Kentucky Derby Tips for First Timers

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The hats. The dresses. The horses. The roses. This what comes to mind when you think of the Kentucky Derby. But how do you prepare for actually attending the Derby? How do you know what to wear, bring, or expect? Step One – ask a veteran! This year I had the privilege of attending the 145th Kentucky Derby and, while I won’t proclaim expert status, I learned a lot in my first year’s attendance and am happy to share a few tips for first-timers.

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Tip 1: Choose Your Tickets Wisely

Your ticket dramatically dictates the type of experience you will have. The amount of money you drop on a ticket will determine what you should wear, what you should bring with you, and what you can expect. For example, a $75 general admission ticket, designed with the budget-conscious attendees in mind, grants you access to the paddock area and in-field. If you haven’t been to the Derby, you’re probably thinking, “Yeah, that sounds great”, but it may not be the right option for you.

The paddock and in-field of Churchill Downs are open to all Derby-goers and are where you’ll find plenty of opportunity for great people watching. However, budget-conscious buyer beware: there are no seats in either area and you have zero protection from the elements. For a seat and protection from weather, you’ll need to purchase a higher priced ticket to the Derby.

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Tip 2: Plan Your Outfit Accordingly

“You’re going to the Derby? That’s so cool! What are you going to wear?” This can be a stressful question for a first-timer; it was for me! After doing some research online, I narrowed in on a hot pink dress from Rent the Runway. I knew it would be perfect but, after checking out the weather forecast, I began to worry. This is where the ticket options really come into play.

If you’re rocking a general admission ticket, I would not recommend wearing anything you wouldn’t want to get dirty. Given that a general admission ticket grants you access to the in-field, you’re exposed to all the elements as well as the dirt, mud, grass, and gravel of the in-field itself. As it typically rains at some point during the Derby each year, I would not have been comfortable staying in the in-field while wearing my rental. The in-field is where you’ll see attire of all kinds including t-shirts, shorts and jeans. But what about all those fancy pictures of well-dressed people in their massive hats and beautiful fascinators? Yeah, those people do not have a general admission ticket. Nevertheless, if you purchase a general admission ticket, do yourself a favor and wear something you’re okay with possibly being a little roughed up by the end of it.

For those willing to spend a bit more money on a ticket, plan to spend a bit more money on your attire as well. Hats or fascinators are the best accessories for women along with comfortable shoes (or a second pair!) and a classy dress. For the men, slacks, button down shirts, bow ties, and blazers are the typical style. Fashionable and comfortable is key!

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Tip 3: Know What You Can and Cannot Bring

Churchill Downs offers strict guidelines as to what’s allowed and what’s prohibited at the Derby. Ladies, plan for a purse no larger than 12” in any direction. Period. Here’s what I shoved in mine: travel-sized sunscreen, cash, credit cards, ID, chap stick, a poncho, Band-Aids, a portable phone charger, and my cell phone.

The 12” purse rule can be tough but, on the flip side, you are allowed to bring in a clear plastic bag of food. I saw several attendees opting to pack their lunch (or order from a local restaurant) instead of buying food on site. Attendees can also bring unopened water bottles as well. Unfortunately, no alcoholic beverages are (legally) allowed. Instead, plan to throw down $12-15 a drink inside the gates instead. Commemorative cups, anyone?

For those heading to the in-field, plan to bring a blanket and/or chairs. Trust me, with no other seating options beyond the grass or concrete itself, you’ll want to bring these along. Check the Kentucky Derby’s website for an updated list of prohibited items prior to the big day.

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Other Important Need-to-Knows

It’s a marathon, not a sprint. Derby day is a long day. Arriving early is smart to avoid the crowds but will also mean that you’re spending more time on site. We arrived at 10am and left closer to 9pm to avoid the crowds. Plan to be there a while by wearing (or packing) comfortable shoes and slow rolling your alcohol consumption. For those enjoying the suite life, be especially careful. Those free drinks can creep up on you fast!

Do some horse-betting research ahead of time. Planning to make some bets? There are a lot of options for how to bet that are worth researching before you go. You can always bet on the horse you think will win but sometimes choosing more options will increase your chances of winning. There are booths, staffed windows, and an app available for you to place your bets; the first two require cash so plan ahead.

You’re going to have a great time. Rain or shine. Hot or cold. General admission or box seats. Regardless of the situation you’re in, attending the Kentucky Derby is a memorable experience. Make the most of your day by checking out all there is to see and do around the grounds and remember what made you excited to attend in the first place.

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Here’s to another tick off the bucket list! Happy Derby Day, friends!

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