Kentucky Derby Tips: The Ultimate First-Timer’s Derby Guide (by a local)

There is nothing as heart-poundingly exciting as watching your money sprint away from you down a track. Err, I mean a horse. That’s what I meant. Horse racing is SO thrilling, and cheering on your horse with a screaming crowd during the final stretch at the Kentucky Derby is incredibly exciting – even if you only bet $2!

So break out your biggest hat and your boldest suit, because the Kentucky Derby is the first Saturday in May.

But this is no simple horse race, y’all: the Kentucky Derby is the culmination of the world’s fastest horses paired with some of the world’s richest people in some of the most wonderfully ridiculous outfits you’ve ever seen. (We say that with deep affection: Derby fashion is possibly our favorite part of the entire event!)

With more than 150,000 people packing the stands each year, attending the Kentucky Derby means you’re guaranteed to see some questionable fashion choices, spot a few celebrities, drink a refreshing Mint Julep (or three), and watch very small jockeys in brightly colored silks ride sleek, shiny, fast horses in the “the most exciting two minutes in sports”. And, hopefully, have a blast!

But going to the Kentucky Derby for the first time can be super confusing. We know you have questions, such as just how big should my hat be (very big) and are there ways to save money at the Derby (yes)? In our ultimate Kentucky Derby guide for first-timers, you’ll find everything you need to know – and maybe a bit extra – about attending the “Run for the Roses!”

Planning a trip to Louisville, or just looking to get out and explore? Check out these other posts:

Horses crossing the finish line of the Kentucky Derby Louisville Kentucky
The most exciting two minutes in sports!

What is the History of the Kentucky Derby?

The first Derby started in 1875, when a man named Meriwether Lewis Clark (grandson to one-half of the famed duo Lewis and Clark) built Churchill Downs after visiting England and developing a taste for highbrow, pinkies-out kind of hobbies. Naturally, it didn’t hurt his mother was from the Churchill family, one of the “first families” of Kentucky. 

Today, the Kentucky Derby hold the distinction of being the longest-running sporting event in the U.S., continuing despite the Great Depression and two World Wars (though it was, understandably, delayed by the pandemic). The Derby also has a higher attendance than the World Series or even the Super Bowl (though the Super Bowl has the most televised viewership… and an awesome halftime show, but whatever, we’re not jealous, we have fun hats). 

Besides the horse racing, the Derby is known for ultra-ridiculous fashion – think gaudy prints, bright colors, and hats that make you question what a hat really is (do lawn flamingos on your head constitute a hat?) – and the city-wide Kentucky Derby Festival.

For 6 weeks, the city becomes a celebration of all things Derby, with parades, steamboat races, and the world’s largest firework display. We’re serious about our Derby, ya’ll.

But before you don your fanciest hat and order a Mint Julep, we need to discuss something incredibly important: is horse racing ethical?

 
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Horses Grazing in a Field in Kentucky
In a perfect world, only horses in perfect health and at appropriate ages would be allowed to race. We’re hopeful that the stricter regulations recently put in place will move the horse racing industry in the right direction.

I don’t have a quick answer for that, though I do recommend reading this incredibly detailed article in the New Yorker which looks at this question from all angles. The easiest and quickest answer I can give you is that it depends – treatment of racehorses depends mostly on their owners, trainers and jockeys, and unfortunately, not all of the bigger players in horse racing are invested in their horses’ health and safety. We firmly believe the racing industry needs more regulations in place to keep horses safe.

And while horse racing has long been a tradition here in Kentucky, we are currently at a pivotal moment in the history of the sport. The horse racing industry is facing well-deserved criticism and pressure to improve their requirements, and in the last couple of years, several new regulations have gone into effect with the goal of protecting the horses. The biggest change is implementation of the Horse Racing Safety & Integrity Act – here is a helpful article which breaks it all down.

Horse injuries and deaths occur when horses are pushed beyond their physical limits, given drugs to enhance their performance, or a track is not properly maintained – none of that is ethical, and it’s not OK.

That said, the fact is that horses do love to run, and a well-loved horse creates an incredibly strong bond with its jockey and trainer – which is also good for racing performance. And when a horse is injured or dies, it is heartbreaking – for animal lovers in general, but especially for those closest to the horse: their jockeys, trainers, and in certain cases, owners.

In a perfect world, only horses in perfect health and at appropriate ages would be allowed to race, and we’re hopeful that the stricter regulations in place will move the horse racing industry in the right direction.

