Every year on the first Saturday in May, the Kentucky Derby is held at Churchill Downs Racetrack in Louisville, KY. Not only is it the longest running sporting event in the U.S. (having begun in 1875,) but it’s a true celebration of southern culture.
The 1.25-mile Kentucky Derby race features the 20 best thoroughbred horses of the year with a $20 million prize on the line. It’s also the first race of the “Triple Crown of Thoroughbred Racing,” and is followed by the Preakness Stakes in Baltimore, MD and the Belmont Stakes in Elmont, NY. Horses that win all three races in the same year are awarded the prestigious Triple Crown.
2019’s Kentucky Derby will take place on Saturday, May 4, and we’re here to provide you with everything you need to know about visiting Louisville and attending the races. So grab your mint julep because this year marks the 145th year of the Kentucky Derby.
Getting Your Tickets
You’ll have several options for buying tickets for both the Kentucky Derby and the Kentucky Oaks, the race that takes place the day before. It’s important to know that there is no “will call” at the Kentucky Oaks or Kentucky Derby. You must have your ticket in hand when you arrive. Due to the large number of people showing up at Churchill Downs (150,000!), event staff won’t be able to reissue lost or forgotten tickets. Don’t leave it at home!
General admission tickets won’t give you a view of the track, but you’ll get access to the infield and paddock, where you can watch the horses and jockeys prepare for their two minutes of fame. You’ll still be able to see the race though; the infield has Jumbotrons that broadcast shots of the race so you won’t miss it. More than 70,000 people are granted general admission access. There’s no seating, so be prepared to share your picnic blanket while you make friends with your neighbors.
If you buy before April 21, general admission tickets are $70 each. After this date, ticket prices will increase until race day when day-of tickets are the most expensive. You can save some cash if you buy the two-day general admission ticket, which grants you access to both the Kentucky Oaks and the Kentucky Derby for $105. This deal is only available until April 21.
If you want a full view of the race, the reserved grandstand seats are the way to go. When you purchase a reserved seat, your ticket is good for both the Kentucky Oaks on Friday and the Kentucky Derby on Saturday. You’ll have two options: the bleacher-style seating (meaning no chair backs) on the first and second levels, or the stadium-style seating available on the second level. The bleacher-style seats will cost you $340-$500 while the stadium seats go for around $422-$460.
If dinner and a show is more your style, you can purchase dining tickets that get you access to the all-inclusive private buffet. These tickets are good for both Friday and Saturday and range from $850 to $1,650.
Planning Your Trip to the Kentucky Derby
If this will be your first year witnessing “the most exciting two minutes in sports,” you might be a little overwhelmed. You know that there are fancy hats involved, but what’s the best way to get there? Where should you stay? We’ve gathered all the info you’ll need to navigate Louisville and the Kentucky Derby like a pro.
In terms of getting to Louisville, that part is simple. You can fly into the Louisville International Airport (SDF) from almost anywhere in the U.S. Once you arrive, grab an Uber or Lyft, take one of the free hotel shuttles, or hop in your pre-arranged limousine or town car from Xtreme Transportation, the preferred car service of Churchill Downs.
What to Wear
Derby fashion is iconic. Both the Kentucky Derby and the Kentucky Oaks serve as an impromptu fashion show, so don’t skimp on your attire.
Ladies, now is the time to embrace your inner Southern Belle. Dresses and coordinating hats are a must. While you’ll be tempted to wear your best heels, don’t forget you’ll be at a sporting event with a lot of walking, some of which might be on grass. Pack a pair of flats in your bag to change into when your feet are ready for a break.
For the men: pastels, tropical colors, and crazy patterns are the norm. A vibrant pair of pressed slacks paired with a coordinating shirt are a great option. Complete the look with a striped blazer, bow tie, and loafers, and you’ll be looking as dapper as ever.
If you’re feeling lost while staring at your closet, the Kentucky Derby site provides guidelines on what to wear for additional suggestions.
Arriving at the Race
Everyone hates figuring out where to park, but there are plenty of options for getting to and parking at Churchill Downs on race day. We suggest giving yourself plenty of time to get there since traffic will be at its peak on race day. No matter if you plan to drive yourself or hitch a ride, event staff recommends planning your transportation in advance rather than waiting until race day.
If you’re planning to drive yourself to Churchill Downs, be aware that you must have a parking pass (which comes with certain tickets) to access the grounds. If you don’t have a parking pass, look for parking at the nearby Cardinal Stadium or in the neighborhoods surrounding the venue. For a full breakdown of parking and drop off options, check out the Kentucky Derby website. You can also find parking information on the free Churchill Downs Racetrack app for both iPhone and Android.
