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Jan 27/17

How to Do the Kentucky Derby: An Insider’s Guide to Derby Week Posted by: Aaron Stearns | 0 Comments

It’s spring fever … You don’t quite know what it is you DO want, but it just fairly makes your heart ache, you want it so!—Mark Twain.

A springtime visit to Louisville, Ky., would surely have sated the famous author and riverboat pilot’s desires when presented with the plethora of entertainment options this river city has to offer. From mid-April to the first Saturday in May, Louisville awakens from its winter slumber and springs to life with more parties and special events than one person could possibly attend in a single season.

All the hoopla climaxes in a mere two minutes—the running of the Kentucky Derby, the world’s most famous horse race and the longest continuously-held sporting event in the United States. On May 4, more than 160,000 revelers from all over the world will pack historic Churchill Downs to watch the field of three-year-old thoroughbreds battle down the home stretch in a bid to win the Run for the Roses.

“During Derby Week, Louisville is the capital of the world,” John Steinbeck wrote in 1956.”This Kentucky Derby, whatever it is—a race, an emotion, a turbulence, an explosion—is one of the most beautiful and violent and satisfying things I have ever experienced.” Fourteen years later, the late journalist Hunter S. Thompson—a Louisville native—put his own ribald spin on the experience in a groundbreaking essay of “Gonzo” journalism, The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved.

Where to begin? For hundreds of thousands of people, it kicks off on Saturday, April 20, along both shores of the Ohio River for the Kentucky Derby Festival’s opening ceremonies, Thunder Over Louisville. At 3 p.m., a six-hour air show takes to the skies, capped at 9:30 p.m. by a 30-minute fireworks display that is among the most impressive in world. Attendance for Thunder, which is free for most viewing areas in downtown, has been estimated as high as 700,000, making it the largest single-day event in the southeast U.S.

Once the smoke clears from the pyrotechnic spectacle, it’s a non-stop party until the dust settles on the dirt track at Churchill Downs following the 139th running of the Kentucky Derby. It’s a wild ride to be sure, but one that offers a unique slice of old-fashioned southern hospitality and world-class debauchery.

The Louisville locals are in the know about Derby Time traditions, but out-of-towners will benefit from doing a little homework. Lodging at that time of year can be pricey and difficult to secure, so it’s a good idea to look around to see what’s available and at what rates. Many hotels require a two- or three-night minimum stay—be prepared to make a one-of-a-kind weekend out of your visit. The Louisville Convention & Visitors Bureau has a very helpful website (, as well as a friendly and enthusiastic staff to answer your travel-related questions at (502) 584-2121.

The Seelbach Hilton Hotel is Louisville’s best-known and most historic place to rest your head. Located in the heart of downtown, the Seelbach was built in 1905 and inspired F. Scott Fitzgerald to use the hotel as the backdrop for Tom and Daisy Buchanan’s wedding in The Great Gatsby. The Old Seelbach Bar has a warm and clubby feel and features more than 40 varieties of fine Kentucky bourbon, as well as live jazz.

Now that you’re settled into the city, here’s a recommended Derby Time To-Do List:

1. The Kentucky Derby, Saturday, May 4, Churchill Downs racetrack. Even if you’ve never seen a horse race or placed a bet on the ponies, the Derby is a spectacle that must be experienced at least once in a lifetime. Give some thought to your Derby Day attire—showing up at the track without a colorful hat is a serious fashion faux pas for the ladies, and increasingly so, for men as well. Adult beverages of all kinds are available throughout the venue, but mint juleps are the drink of choice for most patrons. The infield portion of the racetrack is where the college crowd congregates—it’s not for the prudish or faint of heart. Two-day ticket packages for the Kentucky Derby and Kentucky Oaks (the stakes race for three-year-old fillies on Friday, May 3) start at $698 and may be purchased online at; general admission infield tickets cost $40.

2. The Kentucky Derby Museum, located next to Gate 1 at Churchill Downs, features a fascinating collection of Derby memorabilia and equine-related interactive displays. A must-see is the 360-degree, high-definition video presentation, “The Greatest Race,” which brings the Kentucky Derby to life. When the University of Louisville marching bands strikes the first notes of Stephen Foster’s “My Old Kentucky Home” in the film, even the most jaded visitor might begin to tear up.