See also
11 Spectacular Christmas Events in Louisville
Horse on the Track at Churchill Downs in Louisville Kentucky

How Much are Tickets to the Kentucky Derby?

Derby tickets run the gamut as far as cost goes: from General Admission (aka the infield) which will run you around $65 if you get them early, to Millionaire’s Row which, you might have guessed by the name, can cost you up to $10,000.

The rule is, the sooner you get tickets the cheaper they will be. They generally go on sale around mid-November, so … get on that.

The inexpensive General Admission ticket grants you access to the general public spaces like the area by the Paddock (though you can’t go in the Paddock), where the jockeys get the horses ready and you will be able to see the rich and famous pep talk their horses… and lots of other plebs (it’s crowded!), and also the Infield, where no one but the GA ticket holders go.

General Admission aka The Infield

The infield, also known as the Derby Party, is just that – 80,000 people partying in the center of the race track, where debauchery rules. If it is raining, or has rained recently, you will be wading through mud/ watching people literally mud-wrestling. Luckily, you are allowed to bring a collapsible camping chair. I recommend this one, which has a canopy – essential on a sunny day, and might even be somewhat helpful in the rain, too!

The first time I went to Derby I was in the infield with one of my best friends. It was muddy, and the most memorable moment of our entire day was when a shirtless man ran across the top of the portapotties, jumped off like he was in an action movie, kicked my friend and left a comemorative muddy footprint on her yellow dress. Ahhh, memories. 

The infield is a par-tay, with high-energy drunk shenanigans. It’s a lot of fun, but you’re definitely going for the party more than the actual race: only the lucky people standing right by the rails will actually be able to see the track (which is not many). So during the actual races, the best you get will be hearing the announcer.

Not that the infield can’t be a great time, just be prepared for it to feel a bit like a Hieronymus Bosch painting, for better or worse. If you’re day drunk and covered in mud and/or sweat, that’s all part of the experience!

But if you actually wanted to keep your pink seersucker suit and nicest cocktail dress clean and watch some horses run down a track, the Infield might not be the best way to experience the derby.

Infield Bleacher Seating

The next tier tickets are the Infield Uncovered Reserved Bleacher Seating, which are the cheapest “reserved seating” you’re going to find on Derby day. .

While you’ll definitely be able to see the track, uncovered bleacher seats are not very glamorous, and in the rain, you’ll be a wet bump on a log – no umbrellas are allowed at Churchill Downs, so pack a poncho. Bleacher tickets cost about $500 for 2 days, which includes both The Derby and the Oaks, which is run the day before – that is, unless you’re buying from a reseller like VividSeats or StubHub, where you can usually snag a single day ticket.

As a nice bonus, the ticket includes drinks and food at this level, and all higher levels as well.

Reserved Seating & Boxes

The next tier up begins at $1000 and gets you out of the infield and on the “right side of the track” as it were.

Tickets from there skyrocket to the $10,000+ range, depending on how fancy and rich you are/ want to be.

Check out all available tickets to see where the best place (and best budget option) is for you. We highly recommend looking on VividSeats and StubHub, where you can usually find reduced price tickets, single-day tickets, and even parking passes to help you save money (so you can spend more on betting, obviously)!

Mint Julep at Churchill Downs and Barbaro Statue in Louisville Kentucky
Good news: you don’t have to go to the Kentucky Derby to drink a Mint Julep in a commemorative glass and watch horse races! There are races all week long, and they are much cheaper to attend.
Local Travel Tip: The best way to taste the best food in Louisville is on a food and history walking tour with Louisville Food Tours! Explore the story of Louisville and Kentucky while tasting culinary classics like bourbon balls, biscuits, fried chicken, and - of course - bourbon! You can book a tour on FareHarbor or Viator.

Derby Week Races

Although “The Kentucky Derby” is a single race run on a single day, “The Derby” is more like a 6-week long thing. And if you’re not particular about experiencing The Actual Derby, you can still get your fill of horse racing, fabulous hats, and Mint Juleps – all at much cheaper prices and with fewer crowds.

For what it’s worth, Louisville locals do not usually attend the Kentucky Derby. You’ll instead find us at Thurby – the Thursday before Derby – or the Oaks, the day before Derby.

Each race day has its own signature drink and a different vibe than the Derby, and is much, much cheaper. Attending one of these races is a great way to dip your toe into the Kentucky Derby experience without fully committing – just don’t expect to see any celebrities!

