Unpack your bowties and hats: You’re headed to Louisville, home of Churchill Downs. Some know it by its signature spires; others by its signature event, the Kentucky Derby, held annually the first Saturday in May. Let these tips guide your visit:
• To experience Derby, reserve hotel accommodations in advance for the best selection. For reserved race seating, you’ll need to reserve early, too: Consider Millionaires Row or Skye Terrace, both with buffets, bars and balconies overlooking the track. For general admission, buy tickets on Derby Day, and spread a blanket on the infield. Arrive early and don’t be surprised if you can’t see the track; it’s about the crowd energy here, and a mega video screen projects the race.
• In reserved seats, dress accordingly: Hats and spring dresses, skirts or pants for women; suits for men. Casual attire, even jeans and shorts, works in the infield. In the offseason, the dress code relaxes, but I’d still dress nicely if you’re going to Millionaires Row. Always appropriate? A mint julep in hand.
• There’s much to do at Churchill Downs in the offseason. Year ’round, watch, and bet on, simulcast racing. April through June and Septemberthrough November host live racing, when you can usually score a seat on the finish line for a few dollars. Watch for periodic night races and Downs After Dark events, when live music adds to the scene and you won’t feel out of place wearing your Derby hat.
• Finally, don’t miss the Kentucky Derby Museum at Churchill Downs. The opening film, projected 360 degrees around you, gives a thunderous introduction to the race; traveling and permanent exhibits include an invitation for you to practice your jockey stance, and race, on a simulated horse. Add on the seasonal Barn and Backside Tour – go early-morning and you’re likely to see a horse in training.
Bonus: Find yourself in Louisville anytime in the three weeks prior to Derby Day, and you’ll get to experience the Kentucky Derby Festival. The festival’s Thunder Over Louisville is the largest fireworks display in North America, exploding over the Ohio River.