kentucky derby travel tips

Grab a snazzy hat for social hour. (Photo: Getty Images)

Tips + Trends

Big Hat? Check. Mint Julep? Check. Here’s Your Kentucky Derby Must-Do List

Running for the roses at the Kentucky Derby each year is a rite of passage for three-year-old horses new to the starting block and one that kicks off the elusive Triple Crown race: the ultimate sweep of high-stakes races.

This world-class track event attracts the racing circuit’s largest crowds and wealthiest breeders, plus it has traditions dating back to 1875. Competitors travel here from across the world to gamble on the latest equine genetics and the $3 million purse — the richest in history.

The crowds and energy are big at Churchill Downs in Louisville, so we’ve put together a Derby 101 guide for racing rookies looking to get a taste of the action.

Getting to the Kentucky Derby

By car, Louisville is two and a half hours from Nashville, an hour and a half from Cincinnati, an hour and 45 minutes from Indianapolis, and four hours from St. Louis, so driving into the Bluegrass State from a reasonable radius for the week leading up to the grand finale, or just for the weekend, is an easy endeavor.

Flying in? Louisville International Airport, Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport and Blue Grass Airport in Lexington are all nearby, convenient options.

Southern Social Hour

kentucky derby travel tips
Enjoy a julep. (Photo: Getty Images)

From opening night through the main event, Churchill Downs is alive with activity, including fancy parties, warm-up races and ample chances to meet owners, jockeys and horses.

These galas are also your opportunity to show off your Southern style; classic race wear typically entails fascinators, slinky dresses and wide-brimmed hats adorned with embellishments for the ladies, fedoras, blazers, bowties and seersucker for the most fashionable of men. Lively color palettes abound, with many Derby veterans favoring bright, bold hues and pastels alike.

Many of the clubhouses and lounges have an even higher standard, implementing a business casual dress code, which loosely translates to jackets, collared shirts, blazers, dresses or pantsuits.

Wherever you are sitting, take heed and don’t dare to wear sneakers, shorts or sloppy attire to any event — you’ll be booted before even getting a chance to sip a mint julep, which is just about the most refreshing beverage ever invented, particularly in the late-spring Kentucky heat.

kentucky derby travel tips
Churchill Downs is an icon. (Photo: Getty Images)

Placing Your Bet

Picking a winner that just feels right to cross the finish line first is an essential element of the Kentucky Derby, and there’s no shortage of ways in which to make a wager.

The best approach is to watch the thoroughbreds proudly march through the viewing area while they queue up with their jockeys pre-race, but there are a multitude of methods to play a spread, with exacta, trifecta and the superfecta among the more exotic.

Straight-wager bets are fairly common, and some people pick by name or odds, which can be steep for the favorites. In any case, friendly and knowledgeable bookmakers staff the booths and are more than happy to explain how it all works.

Exploring Louisville

Of course, no trip to bourbon country would be complete without at least a few distillery visits. Louisville plays host to numerous urban locations, with the Stitzel-Weller Distillery and the Bulleit Frontier Whiskey Experience being notable additions to the city in recent years.

Michter’s Distillery, Evan Williams, Old Forester, Angel’s Envy and Rabbit Hole Distillery also have tasting-room experiences along the Ohio River next to downtown and are worth a stop if you don’t have time to drive out into the countryside to the Bardstown or Lexington areas — veritable meccas for connoisseurs of this uniquely American spirit.