Here are some of the other Derby events and races to consider attending:

Derby Week Schedule of Events

DayEventWhat Is It?Gates OpenCost of Tickets
Saturday, April 30Opening NightDress to impress welcome party5 p.m.$21 – $104
Tuesday, May 3Champions DayA celebration of racing history11:30 a.m.$15 – $119
Thursday, May 5ThurbyA celebration of all that is Kentucky. Also, the race day that locals attend.11:00 a.m.$10 – $177
Friday, May 6Kentucky Oaks3-year-old fillies racing the Derby’s second-biggest race 9:00 a.m.$50 – $1k
Saturday, May 7Kentucky DerbyThe big race9:00 a.m.$65-$10k

Opening Night

Kentucky Derby week kicks off with Opening Night, featuring races and live entertainment!

The event has reserved seating for as low as $24 and reserved dining for $85, so it’s not going to break the bank. While this isn’t a super swanky event, it’s suggested that you at least dress sharp – party or cocktail dresses or pants and a dress shirt, ties optional.

Of course, everyone is encouraged to wear – you guessed it – a fascinator, hat, headband, or some other form of evening headpiece (hair art, perhaps?) in keeping with the festive Derby theme of the week. 

Thurby

Thurby, as you may be able to guess, is a portmanteau of “Thursday” and “Derby”, and falls on the Thursday before Derby. Known as the “locals day”, Thurby is a celebration of all things Kentucky with great horse racing, bourbon, and music.

It wasn’t actually an official event until semi-recently, when its popularity grew because locals didn’t want to shell out for Oaks and Derby Day. And now it’s a Thing.

As far as Thurby Tickets, you can get General Admission tickets for around $10, and reserved seating between $50-100. It’s a great way to beat the crowds and get a much more comfortable “Derby” experience – without the actual Derby part.

Oaks Day

Oaks is the Friday before Derby, and it is a celebration of ladies – and America’s most premier 3-year-old fillies horse race. The winning filly receives a garland of pink stargazer lilies, adorably named “lilies for the fillies.” There’s even an official pink cocktail called The Lily. Derby Week is really an excuse to be ridiculously cutesy, y’all.

The official dress code for the Oaks is that you can wear any color as long as it is pink! (Because of the whole “ladies” thing.) So expect to see a lot of women and men wearing pink to match the winning garland.

Since Oaks is such a major event and the day before the big race, expect it to be more crowded than Thurby. But there is something magical about pink day at the Downs!

Tickets for Oaks start around $50 for GA and $175 for reserved seating, which is still much cheaper than Derby, so it is a great option if you want the hustle and bustle of Derby without the price. You *might* even see a C-list celeb or two.

  • Fun Local Fact: The Oaks is a city-wide holiday for some reason, with everyone off of work and even school. Why does Louisville let children out of school for a horse race that you have to be 18+ to attend? I have no idea. But I definitely didn’t complain growing up!

Dawn at the Downs

During Derby Week, you have the opportunity to experience a unique and exciting Derby week activity: Dawn at the Downs! This is when jockeys and horses are warming up first thing in the morning.

For aspiring betters and folks with lots of money on the line, this is a good opportunity to make important decisions about which horses to bet on based on their morning warm-up performance. For the rest of us plebs, it’s a good opportunity to spot celebrities and partake in Kentucky Derby festivities – for free!

You’ll want to head to Churchill Downs first thing in the morning. Derby and Oaks contenders begin first around 7:30 AM, but you’ll find horses warming up until 10am. You do not need a ticket – although if you’re feeling fancy, you can purchase a ticket which includes breakfast at the track.

After you’ve made a few extremely astute observations about how the horses are looking or whatever, head to historic Wagner’s Pharmacy, a famous diner across the street from Churchill Downs, for breakfast – and to look for celebrities, who are often found here on Derby Week. 

