It happens every year, on the first Saturday of May: a stampede of strangely named, perfectly groomed and stunning colts galloping 1.25 miles to prove a preeminent status. While watching jockeys outfitted in flashy silks and whipping robust horses around a track for two minutes may be of little interest to many Americans, to locals, Derby is one of the most highly anticipated events of the year! (That, and the intense rivalry basketball game between University of Louisville (UofL) and University of Kentucky (UK), of course.)
Most know Derby for the affluent celebrity guests who sit in Millionaire’s Row: men dressed in stylish sports coats and colorful, patterned ties, binoculars in hand; and women adorned in vibrant, perfectly lined lipstick, large hats and high heels.
But, here—in the heart of Louavul, KY at Churchill Downs—the famed Derby is much more than the posh, cosmopolitan-like event featured in the media. (Note: Yes, “Lou-a-vul”, not “Louisville”. That’s the local way.)
It’s an entire weekend (and for some, weeklong) celebration, with a multitude of citywide festivities—from large parties hosting pig roasts and endless games of beer pong, to family-friendly parades, and steamboat races down the Ohio River. It’s a small gathering, in which Uncle Bob dances on a wonky garage table after consuming far too many Jell-O shots. It’s your freckle-faced five-year-old cousin placing a bet on a horse with bright pink silks and winning $300 from her middle-aged relatives. It’s a compilation of horse masks, potlucks, hair pins, fried chicken and preppy couples. It’s a time of merriment and celebration, loose betting and serious gambling, bourbon sipping and full-blown debauchery.
You see, Derby’s reputation is built solely around elegant fashionistas in embellished, oversized hats, and wealthy folk holding onto lavishly garnished cocktails, all of whom are perched above the race track, sitting comfortably with exquisite views. But, the true Derby takes place in the infield, where things are more like a college fraternity party than a glamorous sports event.
Even with Churchill Downs increased general admission price of $40, nothing can stop the masses. Here, in the infield is where the real action takes place. Among this huge crowd, one will find drunk hooligans betting small dollars on the winning horse, hooting and hollering at girls in tight fitting dresses—who may or may not be pulling each other’s hair, fighting over which horse has the prettiest name—playing miscellaneous games and wandering about with a strong (and expensive) drink in hand.
Here are some suggestions if you hope to enjoy the infield. (If you plan to reserve seats elsewhere, feel free to ignore the following.)
Tips for the Infield
Tip One: If you want to see the race, don’t come. Seriously. Well, at least not to the infield. If you’re in the center field and not seated high in the stands, chances that you’ll actually catch a glimpse of the race (unless on a Jumbotron) are slim. So if you want to see it, stick to your aunt Betty’s Derby party with her big screen TV or re-runs the next day.
Tip Two: As a heads up, if you don’t like alcohol, just stop reading and avoid the infield at all costs…
…If you continued reading, you’re ready for the infield. It’s Derby. You will be drunk. That said, drinks at Churchill Downs are pricey, and bartenders will oftentimes short-hand you on the liquor to mixer ratio. Flasks are encouraged, yet not exactly allowed. Be prepared to spend more money than anticipated on drinks and food. This brings me to tip three…
Tip Three: Bring food. Just as the drinks are pricey, so is the food. You’ll certainly have a heavy appetite while standing in a mosh pit of drunks in the sun. Packing snacks is always a good idea!
Tip Four: You’re going to be outside all day, dehydrated (and most likely, drunk). And it’s nearly summertime in the Bluegrass State. Meaning, it’s hot. Lather on some SPF 30 before you leave the house, and if you remember to add more throughout the day, do so every few hours. You’ll be glad you did. Otherwise, be prepared to wake up Sunday morning looking like a maraschino cherry atop a Whiskey Sour.
Tip Five: Pick your horses the night before. The first thing you’ll want to do upon arrival in the infield is head to the gambling line and place your bets. Make sure you file your tickets safely away in your wallet for later reference.