3. Two other museums worth a visit are located within three blocks of each other in downtown—the Louisville Slugger Museum & Factory and the Muhammad Ali Center. You won’t have any trouble finding the Slugger Museum & Factory—just look for people posing for photos at the base of the “world’s largest baseball bat.” The six-story, 68,000-pound Louisville Slugger bat appears to be leaning against the building but is actually free-standing. You don’t have to be a baseball fan to enjoy the tours of the museum and bat production facility; all visitors receive a free miniature baseball bat. The Louisville Slugger Museum & Factory, 800 W. Main St., is open daily. The Muhammad Ali Center, 144 N. Sixth St., was built as a tribute to the Louisville native and three-time heavyweight boxing champion. It is open daily except Mondays.

4. The Kentucky Museum of Art and Craft, 715 W. Main St., is hosting an exhibition titled “Bluegrass Bourbon: By the Bottle/By the Ounce,” a celebration of Kentucky’s rich bourbon history. It features a showing of ceramic bourbon bottles and shot glasses from artists around the country, with a nod to the vintage decanters of old, from whimsical to modern in design.

5. In addition to the aforementioned Thunder Over Louisville, the Kentucky Derby Festival offers nearly 70 different events over a two-week period leading up the big horse race. On the weekend before the Derby, 18,000 two-legged runners take to the streets for a full and half-marathon road race. A hot-air balloon race is also held that weekend and has long been a popular attraction for children and families. The following week, the Derby Festival’s Great Steamboat Race pits the hometown Belle of Louisville against its riverboat rival, the Belle of Cincinnati. The Belle of Louisville, which turns 100 next year, is the oldest authentic steam-powered paddlewheeler in the world. The Festival’s Pegasus Parade is the last major event, taking place on Thursday, May 2, in downtown Louisville. For information on Kentucky Derby Festival events, visit or call (502) 584-FEST.

6. On Derby Eve, Friday, May 3, the restaurants and bars are jammed in three Restaurant Row locations in particular—Bardstown Road, Frankfort Avenue and Market Streets. Louisville reportedly boasts more non-chain restaurants per capita than any other city in the nation and can hold its own among other culinary hotbeds from coast to coast. Reservations are essential at most popular eateries and should be made well in advance.

7. Derby Eve is also renowned for the lavish parties traditionally thrown that night. Virtually all the major celebrities in town for the weekend will appear at the Barnstable Brown Gala, a black-tie affair celebrating its 25th anniversary. This fund-raiser for diabetes research is hosted by the sisters Patricia Barnstable Brown and Priscilla Brown, famous in their day as the “Doublemint Twins” from Doublemint chewing gum television commercials. Past guests at the gala include: Diane Lane, Cyndi Lauper, Tom Brady, Peyton and Eli Manning, Miranda Lambert, Paris Hilton, Joey Fatone, Nick Lachey, Mary Wilson, Travis Tritt, En Vogue, Taylor Dayne, Kid Rock and Boyz II Men. It was at this event in 2004 that Louisville native Larry Birkhead met the late Anna Nicole Smith, with whom he later fathered a daughter. The Barnstable Brown Gala typically sells out well in advance, but there were a few $2,000 tickets still available at this writing. For tickets, call Willie Barnstable at (502) 491-6778.

8. Another major soiree is The Julep Ball, held on Derby Eve at the state-of-the-art KFC Yum! Center in downtown Louisville. Former New York Giants football star Tiki Barber will act as the official celebrity emcee, with musical entertainment provided by “The Voice” star Angie Johnson and the B-52s. Tickets cost $500 per person for the entire evening, which includes cocktails and dinner; tickets for the musical portion only, which begins at 9 p.m., cost $150. For more information, visit The Silks in the Bluegrass party, featuring Valerie Simpson of the singing duo Ashford & Simpson, will be held on Derby Night at the Crowne Plaza Hotel, 830 Phillips Lane. For tickets, call (502) 777-6300.

All in all, it’s a pretty frenzied and electrifying week. Remember, unlike the Kentucky Derby, it’s a marathon not a sprint, so do your best to pace yourself. It’s a lot easier said than done, but it’s still wise advice if you can manage it. And they’re off …

Photos courtesy of

Mark Shallcross is a freelance writer based in Louisville, Kentucky. He previously worked several years as a reporter for and Voice-Tribune newspapers, as well as communications manager for the Kentucky Derby Festival. He enjoys running, reading and following local college sports.



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