General Kentucky Derby Tips

Here are our overall top Kentucky Derby tips to keep in mind:

  • Bets may not be made with a credit card, in accordance with state law. I guess they don’t want you betting money you may or may not have? Anyway, bring a debit card.
  • Bring cash with you. While there are ATMs scattered through the facility, lines can be long and will easily eat into your viewing time. 
  • There is a limit of two alcoholic drinks served per person at a single time. That means if it is your turn to go to the bar, you will need to take someone with you if you plan on ordering more than two alcoholic beverages. 
  • Last call for food and drinks is signified by the “Call to the Post” for the second-to-last race of the day. 
  • Outside food is allowed at the Kentucky Derby. For those looking to save a buck, skip the event food and instead bring your own!
  • No public WiFi is available during Kentucky Oaks or the Kentucky Derby. 
  • Amenities include three nursing mothers rooms and the addition of 400 new restroom stalls.
  • If you need emergency assistance, text DERBY to 69050 to immediately be put in touch with Guest Services, or look for nearby staff in bright red shirts/jackets or bright yellow shirts/windbreakers.
  • Download the Churchill Downs Racetrack app. It will let you do everything from scan your tickets at the gate, find a parking spot, find your seat, browse betting tips, place bets, and locate nearby restrooms and food. You can even use the app to transfer or resell your tickets.

How to save money at the Derby

Between tickets, betting, attending Galas, and all of those Mint Juleps, it’s easy for expenses to spiral wildly out of control at the Kentucky Derby. However, we have a few expert Kentucky Derby tips that will help to spare your wallet – and your bank account:

  • Buy tickets as soon as possible. Tickets will continue to increase in price the closer to the event it gets.
  • Look for tickets on VividSeats or StubHub. You can find more deals from resellers, and both of these sites are legit.
  • If you plan on visiting the track multiple days, look into bundle tickets to save you money.
  • Buy an infield ticket and pack a lunch. This is hands down the most inexpensive way to experience the Kentucky Derby.
  • Bring cash. This will help you avoid pricey ATM fees and better help you stick to a budget.
  • Arrive and leave via public transit. A TARC bus ticket costs just $1.75 one way! We’ve got more details below.
  • Attend Derby Week races instead. If you’re not a purist, you can save a bundle of money by attending Thurby, Oaks, or even the early-week races. You can still get dressed up and place bets and everything! Then during Derby Weekend, you can be off bourbon tasting or whatever – oh hey, and we’ve got the perfect Louisville itinerary to help you plan your trip!

We’ve also got a bunch of budget-friendly Derby outfits below to help you plan your ~lewk.

What to bring to the Derby

Packing for the Derby is its own challenge! There is no re-entry, so it’s important to bring everything you need with you. There is an extensive list of prohibited items, including alcohol, large cameras, coolers, drones, or pets… and a bunch of very specific rules and regulations.

Here’s what to pack in your day bag, which cannot be a backpack or duffel bag, and must be smaller than 12” x 6” x 12”:

  • Clear rain poncho
  • Change of shoes
  • Sunscreen and sunglasses
  • 2 24 oz clear plastic water bottles. Sadly, reusable water bottles are not allowed.
  • Snacks and food. Boxed lunches or food items must be in clear plastic bags or containers 
  • Phone charger
  • Infield only: collapsible camping chair. You will want this, trust me. It doesn’t have to fit into your bag. I recommend this one, which has a canopy – essential on a sunny day, and might be somewhat helpful in the rain, too!
  • Bleachers only: small cushions to sit on
Horse Statue at Churchill Downs in Louisville Kentucky. This ultimate Kentucky Derby first timer's guide has all of the Kentucky Derby tips you need to attend the Run for the Roses, from Kentucky Derby fashion and hats to how to save money at the Derby!

Getting to the Kentucky Derby 

The Kentucky Derby is hosted at the Churchill Downs Racetrack, which has three entrance gates: the Paddock Gate, Clubhouse Gate and Infield Gate. (For Dawn at the Dawns, we recommend parking near the Paddock Gate.)

By Car

If you plan on driving yourself to Churchill Downs, it is critical to know that all parking is sold in advance for both Kentucky Oaks and the Kentucky Derby. You’ll need to buy a parking pass – and they are NOT cheap.

While limited parking is available on-site, there may be parking in the surrounding neighborhoods or via private lots. There are also all kinds of complicated road closures and such – maps, schedules, and more information are all available online.

By Taxi or Ride-Sharing

Churchill Downs has specific procedures for attendees arriving by taxi or a ride-sharing service:

  • Taxis: If you will be using a taxi for travel, use the Churchill Downs auto-court for drop-off, found in front of the Barbaro Statue by the Kentucky Derby Museum (see pic above).
  • Ride-sharing services: Use Thornberry Avenue to access the designated guest drop-off areas. Rides can wait for you in one of the 16 numbered spaces located within the Blue Lot. Rally is another option – it’s a bus rideshare specifically for the Kentucky Derby with 60 pick-up locations.

