Column: Derby beginner? This primer will make you a winner

By Janet Patton - Lexington Herald-Leader

LEXINGTON, Ky. (McClatchy) — Is the Kentucky Derby on your bucket list? Some people go every year but for many the Run for the Roses is a once-in-a-lifetime event.

If this is your year to make the trip to Churchill Downs, there are few things to know and prepare for. You have just over a week.


Question: How can I get tickets?

Answer: Tickets for seats, suites and reserved dining often sell out in advance, but sometimes there are still a few left on However, Churchill Downs, through Ticketmaster, does operate a ticket exchange site. Prices of those available ranged from the mid-$400s each to about $2,400 each and tickets go fast. (Other resale sites may have tickets, but they are often at prices far above retail and you have no guarantee the tickets are legit.)

The other option is general admission to the infield or paddock area, which means no seat, no track view and no food included, but it’s only $75 in advance or $80 at the gate on Derby day.

Q: If I go general admission, what can I bring?

A: Depends on what you want to carry. Small cameras, binoculars, sunscreen, cell phones, and folding chairs are important. A hat’s a good idea, as are extra diapers and a stroller if you’re bringing a small child. (But really, why are you bringing a baby or small child to the Derby? My advice: Hire a babysitter and you and the child both will enjoy the day more.)

Keep in mind once you’re in, you’re in. Churchill won’t allow you to leave and come back in.

If it’s been raining, then you might also want to bring a tarp for the ground if you’re planning on sitting on a blanket and a small packable poncho, if rain is forecast for Derby Day, because you can’t bring an umbrella.

You can bring in food, but it has to be in a clear plastic bag (only two bags allowed.) Box lunches are ok, as long as they are in clear plastic containers. Sealed water and soft drinks in plastic bottles are allowed; alcoholic beverages definitely are not.

Q: So, no booze. What else can I NOT bring?

A: Many things, including useful ones like umbrellas. And Churchill updates the list periodically; recent additions include selfie sticks, drones and hoverboards.

Other banned items include coolers (but you can buy them, along with ice, in the infield); cans, glass bottles and other containers; pop-up tents (that’s right, no tents); laptops and camcorders; big cameras with detachable lenses; tripods; big purses (more than 12 inches in any dimension); grills; thermoses; backpacks; luggage; duffel bags; wagons; balloons; fireworks; animals except for service animals for guests with disabilities; weapons including knives; and illegal substances.

Q: Where do I park?

A: Probably not at Churchill Downs. Churchill has a new parking plan in place for 2018. If you don’t have reserved parking, you can park at Papa John’s Stadium for $20 and walk to the track and back.

The track released a video and maps explaining the changes, which also include new names for the major entry points into the track. For instance, Gate 10 is now the Clubhouse Gate; there’s also the Infield Gate and the Paddock Gate, designed to keep fans moving in the right direction without crossing the streams of foot traffic.

Or park in the neighborhoods around Churchill Downs, probably for about the same price, and walk. Spots on yards fill up fast and sometimes are booked in advance. Gates to the track open at 8 a.m.

If you have a reserved seat at the track, your ticket comes with reserved parking at the Kentucky Exposition Center, which is where the state fair is each year. You can park there and take a shuttle to the track. The new plan is supposed to make shuttling easier and faster. In 2018, only those who have reserved parking will be able to park at the expo center this year.

And the only people who get to park at the Downs on Derby day are owners, trainers, horsemen and officials, along with limos and buses.

Q: What should I wear?

A: You might experience anything from a summer thunderstorm to snow at the Derby. Sometimes all in one day. So it’s hard to stay weather-appropriate.

You’ll definitely want a hat, even if it’s only a ballcap because if it’s sunny, you’ll need shade and if it’s raining you’ll want shelter.

And comfortable shoes. Seriously. Looking at you, lady with the sky-high heels. Trust me, you’ll regret those, even if you’re arriving in a limo; Churchill is just that big. No flipflops, either though, unless you want blisters.

If you’re lucky enough to be sitting in the stands or suites, pull out all the stops and go dressy. For Derby, this often means flamboyant. Like, men-in-pink-silk-suits-and-matching-ties flamboyant. Women in two-foot hats with matching dresses do not look out of place at the Kentucky Derby.

In the infield, clothing can get a little more … optional. Keep it comfortable but still have some fun. And remember the sunscreen and the poncho.

Q: How can I see the horses?

A: Look up at the giant screen, which is the only way to see the race if you’re in the infield and is probably still your best view even if you’re in the stands. Otherwise, you might see the horses walk from the stables along the track to the tunnel to the paddock before the race, and then back again afterward.

One tip: If you’re coming a few days early or don’t have to leave the next day, come to the Downs in the morning. You can see horses, including Derby horses, working out on the track in the early mornings. And on the day after the Derby, the winner usually is shown off at a press conference in the barn area, where you might see the new celebrity munching grass or having a bath.

Q: Speaking of celebrities, how can I see them?

A: They’ll walk the Derby Red Carpet, which begins at the VIP Gate on Thornberry Avenue this year, where fans can see them arrive, wave and pose for photos before heading inside to suites and areas like Millionaires Row and Skye Terrace, or even The Mansion, Churchill’s ultra posh private seating area.

Sometimes, celebrities go into the paddock before races so if you’ve decided to set up around there you might get lucky.

Q: What about betting? How do I do that?

A: Betting is easy. It’s winning that’s hard. The simplest bet is a $2 bet to win. Or you can hedge and make it $2 “across the board” to cover win, place and show (so, a $6 bet in total.)

If you want to win big money, you’ll have to either pick a longshot or try your hand at an “exotic” bet such as a exacta, where you pick the first- and second-place finishers, in that order. Again, you can hedge by “boxing” the exacta to give you either horse in first place. But that’s twice the money. A trifecta is a betting on the first three finishers in order.

The longer the odds, the more you might win.

Q: Bottom line, what are the must-dos of Derby Day?

A: Drink a mint julep, sing the song and place a bet on a horse in the race.

Mint juleps are available all over the track from vendors who are selling a pre-made version using Old Forester. They come in commemorative glasses (which you can also get online and in Kroger stores) and are about $12. The only “real” mint juleps made on site are the $1,000 ones that Woodford Reserve sells every year to raise money for charity and there are only 100 or so of those.

“My Old Kentucky Home,” by Stephen Foster, is the song everybody sings as the horses are walking down to the post. And when 165,000 people come together on “weep no more, my lady” it’s surprisingly moving. The lyrics will be on the Tote board screen, so you don’t have to learn it to sing along.

You don’t have to bet on a horse, but it sure makes it a lot more fun to have one to root for.


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By Janet Patton

Lexington Herald-Leader