The Essential Kentucky Derby

By: Mark Shallcross

March 11, 2014

It only lasts two minutes, but for most people, it’s an experience that’s likely never to be forgotten. At 6:24 p.m. on Saturday 3rd May, as the horses break from the starting gate at Churchill Downs racetrack in Louisville, Kentucky, a roar will wash over the crowd of more than 160,000, signalling the start of the 140th running of the Kentucky Derby. When the dust clears at the finish line, some lucky spectators will scream in celebration, knowing they have in their possession a winning ticket on the world’s most famous horse race. For those whose wagers finished out of the money, the disappointment won’t be too great – they’ve just witnessed one of the best spectacles in sports.


Derby Field | The Essential Kentucky Derby

Nothing can beat the exhilaration of the Kentucky Derby © Louisville Convention & Visitors Bureau/Dan Dry


Why do so many people from all over the world travel to Louisville annually for an event that usually runs for just over 120 seconds? As virtually every first-time Derby attendee will attest, it’s the opportunity to be part of a whirlwind of festivities, debauchery and celebrity sightings that culminate in the longest consecutively held sporting event in the United States.


Historical Derby | The Essential Kentucky Derby

The Kentucky Derby is the longest consecutively held sporting event in the United States © Louisville Convention & Visitors Bureau/Dan Dry


For visitors travelling to Louisville for the Derby, planning in advance is essential. Flights into Louisville fill up quickly, as do hotel rooms and restaurant reservations around the area. If you make the commitment to do the Derby, concentrate on securing transportation and lodging as soon as possible.


After arriving at Louisville International Airport, a taxi ride into the downtown area – where the vast majority of hotels are located – typically takes less than 10 minutes. Most hotels require a minimum number of nights over Derby weekend, with room rates considerably higher than at other times of the year. If downtown lodging is out of your price range, there are other reasonable options if you’re willing to rent a vehicle and stay outside the city. Three major interstates intersect Louisville, so it’s easy to get into town from surrounding regions, including southern Indiana.


Spectator | The Essential Kentucky Derby

Don’t forget to wear your hat to the races © Louisville Convention & Visitors Bureau/Dan Dry


Once you’ve arranged a flight and a place to stay, it’s time to focus on where you’ll watch the races on Derby Day. Viewing venues vary wildly at Churchill Downs and tickets can be hard to come by. The sooner you can obtain seating (or standing room only), the better. Churchill Downs recently added a spectator section behind the rail in the first turn of the track. Two-day ticket first-turn packages (Derby and Kentucky Oaks Day on Friday 2nd May) range from $689 to $799 and include food and alcoholic beverages. Standing-room-only tickets cost $50 and allow access to the paddock and infield areas.


Mint Julep | The Essential Kentucky Derby

Half the fun at the Kentucky Derby is the food and drink © Louisville Convention & Visitors Bureau/Dan Dry


Now that you’ve lined up a room and a ticket to the track, there are other important considerations to ponder. You’ve got to eat, after all.


Louisville is fortunate to field a wide variety of outstanding culinary establishments, ranging from upscale steak houses to locally-owned fine dining bistros to family-run neighbourhood eateries. It seems as if nobody eats at home during Derby Week, so it’s imperative to make a reservation as far in advance as possible if you have a particular place in mind. The three main “Restaurant Row” destinations in town are Bardstown Road in the Highlands neighbourhood; the NuLu district on East Market Street in downtown; and along Frankfort Avenue in the Crescent Hill neighbourhood.


Thunder Over Louisville | The Essential Kentucky Derby

Thunder Over Louisville is the largest annual fireworks show in North America © Kentucky Derby Festival


If you’re lucky enough to carve out more than a couple of days for your visit to Derby City, there’ll be no lack of things to do. The Kentucky Derby Festival provides a jam-packed array of special events leading up to the horse race, highlighted by Thunder Over Louisville on 12th April, the largest annual fireworks show in North America and an air show featuring the Blue Angels aerial performance team. The Derby Festival hits high gear during Derby Week, with the Great Steamboat Race on the Ohio River, a series of national concerts on the downtown waterfront and the Pegasus Parade wrapping it all up.


Great Steamboat Race | The Essential Kentucky Derby

The Great Steamboat Race is one of many annual events that takes place during the festival © Kentucky Derby Festival


During Derby Week, Louisville simply crackles with electricity as the city prepares for one of the grandest traditions in America.


Some things in life are over-hyped and overrated. The Kentucky Derby is not one of them – ask anyone who’s been.


The Winners Circle 2007 | The Essential Kentucky Derby

Street Sense in the Winners Circle 2007 © Churchill Downs/Reed Palmer Photography


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Have you been to the Kentucky Derby? What did you make of it? Share your thoughts with us in the comments below.

Written by Mark Shallcross


Mark Shallcross

Mark V. Shallcross is a free-lance writer living in Louisville, Kentucky. A graduate of the University of Louisville, Mark is a tenth-generation Kentuckian who has worked as a reporter for The Courier-Journal, Voice-Tribune and Jeffersonville (Indiana) Evening News newspapers. He worked most recently as a communications manager, copywriter and media liaison for the Kentucky Derby Festival. He enjoys travel, reading and competitive running.

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