By Bus

Your cheapest transit option is to take TARC to and from Churchill Downs: a one-way adult cash fare is only $1.75, and buses run all day on the regular schedule.

To get to Churchill Downs, you’ll want to hop on Routes 4, 6, or 29.

  • Route #4 covers parts of downtown, the University of Louisville, Old Louisville, and neighborhoods near Iroquois Park.
  • Route #6 provides service in downtown, Iroquois Park neighborhoods and the area near Auburndale.
  • Route #29 connects Shively, U of L/Old Louisville, the Highlands and St. Matthews.

After the races, due to detours, buses pick up passengers at different stops than where they were dropped off. So … definitely bookmark this page with route details now, while you’re still sober.

Horse on the Track at Churchill Downs in Louisville Kentucky
Some people analyze the odds and make an informed decision before placing a bet. Me? I just pick based on who has the best name or coolest silks. So long, $2!

How to Bet on the Kentucky Derby

Betting, much like hats, is a staple at the Kentucky Derby. Whether you are betting $1 or $1000, it’s part of the experience, especially if you are at Churchill Downs! Over $150 million is won each year, which begs the question: are you feeling lucky?

If you are new to betting, there is a helpful guide on the Kentucky Derby website. You can bet from home, and it’s a good idea to place your bet early (unless, of course, you’re following last-minute odds changes).

At Churchill Downs, you can bet at any of the on-site kiosks or via their app. The kiosks are conveniently placed absolutely everywhere – it’s like they want you to bet or something!

You should know how much money you want to wager, what type of bet you want to place and the number of the horse (or horses) that you’re betting in the Derby.

Each year on the week of the Derby, the Courier-Journal releases a guide to all of the horses, including their names, Jockeys, owners, whether they come from a line of winning horses, their current odds, and their silks (the patterned outfits and hats the Jockeys wear). To find it, google “Courier Journal [Year] Kentucky Derby Betting Guide.” Unfortunately, the CJ puts it behind a paywall these days, but you can usually find it online on Scribd (here’s the one from 2021, for instance.)

That guide is essential – it’s my go-to guide each year! It gives you everything you need to make a decision on who to bet on, even if you’re basing it off of something absolutely nonsensical like best name or coolest silk.

Incidentally, that’s my betting strategy: a good name usually means the horse is well-loved and taken care of, and therefore a good pick. And coolest silks .. well, that just makes sense.

Not quite ready to leave your Derby bet up to chance but also not an expert at reading and analyzing horse odds? Don’t worry – we’ve gotcha covered with some beginner-friendly Derby betting tips, courtesy of our founder’s Dad. (Hi, Bob!)

Lia’s Dad’s Idiot-Proof Derby Betting Tips

Our founder Lia’s Dad has a tried and true betting routine which he’s been relying on unfailingly for decades. It’s pretty darn idiot proof (no offense, Bob) – give it a try!

  1. Bet $2 on every horse to win. You’re guaranteed to win, but the fun part is whether you’ll make your $40 back or not.
  2. Bet $2 on ONLY the long odds horses to win (20:1) or higher). Eventually, you will win – big. This technique works best if you’re betting every year, because it takes roughly a decade to cash in on this technique. Eventually, though, you will! Probably.
  3. Bet on the favorite to win, and on all long odds (20:1+) horses to place and show. This technique pays out more frequently than strategy #2, and occasionally, it’s a big payout!
This ultimate Kentucky Derby first timer's guide has all of the Kentucky Derby tips you need to attend the Run for the Roses, from Kentucky Derby fashion and hats to how to save money at the Derby!
The only thing better than a Mint Julep on Derby Day is the collectible glass they’re served in! You’ll find these glasses in most homes throughout Louisville – Lia’s collection, inherited from her parents, dates back decades.

Derby Day Refreshments

Once your bets have been placed, and you are settled in your seat, it is time to think about filling your belly and quenching your thirst. While you can bring in a few snacks and water bottles (all in clear containers), there’s plenty of food available at Churchill Downs. Several locations for food and beverage are strategically located around the area, as well as the staff serving the stands with all sorts of goodies, including the signature Mint Juleps

Mint Juleps are the drink of the Kentucky Derby, and not drinking one, much like not wearing a hat, is a sin when visiting on race day.

The recipe is simple: 2 oz. Woodford Reserve®, 1/2 oz. Simple Syrup, 3 Fresh Mint Leaves, and Crushed Ice served in a commemorative glass. It’s minty, bourbon-y (very bourbon-y … honestly the 2nd one always tastes better) and very refreshing on a (hopefully) gorgeous, sunny Derby day.

