive Early: Not hours…days! All reserved seats for Saturday’s Derby include Friday, Kentucky Oaks Day, an equally elegant affair. Also, consider attending Thursday (dubbed Thurby) with much cheaper tickets and smaller crowds.
Stake a Claim: Infield spectators battle for a prized spot on the fence. Your move: enter through Gate 1, where you can bring chairs and a tarp. Have the fleetest member of your group sprint, tarp in hand, and stake out some prime turf while the rest pack in the gear.
Aim High: The main structure is split between the clubhouse, near the finish line, and grandstand sections. When selecting seats, remember: higher is better; closer to finish is better.
Seal This Deal: Grandstand sections 326 and 328 offer modern stadium seats, ample legroom, superb views, with food and drinks included on the rooftop deck (around $1,500).
Live Like a King: The Stakes Room—fourth floor, over the finish line, with an outdoor terrace, a wrap-around balcony overlooking the paddock, fantastic food, and an open bar—may be the best spot on the track, according to Learst. ($4,500-$8,000)
Look a Horse in the Mouth: Tickets for the crowded infield start at just $60. However, general admission tickets include access to the more relaxed paddock area, where you can actually see the horses. Backstretch Tours let you watch the morning equine workout (from $42, except Derby day).
Ride the Rail: Learst’s hidden-gem pick is the recently added ground-level Right Courtyard—five rows of trackside seats with a finish-line view and open bar ($2,500).
Spot a Celeb: Tickets for the star-studded Barnstable Brown gala on the eve of the Derby are $900. Post up for free near gate 10, where celebs enter on the red carpet before ascending to their prime seats.
Make a Winning Bet: Avoid complex multi-horse bets. “Pick a horse and bet it to win,” says Frank Kunovic, director of specialty games for the Caesars Palace sports book in Las Vegas. “If you want to hedge your bets, pick three horses and bet them to win, it costs the same as win, place, show.”
Skip the Lines: The Churchill Downs app lets you place bets from your phone. You can also order food and skip the line when you pick it up or even get in-seat food delivery in many sections.
Drink One Julep: Enjoy one of the 120,000 Mint Juleps, pocket the souvenir glass, then switch it up. “A great, freshly made Julep is delicious, but hard to find, and in Churchill Downs they’re using pre-made mix,” says Colin Blake, education director at Louisville’s Moonshine University. Blake suggests a classic Old Fashioned instead.
Grab a Cool Keepsake: A Woodford Reserve Julep in a silver cup will run you $1,000. However, a “Kicked Up” horseshoe that ran on the track is under ten bucks, complete with dirt, available at Taste of Kentucky gift shops.
Crash a Party: After the race, Doyle suggests walking north to the Central Avenue neighborhood where homeowners throw a street fest. “Everyone has a party: there are barbecues going, beer for a buck, even DJs,” says Doyle. “It’s a local thing but anyone can go eat and drink and it goes on for hours.”
What to Bring on Derby Day
Each guest is limited to two bags, no more than 12” in any direction. There’s a long list of what not to bring (like alcohol beverages), but here’s what you should pack.
- Doyle’s top tip for ladies is to bring cheap flip-flops that fit in a purse. Dressing up is part of the experience, but suffering doesn’t have to be.
- Umbrellas aren’t permitted. Instead, pack a poncho, suggests Learst. On the flip side, bring sunscreen and sunglasses, since nearly all the infield seats are uncovered.
- You’ll be buying your bourbon, so save money by bringing water and soft drinks, which are permitted in sealed clear plastic containers.
- Pack a box lunch. Better yet, have one packed for you. Many area restaurants offer boxed Derby and Oaks day lunches to pre-order, like the Cheddar Box Café’s biscuit sandwich lunches (country ham or filet mignon), salads, and group meal kits (from $20).
- Bring cash. Due to state law, credit cards aren’t permitted for placing bets and ATM lines tend to be long.