Tip Six: Ladies, ditch the heels. The young women in the stands have bleacher seats. You don’t. So unless you want to sit down on the grass and get trampled on by parading sorority chicks, you’ll be on your toes all day. Trust me, your feet will be cursing you come Sunday morning. Or better yet, you’ll be cursing yourself for drunkenly abandoning the pumps midday, losing them, and walking around barefoot in beer mud for the remainder of the afternoon.
Tip Seven: Like I said before, it’s “Lou-a-vul”. Not “Lou-is-ville”. If you want to fit in, proudly use your best country accent and pronounce it like the locals do.
And now for the Derby essentials…
Bow Tie: It doesn’t matter if you’re a prep or not. It’s basically required that every male at Derby wear a bow tie.
Hat: I’ve mentioned the hat multiple times, and you probably know why. You’ve seen the photos. Women with massive, tackily decorated hats adorned with sequins, bows and embroidery. It’s a necessity.
Cash: Oh, you’re not a gambling man? Too bad. You’re at Derby. Therefore, you’re placing a bet. Even just one, tiny $2 wager.
Brown Hotel’s Haute Brown: The historic Brown Hotel has been a Derby hotspot since its inception in 1923. Home of the original Hot Brown sandwich—arguably Kentucky’s most famous snack, which originated in 1926—the Brown Hotel serves a delicious gourmet version of this local staple, for a whopping $90 from April 15 to May 15! Traditionally made with Texas toast, roasted turkey, Mornay sauce, tomatoes, bacon and parsley, Executive Chef Josh Bettis transforms this simple sandwich into a divine meal, with a turkey roulade, wrapped in thick-cut Kentucky bacon. The “haute” brown is then accented with a homemade confit, shaved cheeses, foie gras and brioche croutons; and lastly, wrapped with edible gold flakes, atop a white truffle-infused sauce. The Brown Hotel claims to sell about 1,000 of these dishes every Derby weekend alone. (They also serve a generic hot brown sandwich for much cheaper, year round and arguably just as delectable!) At the Brown—dubbed “Top 30 Hotels in the South” by Conde Nast Traveler—guests can also sample some of the most rare bourbons in a flight, and spend a night in the Brown’s Muhammad Ali suite.
Derby Pie and other local desserts: It’s simply not Derby without this overtly sweet dessert, only available from Kern’s Kitchen. Then again, you can certainly locate other delicious Southern treats, such as a slice of pecan pie from Homemade Ice Cream and Pie Kitchen. You can also check out Desserts by Helen, Sweet Surrender, or any other Louisville sweet spots. (There are a lot. We like our sugar.) Or make a visit to Louisville’s Comfy Cow—an ice cream shop with unique seasonal flavors, voted one of the best ice cream parlors in the world. Yes, I said world.
Mint Julep: Bourbon. Enough said. This Southern drink is comprised of bourbon, crushed ice, sugar, and fresh mint. Because bourbon is a Kentucky icon, mint juleps around these parts are the best of the best.
6:00 a.m. all week long: 6:00 a.m. is closing time for most Louisville bars during Derby week, meaning good tunes and bantering until the wee hours of the morning. Basically, it’s a never-ending party here in the Lou.
Oaks and Thurby Thursday: The day before Derby is Oaks—a race for the “fillies”, or female horses. And while it used to be a small Friday event, Oaks has recently blown up. Enjoy this locally adored race before even more tourists flood in and hell breaks loose the following day! And if you’re wanting to avoid the touristy crowds altogether and be a part of the truly local scene, purchase tickets for Louisville’s new Thurby Thursday tradition!
All in all, everyone should experience Derby at least once in their lifetime. With an estimated 16.2 million viewers on NBC last year, and a record of 170,513 attendants according to the Associated Press, Derby is perhaps more popular now than ever. Whether you’re in it for the Southern cocktails, rowdy infield, or sophisticated Millionaire’s Row, you’re certain to have an unforgettable time at this bucket-list-worthy affair! Come celebrate the amazing city of Louisville, KY with friends and family, and watch some of the strongest, most awe-inspiring creatures race their way to the roses.