If you get a GA/Infield ticket, you’ll be able to find concession stands serving hot dogs, burgers, pizza, tacos, burrito bowls, lobster rolls, and chicken and waffle sandwiches, etc., so you have lots of options!

If you purchase a reserved seat, your ticket includes all this food and more! Both non-alcoholic and alcoholic beverages are complimentary with your ticket, even including the commemorative glass. So go on and drink until your $500 2-day ticket feels justified!

Here's a quick & classy Kentucky Derby fashion primer: wear a fabulous spring cocktail dress and top it off with a giant hat. Voila: you're Derby ready!
Here’s a quick & classy Kentucky Derby fashion primer: wear a fabulous spring cocktail dress and top it off with a giant hat. Voila: you’re Derby ready! (Photo Credit: Carrie Cooke Ketterman)

How to Dress for the Kentucky Derby

If there’s one thing the Derby is known for – other than, you know, horses – it’s the fashion, which can be anything from classy and finessed to gaudy, over-the-top, and sometimes just downright ridiculous. 

Creamy pastels, patterns, and seersucker suits compliment uniquely designed hats (ranging from large to extremely large) in a fashion festival where men and women alike try to one-up each other in a blatant display of wealth and (often poor) taste. If Derby isn’t drag for the wealthy, I don’t know what is!

But how far should you go? And what makes up a proper Derby lewk? Let’s explore below.

Couple with big hats at the Kentucky Derby Louisville KY.
If your hat doesn’t barely fit in the frame, it’s too small! (Photo Credit: Carrie Cooke Ketterman)

Hats at the Kentucky Derby

Derby hats are revered as a long-standing tradition of the Kentucky Derby, and begs us to ask: what constitutes a hat? Is it 4 yards of tule on your head? Painted lawn flamingos glued to some kind of base? Disco cherries glistening in the sun?

The answer is always yes. Basically, if it sits on your head and you’re at Derby, it’s a Derby hat!

Both men and women alike get in on the Derby hat action, even if they haven’t taken the extra step to glue plastic horses to their heads.

Women generally favor colorful, wide-brimmed hats with feathers and some kind of accouterment or more simple fascinators, and men steer towards bowlers, fedoras, derbies (duh), and other classic headwear.

Simple or extraordinary, you aren’t really at Derby if you aren’t wearing something on your head.

Much like the tickets themselves, Derby hats can range anywhere from pre-made and inexpensive to Milliner-made and costly. You can find Derby hats and fascinators online for budget-friendly prices, even on Amazon. Below are a few of our favorite picks:

If you’re in a pinch or just want to be extra creative, get out your hot glue gun and make your own! Start with a wide-brimmed sunhat like you can find at any store, like this from Amazon. And then follow a tutorial like this!

Remember, you will always earn extra points (in the form of strangers complimenting you) for creativity. The sky is the limit, truly, and you’ll have fun pretending you’re in a design challenge on RuPaul’s Drag Race.

If your budget allows, there are lots of local places in Louisville to get Derby hats while supporting local artists and craftspeople! Start by looking into the Featured Milliners picked each year by Churchill Down’s, such as Formé Millinery.

Other local hat shops to find your perfect Derby hat include The Mysterious Rack, HeadCandi, Work the Metal, and Dee’s Hats – there are a ton of shops in town that sell Derby hats!

Derby Dresses and Suits

If it wasn’t clear from the section above, the hats are the real star here, but clothes that go with the theme of your hat are also important too.

There are no “official” colors for Derby, but people do tend to incorporate pinks on Oaks (which is women’s day) and reds on Derby, since it is “run for the roses” after all. You’ll also see lots of pastel mint green, hot pink, lime green, and anything that falls into a general “Easter” color palette, plus bold black and white patterns.

In terms of dresses, think spring dresses with floral prints (florals for spring? Groundbreaking) and cocktail dresses with spring heels or sandals – though flats are always a good choice, as the ground varies greatly at Churchill Downs. Basically, modern southern belle.

For suits, you’ll want at least suit jacket even if you’re sporting shorts. Seersucker is a common fabric among Derby goers – mostly because it’s breathable, see also: cotton and linen – and so are suits with crazy patterns. Pair it with a floral button-down shirt and slap a bowtie on!