Other Things to Know
- Weather – You never know if Mother Nature will grace the Derby with bright sunshine or dreary rain. Before you depart for Louisville, make sure to check the weather and pack accordingly. If the sun will be shining, sunscreen is a must. If there’s a chance for rain, pack a light-weight poncho or rain jacket. Leave your umbrellas at home, though; they aren’t allowed in the stands.
- Crowds – More people attend the Kentucky Derby than the Super Bowl. With 150,000 people trying to make their way around the racetrack, be prepared for crowds to move slowly and for bathroom lines to move even slower (even though the stadium has added 400 new stalls in recent years).
- Security – To ensure the safety of all guests, your bag may be searched on your way into the racetrack. Keep in mind that purses larger than 12 inches in any dimension are prohibited. Cameras with detachable lenses, camcorders, and laptops are also prohibited.
- Cell Service and Wi-Fi – Cell service may be unpredictable due to the number of people in the area. However, public Wi-Fi is available on both Friday and Saturday.
- Bring Cash – While there are ATMs at Churchills Downs, it’s a good idea to bring plenty of extra cash with you. Due to Kentucky state laws, bets may not be placed on credit cards. If you want to try your luck and play the odds, cash will be necessary.
Derby Week Events
The Oaks and the Derby are not the only events taking place in Louisville during Derby Week. With Opening Night on April 27th and the Derby on May 4th, there is a week’s worth of action in store for those wanting to experience all that Louisville has to offer. Visit the Derby Week event page for more information and ticket options.
There’s also a plethora of events taking place on race day other than the race. The 2019 schedule hasn’t been posted yet, but here’s the 2018 schedule to get a feel for what’s in store.
What Else To Do in Louisville
There’s obviously more to see and do in Louisville besides watching the horses at Churchill Downs. Make sure to build time into your schedule to explore the town and drink plenty of Kentucky’s famous bourbon.
Did you know Louisville is home to the largest caverns in the U.S.? Mega Cavern began as a limestone quarry and now serves as an underground attraction. The caverns are actually classified as a “building” by the state of Kentucky! Try their zip lines, tram tours, bike park, ropes course, and more. After exploring Louisville below the surface, make your way back above ground. Visit the Louisville Slugger Museum and Factory, where you can learn how the Louisville Slugger baseball bat played a key role in the sport of baseball.
4th Street Live is Louisville’s premier dining and entertainment destination downtown. You’ll find bars, restaurants, and shops, and we highly recommend the dueling pianos at Howl at the Moon. While in the area, make sure to stop by the Big Four Bridge to see the nighttime light show, or visit during the day and enjoy a picnic on the banks.
Don’t Forget the Bourbon
If you’re a fan of brandy and whiskey, you won’t be disappointed by Louisville as many of the distilleries are open for tours. Our favorites are Angel’s Envy right in town or Woodford Reserve if you’re up for a 1-hour drive. Make sure to schedule your tours and tastings in advance for that busy weekend.
Places to Stay in Louisville
Hotels fill up fast for Kentucky Derby weekend, so book your room early. Churchill Downs is easily accessed from both the area around the airport and the lively downtown Louisville district. Here are our top picks for accommodations in the area. If none of these strike your fancy, view all of our partner hotels in Louisville.
Pro tip: Having trouble finding a hotel that has available rooms? Try moving your check-in date to Thursday, May 2 or before. When big events come to town, hotels open up more rooms for those looking to stay three nights or more. If you’re still having trouble finding availability, try searching for hotels just outside of town. Use our map feature on roomkey.com for help with your search.
Hotels Near the Kentucky Derby
- Tru by Hilton Louisville Airport is just four minutes from Churchill Downs and five minutes from the airport. It’s an ideal location for anywhere you’ll need to go.
- Crowne Plaza Louisville Airport Expo Center is just a short drive away from the racetrack. It’s also home to the Blue Horse Bar which is part of the Official Urban Bourbon Trail.
- Hyatt Regency Louisville offers upscale accommodations in the heart of thriving downtown Louisville. You’ll have easy access to Derby City nightlife with just a 10-minute drive from Churchill Downs.
- The Seelbach Hilton Louisville is one of Kentucky’s premier hotels. In fact, this 107-year-old hotel served as the backdrop for Tom and Daisy’s wedding in “The Great Gatsby.”
- AC Hotel Louisville Downtown offers modern luxury in the NuLu district of downtown Louisville. More than a hotel, it is known for its antique shops, art galleries, and growing restaurant scene.
- Embassy Suites by Hilton Louisville Downtown is conveniently located downtown and just 10 minutes from the racetrack.
Ready to cross the Kentucky Derby off your bucket list? We’re here to make your hotel booking experience as easy and as stress-free as possible. Visit roomkey.com to view our partner hotels in the Louisville area. Our search process is simple and easy to understand. Then, all that’s left to do is to finally buy (or make!) one of those fancy Derby hats.