Commentary

Attending the Kentucky Derby

Updated: June 4, 2008, 2:14 PM ET
By Jeremy Plonk | Special to ESPN SportsTravel


Date of Inception: 1875. The Kentucky Derby is the oldest continually held sporting event in the U.S.

Racetrack: Churchill Downs, in Louisville, Ky.

Racetrack Location: 4 miles south of downtown

Address: 700 Central Ave., Louisville, KY 40208

Official Web Site: http://www.kentuckyderby.com/

Race Dates:
2008: May 3
2009: May 2

Racetrack Info: Construction of the grandstand and Twin Spires began in the early fall of 1894 and continued until the start of winter weather precluded further work. The spires, which have been referred to as towers, cupolas, and even steeples in the past, stand atop the 1895 grandstand that now serves as the core of the sprawling 48,500-seat complex, stretching from the top of the homestretch to around the clubhouse turn.

Tickets: Reserved seats for the grandstand are sold out well in advance. You have to make a written request for tickets several months in advance and hope for the best.

Scalping tickets is illegal in Kentucky, so legal, online ticket brokers and the added costs are your best option if a reserved seat is a must.

Unlimited access to infield is available ($40) as well as general, standing-room-only admission to the paddock gardens area known as "the bricks" – the latter option became a much nicer experience since a renovation in 2005, with more open spaces and covered areas to protect fans from the sun/rain.

Fan Experience: One of those "must do in my lifetime" events for sports fans – racing or not. Yes, there will be crowds, and Louisville bursts at the seams, but the adrenaline rush is second-to-none … especially if you're cashing winning tickets.

Plan on arriving very early (7-8 a.m.) and exiting late (7 p.m.). Those looking for infield or general admission seats can expect a long, snaking line of overnighters outside the gates waiting to sprint to and claim their favorite position. The infield insanity is like a 12-hour rock concert.

Benches in the paddock area are available, but limited and at a premium (bring a blanket and friends to hold them throughout the day). Those with reserved seats and parking credentials can avoid some of the traffic by arriving late, but you'll have to miss a few of the opening races to do so.

Fashion: Hats, hats, hats – fancy hats, silly hats, "what the heck is THAT???" hats. Remaining on-track fashion ranges anywhere from designer suits to halter tops to Spider Man costumes – yes, last year Spidey was spotted in the infield. If in the infield or milling about general admission on the bricks, dress thinking "the more casual, the better."

Anyone with a ticket for a seat would be advised to dress with some flair or be left feeling out of place.

Drink: For nearly a century, the mint julep has been the traditional beverage of Churchill Downs and the Kentucky Derby. Fill a chilled julep cup with finely crushed ice; pour in half a tablespoon of mint-flavored syrup and 2 ounces of Early Times Kentucky Whiskey.

Traditions: When the horses come on the track, the University of Louisville band pounds out "My Old Kentucky Home," a sappy, sweet song that begs for tears and, at the minimum, stirs emotions of anticipation. The words are printed in the track program, so do yourself a favor and sing along – no matter how cheesy it sounds.

The crowd roars when the horses are announced at the starting gate and when they break from the gate to start the Run for the Roses. The floral arrangement for the Kentucky Derby winner has been called a wreath, a blanket, and a garland since the first presentation in the 1890s. It uses 500 of the darkest red roses and greenery stitched on a cloth-backed blanket.

Don't forget to get a Derby Glass (yes, still made of real glass and available on-site and at nearly any souvenir shop/store in town). The glasses come with mint juleps, but the non-drinking crowd can pick them up as well.

Also be on celebrity watch – from musicians to movie stars to pro athletes to former Presidents.

Other Events: Kentucky Oaks Day on Friday – the "fillies Derby" draws 100,000-plus fans, many of whom are locals who frequent this event to avoid the tourists on Saturday. A week-long calendar of social events comprises the annual Kentucky Derby Festival, including parades and bed – yes, bed – races.

Parking/Hotels: Good luck parking, as the track has no on-site parking for non-VIPs. Locals are infamous for price-gouging to park in their front yards along the perimeter of the Downs, anywhere from $10 to $100. Riding the shuttle bus from nearby Papa John's Cardinal Stadium is the best bet. It's also within walking distance if you don't mind about a half-mile hike.

Louisville (and Lexington) hotels must be booked several months in advance, and expect to pay a steep price. Those driving from out of town are best advised to book something in or between cities like Cincinnati, Indianapolis or Nashville. If you do land a Louisville hotel, the bonus is that many offer shuttle service to and from the Downs on Derby Day.

Other Attractions: Kentucky Derby Museum (closed Oaks, Derby Day) located adjacent to Churchill Downs; the world-famous Louisville Slugger Museum anchors downtown sporting attractions along with the fall 2005 opening of the Muhammad Ali Center, a multimedia museum and tribute to the "Louisville Lip."

Nightlife Areas: Fourth Street Live, a downtown entertainment district with more than a dozen clubs and restaurants featuring live entertainment; also Bardstown Road district east of downtown renowned for clubs, restaurants.

Restaurants: The Bristol (1321 Bardstown Road), there are four locations in the local area, but the original remains a landmark. Vicenzo's (corner 5th Street and Market) serves upscale Italian and has an extensive wine list. A couple of favorites among the Derby trainers and locals for top-notch beef are John E.'s (3708 Bardstown Road) and Pat's Steak House (2437 Brownsboro Road) – bring cash only to Pat's! Also, the Cardinal Hall of Fame Café (2745 Crittenden Drive) is a salute to U of L athletics.

Cheap Eats: Mark's Feed Store (1514 Bardstown Road) for affordable, casual barbecue and Kentucky's legendary burgoo.

Jeremy Plonk is the editor of Horseplayer Magazine and contributes regularly to ESPN.com

This is a reprise of an article that originally appeared in 2006.

In addition to being a longtime contributing writer to ESPN.com's Horse Racing section, Jeremy Plonk is the editor of The HorsePlayer Magazine.

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