Couples, in general, tend to stick to a similar color palette, whether it be pastels for spring, or neon colors like hot pink or lime green. “Matchy-matchy” is definitely a theme for couples as well, with bold colors or prints that shout “we’re a couple!”.

While there is no strict dress code, there are certain dress standards for certain areas of Churchill Downs, so be sure to look that over. But as long as you’re dressed in your fanciest, you should be fine!

Derby is a fashion event, so be wildly creative and enjoy the looks you get (and maybe get photographed yourself!), and enjoy the people watching – which honestly may be the real main event on Derby day.

People watching the Kentucky Derby Run Louisville KY
As you clutch the odds in your hands, you wonder if this is the year you’ll win big… or just get rained on. (Photo Credit)

How to Dress for the Weather

The Kentucky Derby is sometimes a gorgeous day… and sometimes a cold rainy mess. Keep these tips in mind when planning:

  • Pack a clear rain poncho or fabulous raincoat, because view-blocking umbrellas are not permitted – even clear umbrellas.  
  • Ladies, consider packing a spare pair of flip flops or flats to give your feet a rest after a long day of running back and forth between your seat, the restroom, and concessions. 
  • Always check the weather in the days – and even hours – leading up to the event, as the weather can change on a dime and leave you woefully ill-prepared, which seems to be the case with nearly every Derby ever!
"The Unified Race" Horse mural on the side of the NuLu Marketplace in Louisville, Kentucky created by The Art of Kacy
“The Unified Race” mural created by The Art of Kacy. (Photo used with permission from NuLu Marketplace)

The Kentucky Derby Festival

Even though it is referred to as “the most exciting two minutes in sports,” the Derby is really a 4-6 week celebration, and it’s all part of The Kentucky Derby Festival!

The Kentucky Derby Festival is full of the most anticipated events of the year, especially as a Louisivillian. Even if you aren’t a Derby goer, you CANNOT ESCAPE the Derby Festival, which starts in late March and lasts until the Derby on the first Saturday in May. During this time, the entire city bursts into bloom, colorful horse statues decorated by local artists and businesses pop up all over town, and a certain excitement permeates the air.

Every Louisvillian has their own favorite event. Mine is Thunder over Louisville, the world’s LARGEST firework display. Lia’s is Fest-A-Ville, a week-long party on the banks of the Ohio River which includes live music, fried food, and a series of exciting events including Neigh-Maste, the Ken-Ducky Derby, and the Derby Pun-Writing Championship. Bonus points if you can guess which one of those events is made up.

There’s the Great Balloon Glow, the Pegasus Parade, WineFest, Taste of Derby, an extremely slow but incredibly exciting Steamboat Race, and countless other events that begs the question, is anyone ever sober in this city?!

In the month leading up to Derby, you simply cannot avoid hearing the word “Derby”, seeing giant painted horse statues and little Pegasus Pins everywhere (which let you into a lot of the events – pick one up at Kroger), and generally feeling like you’re being indoctrinated into some kind of horse-worshipping cult.

Derby Parties

There are lots of parties leading up to the Derby – some of which you can attend, and some which you can only dream of attending.

The black-tie Barnstable Brown Gala is the premier Derby party – the one you absolutey MUST attend if you’re a celebrity, A-lister, or social climber a la Anna Delvey. It always happens the Friday night before Derby, attended by the rich and famous at the glamorous and enormous Barnstable Brown mansion in the gorgeous Cherokee Park neighborhood of the Highlands.

The gala is hosted by notable local twins Patricia and Priscilla Barnstable, who were once the Doublemint Twins. Yes, really. Fun fact: they went to high school with Lia’s mom! Years later, that connection resulted in a coveted ticket, which is how Lia came to be the proud owner of an autograph by Melissa Joan Hart at the height of her Sabrina years.

To attend the Barnstable Brown Gala, you are either rich or a celebrity, preferably both.  While you can buy your way in for a pretty $1500 (it supports diabetes research!), for most of us regular folks, the next best thing to do is to stand outside at the red carpet and gawk at the likes of Tom Brady, Miranda Lambert, and Paris Hilton as they sashay their way into the party. People line up every year hoping to get a glimpse at their favorite star or sportsball player across the unachievable gap of societal and economic class. Ah, the American dream!

B- and C-listers and influencers who didn’t make the invite list at the Barstable Brown Gala (how embarrassing) or didn’t want to shell out $1500 for a party (celebrities – they’re just like us!) can be found dancing the night away at  Unbridled Eve – tickets start at “only” $500 each!

