Everything you need to know for the Kentucky Derby and Kentucky Oaks – Churchill Downs

Going to the Kentucky Derby is frequently on people’s bucket lists. If it’s not on yours, add it now! We recently traveled to the Bluegrass State for the big event. It was my fifth Derby, but for my husband and our friends, it was their first time! In full disclosure, it has been 10 years since my last Derby and even then, I had only ever been to the infield. Needless to say, I was thrilled that for the first time since my last Derby appearance, my work/life schedule allowed for me to attend! We decided that we had to have the full experience and got tickets in the stands. It was one of the best weekends that I’ve ever had, filled with fun and a festive atmosphere. I loved seeing the beautiful racehorses and seeing all of the people dressed up in their interesting hats and Sunday best for the big day. So without further ado, I’m bringing you a FAQ post on everything you need to know to prepare for and go to the Kentucky Derby! If you haven’t been already, I hope that you can put it on your calendar soon!

One of the best weekends ever at the Kentucky Derby!
One of the best weekends ever at the Kentucky Derby!
I've got my Derby essentials: a mint julep and a betting ticket!
I’ve got my Derby essentials: a mint julep and a betting ticket!

And we’re off!

  • When did you book a hotel? Hotels for the Kentucky Derby book up almost immediately, so it is essential that you plan ahead. We actually booked our hotel the day after the 2015 Kentucky Derby. We found a hotel near the airport (about 6 miles from Churchill Downs) that had forgotten to change their rates and paid only around $80 a night. However, most hotels, even typically low-budget hotels, start around $300 per night for the Derby weekend. We saw that ours was listed at $359 for the 2017 Kentucky Derby. In short, get your hotel booked first before you do anything else!
  • Was it hard to book flights? Flights into Louisville were more expensive than usual, obviously because of the Kentucky Derby. We decided to fly into Nashville and spend a few days there before and after the trip. Nashville is only 2.5 hours away from Louisville and is an easy drive. Plus, we got to hang out in Nashville (which you can read about here)!
  • When did you buy tickets? We purchased tickets in November through Churchill Downs and Ticketmaster. You can sign up at the Churchill Downs website to be notified when tickets are available. Churchill Downs does an awesome job of regularly sending information and updates so you’ll know exactly the time and date they will be available for sale. If you purchase tickets this way, know that they go fast. Alex and I were simultaneously logged into Ticketmaster the minute they were available. It appeared that everything was sold out, but we both kept refreshing the page and got tickets in section 123. The seats ended up being perfect: they were right at the starting gate and sometimes the finish, depending on the race. We received our tickets by mail about 3 weeks before the Derby.

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  • How much were the tickets? Our tickets were $387.50 each (including taxes and fees). This was the least expensive option available in the stands, but was a fantastic location for seeing the horses up close. Tickets can cost up to a few thousand dollars depending on which section you are in and whether it includes food and drink service. You can see the seat map here.
  • What did that include? Our tickets included tickets to the Kentucky Derby (on Saturday), Kentucky Oaks (on Friday), and Thurby (on Thursday and includes live music and bourbon). We did not use the Thurby tickets because we were in Nashville on Thursday, but we heard it was a fun time from people we met! I would definitely attend in the future.
Our group before the Kentucky Oaks
Our group before the Kentucky Oaks
The group before the Kentucky Derby
The group before the Kentucky Derby
  • Do I have to purchase tickets through TicketmasterNo. You can purchase tickets through third-party sellers like StubHub and can even purchase from scalpers outside of the event on that day. However, your tickets will most likely not include tickets to all three events and prices are unpredictable. Prices fluctuate up until the event depending on everything from the field of horses to the weather. We opted to purchase them through Churchill Downs to have some assurance and to be able to plan a bit better.
Alex and I before Kentucky Oaks
Alex and I before Kentucky Oaks
Alex and I before Kentucky Derby
Alex and I before Kentucky Derby
  • What happens if I forget my tickets? This actually happened to our friends. They realized that they had left their tickets at home after they were at the airport. They were able to go to the ticket office on Oaks day and get new ones printed without much trouble. While I do recommend bringing your tickets, don’t completely panic if you left them behind. If you’re in this situation, I would advise getting to Churchill Downs early to take care of it.
  • Where did you sit? As I described, our seats were in section 123 in the 1st Floor Grandstands. The seats are on bleachers and had a great view of the starting gate and finishes. They were very easily accessible from the entry and were conveniently located near bathrooms, concessions, and betting windows.
View from the 1st Floor Grandstands
View from the 1st Floor Grandstands
In our seats in the 1st Floor Grandstands
In our seats in the 1st Floor Grandstands

However, we didn’t sit in them all day. When we were walking around at the Kentucky Oaks, we accidentally walked into the Grandstand Terrace. We later realized that we did not have the proper wristbands, but no one ever questioned us. The Grandstand Terrace included wine, beer, and a buffet. The open table seating was covered and the ticketed seats were in bucket seats. We met a ton of people in the Grandstand Terrace and had a great time! The view from the Grandstand Terrace allows you to see more of the race as it is high enough to see more of the other side of the track.

