I grew up just a few miles from Churchill Downs, but I did not go to the races for the first time until 2007, to Oaks for the first time until 2011, and to the Kentucky Derby for the first time until 2012. Well, I quickly regretted all of that wasted time and have only missed going to the track during Derby weekend once since then.
I’ve had seats, I’ve done the infield and the paddock, and I’ve even been in the Stakes Room… with a brief appearance to Millionaires Row on Derby Day!! That was literally bucket list material, and I might have tears in my eyes just thinking about it.
That being said, leading up to Derby, I have seen a lot of lists of what to bring, what to do, where to park, etc. So, I decided I wanted to join in with a few tips of my own.
1) Pack your purse accordingly. Check out the Kentucky Derby security information for rules and regulations on what you can and can’t bring. Then, find the right purse or wristlet. I STRONGLY recommend a crossbody bag (which I go into more on #2); you want your hands to be free. Sunglasses (regardless), a little extra sunscreen (if it’s sunny), a poncho (if there’s at all a chance of rain—YOU DON’T WANT TO RUIN THAT HEAD ATTIRE), band aids (a lady thought I was a mom one year when I offered her one! Nah, I’m just a planner!), extra bobby pins and hair ties, hand sanitizer, and portable phone chargers would be some of my top suggestions of things to bring. If you have room or want to bring a clear plastic bag, I also highly recommend a sealed water bottle (because who wants to pay for that at the track) and a sandwich. (I don’t mind spending a little bit on food there, but a sandwich will help hold you over.)
2) Don’t forget about the things you will accumulate. A program, drinks, drinkware, food, and who knows what else will quickly fill your hands at the track on Derby (or Oaks/Thurby/etc.). That’s why it’s so important to have a bag that is hands free. Pro tip: I strongly suggest folding up a few plastic grocery bags (or Kroger bags as I affectionately call them) if you plan on leaving with some mint julep or lily glasses. You can stick them in there (or wrap them up with the bags) when it comes time to leave the track!
3) Comfort over everything. The majority of my Oaks and Derby experiences have involved long walks to and/or from transportation and lots of standing in the paddock. Even if you have a seat somewhere and valet parking, you are going to be walking a lot. Plan your shoes and attire accordingly. I promise you will not regret choosing comfort.
4) Make a plan. Churchill downs can be crazy. Plan ahead for your transportation: have a DD, Uber/Lyft, taxi, shuttle, or anything else. There are too many people out, and we just dont’t need anyone making stupid decisions. I also suggest having a meeting spot and clear plans with friends in case you somehow get separated. Also, this is why I suggested a portable charger earlier; phones can be crazy with that many people around, and if you’re taking pictures, they’re going to die more quickly. Keep your battery for when you need it. Another part of my plan is to make bets in advance online in the morning to avoid needing to do it at the track. Also, DON’T DRINK AND DRIVE.
5) Have a little patience, and enjoy it. The entire Kentucky Derby Festival, all the way through Derby Day, can be downright crazy around Louisville. However, it is also so much fun, and if you’re a Louisvillian, it’s a great time to show off our city and hospitality. You should expect lines—especially for the restrooms—so head there before you really NEED to go (that also goes back to planning). Welcome out-of-towners to town. Take a moment to soak it all in. It really is the Greatest Two Minutes in Sports—for so much more than that!
6) If someone asks you to take their picture, make sure to include their hat/fascinator. And if the Twin Spires are behind them, make sure you get those in the picture, too!
There is so much more I could say, but this encapsulates some biggies for me! I personally will be heading to Oaks this year and spending Derby at a party. Let’s all cross our fingers for the rain to stay away, and cheers!