How to Survive Your First Derby

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The Kentucky Derby is an amazing event and a superb time of year for the entire city. Having been born and bred in Louisville I had no idea growing up that there were other places that didn’t get out of school for Oaks. I thought it was as big of a holiday tradition as Christmas or spring break. The Derby rose was as much a symbol to me as the turkey at thanksgiving. Having parents that have also lived in this amazing city all of their lives and gone to this spectacular horse race for longer than I’ve been alive, it’s a complete no-brainer to get some of the best advice from them. Here is some of the knowledge they have bestowed upon me for anyone visiting the Kentucky Derby for the first time:

1) Dress Appropriately

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It’s almost common knowledge that pink is the adopted color of Oaks and that a stylish hat or fascinator is always required (if not an unofficial law). However, the weather here could care less about your strappy shoes and floral sundress that you’ve planned on donning to the race track for that first Saturday in May. As my mother has put it, “I’ve been there when it’s snowed, and I’ve been there when it’s been 90 degrees.” The best thing you can do is plan for any outcome. Umbrellas are not allowed in to the race track so make sure you’ve purchased ponchos if the weather looks a bit cloudy out. Keep an eye on the forecast and make sure to plan a cold or hot weather outfit. This might cause a bit of overflow in your suitcase if you are traveling, but you will be glad you did.

2) It’s all about the shoes

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Abundant Poise Heel by BC Footwear

Although this is part of dressing appropriately, footwear gets its own section. If you have never been to the Derby before, let me make you aware of all the walking and standing you will be doing. First there is the parking, most of which is only available far away from the track itself. Any veteran will tell you to bring a pair of flats to walk in and then carry your heels. Switch once inside the facility and stuff your other shoes in a bag or purse. Also, once inside Churchill Downs the ground is not always paved and you will most likely get those $200 stilettos stuck in the mortar of the cobblestone walkway. Save yourself some aggravation by wearing a wedge or a shoe with a thick heel if flats aren’t your thing.

3) Get to know your neighbors

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Churchill downs is nestled in between the edges of the UofL campuses football stadium and the surrounding houses that locals call the South End. Although there is some parking available there isn’t nearly enough for everyone. And if you can’t find a taxi or friend to drop you off at the gate, the next best thing is to park in someone’s yard. Many of the surrounding residents to the twin spires will be more than happy to sell you a spot on their grassy knoll for the day (for a price of course). Some even have golf carts that you can pay to be toted around in. If you’d rather save your cash and enjoy the walk there are also people selling drinks and food right from their own grills. And a bit of delicious local grub is always a great idea!

4) Don’t forget to carry some cash


In a world where everything is electronic, reasons to carry cash get fewer and fewer. And although there will be accommodations for those who brought only cards, it’s beneficial to carry some ones on you. Especially if you need to pay for parking or tip the attendants in the bathrooms.

5) The party doesn’t end once the races are over


The infield in known to be a debaucherous party all unto its own. My father was there in the 70’s when the Queen of England came to visit and a naked girl climbed up the flagpole (the story ends with the crowd surrounding the pole and helping the girl escape the police). Back then the infield had nothing in it except some port-o-potties and a few betting windows. Now there are sponsored tents, stages, and many other facilities for patrons to take advantage of. There are more rules set in place these days and the list of things permitted/banned getting bigger all the time. It’s still a crazy party and I recommend you try it at least once. Although the infield isn’t the only place in town that likes to party. It’s a general rule that the normal closing hour for bars gets extended till 6 am. Even some restaurants like to get in on the action and go to 24 hours over the weekend. So even if you don’t make it to the races there is always an opportunity to join in some kind of fun.

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