View from the Grandstand Terrace
View from the Grandstand Terrace
Alex and I in the Grandstand Terrace at the Kentucky Oaks
Alex and I in the Grandstand Terrace at the Kentucky Oaks
With my friend Alison in the Grandstand Terrace
With my friend Alison in the Grandstand Terrace

On Derby Day, we tried to return to the Grandstand Terrace, but security was stricter than at Oaks. We were able to get into Wicker Garden, which had a full bar (including mint juleps!) and buffet. As mint juleps cost $13 each, it was really nice to save a bit of cash there! We did go down to our actual seats periodically, especially to watch many of the races.

Alex and I in Wicker Garden
Alex and I in Wicker Garden
With our friends Sean and Brooke in Wicker Garden
With our friends Sean and Brooke in Wicker Garden
  • How did you decide on your Derby outfit? Some women swear by picking the dress first and having their hat custom-made to match the dress. However, I knew that if I found a hat I loved, I would be able to find a great dress to go with it. I found a mint green hat at Sequoia Springs at a horse-jumping show. I immediately knew it was the hat as I’d never seen one in that color. I wanted to add more feathers and flowers so the shop owner worked with me to come up with a custom design that I was happy with and then shipped it to me.

Once I had the hat worked out, I looked for a dress at Rent the Runway (which I have been using for special events since 2011) and found a beautiful coral dress to wear for the Derby. For my Oaks outfit, I brought a hat and dress that I already owned. Since it is traditional to wear pink to the Kentucky Oaks in honor of the Oaks official flower, the stargazer lily, and in support of Churchill Downs’ partnerships with the Bright Pink and Horses & Hope charities, I picked a pink maxi dress that I could wear with flats so that I would be more comfortable on our first day (I had to save my feet for the Derby!).

In our Derby outfits at the hotel
In our Derby outfits at the hotel
  • How did you travel with your hat? This is a great question. I decided that carrying on my hat would be easiest and would best protect it. I had a hat box from the hat I wore on Oaks Day (which I purchased from Dillard’s a few years ago). I placed both hats in the box and put crumpled tissue paper in and around the hat to protect it. It looked a bit funny in the airport and several people asked me about what I was carrying, but I had no problem with security or fitting the box in the overhead compartment. Alternatively, you can safely pack your hat in your checked bag by packing your clothes in and around it, but I worried that my flowers and feathers would get smashed.
  • How did you travel from the hotel to the Derby and back? We used private transportation services that were offered through our hotel on the way to the Derby. Many locals make a good deal of money by providing private transfers on Derby Day. We paid about $30 for the 4 of us for a one-way ride in a comfortable van. For our return, we walked away from Churchill Downs for several blocks and were able to find taxis for the ride back for a slightly higher price. Uber had high surge fares every time we checked during the weekend, so we did not use it.
  • What did you do about food? Fortunately, since we had access to the Grandstand Terrace and Wicker Garden, we had food for the day covered. If we had stayed in our 1st Floor Grandstands seats, we would have purchased food from one of the various concessions stands throughout Churchill Downs.
  • What did you bring with you to Churchill Downs? I don’t like carrying a big purse, especially not for an all-day event, so I brought a small clutch to fit our tickets and my phone, ID, credit cards, cash, and lipstick. I also brought a plastic bag to carry a pair of flat sandals (which I didn’t end up changing into until we got to an after party) and to hold my commemorative Derby glasses which you receive when you purchase a mint julep. I didn’t think ahead, but next time, I would have packed a more structured bag, or at least a sturdier canvas bag, to carry my extra shoes or anything else that I purchased.
  • How much are Infield tickets? Which experience did you prefer? Infield tickets are only $40 on the day of the Derby and are $30 or $35 in advance. However, I highly recommend spending the extra money to sit in the stands. While I had a blast in the infield during college, the stands experience is far superior! You can actually see all the races from the stands, whereas you can’t see much in the infield besides what is shown on the screen or a brief flash of the horses running by. Also, people don’t get as dressed up in the infield so it doesn’t feel quite as festive. I definitely think the true Derby experience is in the stands!
Also, you are more likely to see celebrities in the stands. Here I am with Kiel James Patrick
Also, you are more likely to see celebrities in the stands. Here I am with Kiel James Patrick
  • Any other helpful tips? Download the Churchill Downs app. The app is fantastic! It features a full map of Churchill Downs and allows you to pin your car, order food to your seat (depending on your seating area), place bets from your phone, and view videos and content about the horses.
Going to collect my cash after placing a successful bet
Going to collect my cash after placing a successful bet
The Paddock
The Paddock
Checking out some of the horses at the Paddock
Checking out some of the horses at the Paddock
  • What else did you do while in Louisville? On Friday night after the Oaks, we went out to Bardstown Road, a fun and popular area of bars and restaurants. We had a great dinner at The Joy Luck which featured delicious Asian Fusion. After, we walked to El Camino, a Mexican restaurant with tiki cocktails, for drinks. Both places had a great crowd, but weren’t overly packed.
The Joy Luck
The Joy Luck

I hope these tips are helpful and that you get a chance to go to the Kentucky Derby in the future. Please comment and let me know: Have you been to the Kentucky Derby? Do you have any tips to add? Thanks for reading! I’ll see you next week with some tips on what to do with 48 hours in Paris.  

 

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4 comments

    • No problem!! I’m so glad that it was helpful for you. Are you going to the Derby this year? I am hoping to go again next year!

      • Hey Brian – thanks for reading. Depending on what row you’re in, your seats should be covered. The lower rows are uncovered (I’m not sure how many – sorry!) and higher up are covered. I believe the access to the grandstand terrace, which was on the 3rd level, would be part of a separate ticket.

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