If you’re short on celebrity friends and still paying off your student loans, head to the Hillbilly Outfield with the rest of us plebs, a two-day shindig complete with lawn games, camping, and live music. You will absolutely not see any celebrities here.

Louisville Kentucky Vacation Rental in Old Louisville, one of the best places to stay in Louisville
Many of our favorite places to stay in Louisville are in Victorian homes in historic Old Louisville. This is a vacation rental we love right off of Central Park!

Where to Stay in Louisville

There are tons of amazing places to stay in Louisville! But first you have to pick which part of town to base yourself in.

We recommend staying in or close to Downtown, such as in Old Louisville, NuLu, or Butchertown. Staying centrally will limit your need for a rental car, so you can get around to the entirety of this itinerary by bike, ride-share, and bus instead. Here are our picks in each area:

  • Downtown: Downtown Louisville has a bunch of awesome hotels within walking distance to Museum Row and the waterfront. We love Louisville’s newest boutique hotel, The Grady Hotel, right on Museum Row in the heart of downtown – y’all, it’s real cute! 21C Museum Hotel is both a hotel and a rad contemporary art museum. If you’re willing to splurge, 21C is super unique and well worth it! Fun fact: there are 21c locations in other cities, but Louisville is the original location.
  • Old Louisville: This historic neighborhood is Louisville’s most beautiful, and is full of gorgeous Victorian homes. If you can snag it, our favorite Louisville vacation rental is right on beautiful little Central Park! Or try The Inn at St. James Court, a charming b&b located on Louisville’s beautiful and walkable St. James Court.
  • Butchertown & NuLu: These are two of the most up-and-coming neighborhoods in Louisville, turning old historic warehouses into cool urban-living lofts, galleries, and eateries. They’re fantastic walking and bike-friendly neighborhoods, but you won’t find many hotels – so we recommend booking on VRBO! We love this chic, hip loft that’s one street over from the shops and restaurants on Market Street. This colorful, historic apartment is right next to the NuLu Marketplace, and this vibrant apartment is just one block away from our favorite coffee shop, Quills.

One more tip: Louisville has lots of great hotels, but unfortunately, many of them are in the East End – a part of town that’s not actually great for visitors and tourists. It’s not accessible by public transit, it’s mostly residential, and it’s far away from the best things to do in Louisville. The reason so many hotels are in this area is that there’s lots of space and it’s near a few business parks. We don’t recommend staying in Louisville’s East End.

Want some more options and tips on where to stay during your trip? Head over to our detailed guide on where to stay in Louisville!

See also
Where to Stay in Louisville, Kentucky (and Where NOT to): a Local's Guide

Take a tour of Angel's Envy in downtown, one of the best things to do in Louisville!
Everyone knows Kentucky is famous for its bourbon, and there are a bunch of bourbon distilleries right in downtown Louisville like Angel’s Envy!

What Else to Do in Louisville, Kentucky

In between your Derby activities, there are so many things to do in Louisville! From sampling the most famous Louisville foods to bourbon tasting or brewery hopping to exploring local neighborhoods like NuLu and the Highlands, you’ll want to make the most out of your trip.

Everyone knows Kentucky is famous for its bourbon, and there are a bunch of bourbon distilleries downtown, like Angel’s Envy. If you prefer brandy or a little absinthe, Copper & Kings is another awesome local distillery!

Louisville has lots of fun active experiences too, which are great in the beautiful month of May, like underground ziplining at the limestone Mega Cavern, stopping to smell the flowers at the Waterfront Botanical Gardens, or paddle your heart away at the Parklands of Floyds Fork.

And even when races aren’t running, Churchill Downs is home to a fantastic museum, the Kentucky Derby Museum. You can learn about the history of thoroughbred racing, the Kentucky Derby, Black heritage in racing, and more.

Before you finalize your plans, be sure to check out our ideal Louisville weekend itinerary and guide to things to do in Louisville.

See also
Louisville Weekend Trip: The Perfect 3-Day Itinerary

Which of our Kentucky Derby tips was the most helpful? What questions do you have about attending the Kentucky Derby for the first time? Drop us a comment below!

Before you go, be sure to check out these other posts:


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4 Comments on Kentucky Derby Tips: The Ultimate First-Timer’s Derby Guide (by a local)

  1. How can I get a Kentucky derby racing form book without driving to Louisville can I have one mailed to me and pay by credit card

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