7 tips to help you experience the Kentucky Derby like a local

Kentucky DerbyGetty Images / Andy LyonsHorses racing in last year’s Kentucky Derby.

Every year, 20 jockeys and their horses compete for a top four finish in the Kentucky Derby.

The race — which takes place at the historic Churchill Downs racetrack in Louisville, Kentucky on May 2nd — has been going on since the late 1800s.

It’s an event steeped in tradition that attracts visitors from around the country, all of whom hope to enjoy the race and a mint julep or two.

We talked to etiquette expert Diane Gottsman and Doug Dearen, founder and CEO of ticketing website Derbybox.com, to get some insider tips on the best ways to experience the Derby.

Whether you’re a first time visitor to the derby, or if you’ve been before, here’s what you need to know, from fashion to seating.

What you wear should depend on where you’re sitting.

The more expensive your tickets, the more formal you should look.

However, according to Gottsman, that doesn’t mean you can’t have fun with what you choose to wear. She advises wearing something that’s going to make you and the people around you smile.

“The Kentucky Derby is fun and festive,” Gottsman said. “It’s traditional, and some of that tradition is southern prep. But that’s not the negative stereotype of being stuffy. It’s the crisp, clean colours: pastels, searsucker for guys. It’s conservative, but not boring.”

For those watching from the infield, Gottsman recommends dressing down — T-shirts and jeans are appropriate. She describes this area as more of a party; it’s rowdier and more “street fun.”

Own your hat.

The hats at the Kentucky Derby are extravagent to say the least. Gottsman says your hat should compliment your outfit, and most importantly, you should feel confident wearing it.

“Whatever hat you select, you need to own it,” Gottsman said. “You need to be comfortable in it. If you’re pulling or tugging at it, if you can’t see, if it’s going too far down in your eyes, you’re not going to look your best. You’re not going to feel your best.”

Gottsman suggests toning down other accessories such as jewellery, in order to avoid your outfit looking like a costume. “You want the focal point to be your hat or your dress,” she said.

Bring a pair of flip flops.

Dearen recommends bringing an extra pair of shoes to his female customers. He says parking can be difficult and often requires a long and not so easy walk from the car to the racetrack.

Instead of braving that walk in high heels, do it in flip flops or comfortable flats that you can either store in your purse or toss once you reach the racetrack.

Also keep in mind that purses brought into the race can’t be any larger than 12 inches by 12 inches.

Go easy on the mint juleps.

This one may seem obvious, but Gottsman says it’s a good idea to watch your liquor intake. Yes, the derby is a party, but that doesn’t mean it’s an excuse to go overboard.

“Too much [liquor], we lose our judgement, and even the most beautiful outfit loses its flair when there’s somebody who is slurring and has lost their control,” Gottsman said.

Kentucky Derby Garland of RosesGetty Images / Andy LyonsLast year’s winner with the garland of roses.

Do some research and appreciate the traditions.

There are a number of events that happen in the days leading up to the actual derby. There’s the Kentucky Oaks, — another race on May 1st (the day before the derby) — the Taste of Derby, and The Dawn at the Downs (a breakfast buffet the morning of the derby); you can even watch a team of florists assemble the garland of roses (which is presented to the derby winner).

Besides researching the events, Gottsman advises knowing some of the traditions the derby celebrates.

“Before you get there, you want to do a little homework,” she said. “You want to know before you arrive, what’s the song that they sing at the end — which is “My Old Kentucky Home” — what is the drink that they’re known for — the mint julep. Know at least a few names of the horses. These are conversation tips.”

Churchill Downs Kentucky DerbyGetty Images / Jamie SquireThe finish line provides the best overall view.

Know how the seating works.

Box seats at the derby go for $US3,500 per ticket, according to Dearen. The least expensive grand stand bleacher seats are in sections 127 and 128 and go for $US450 per ticket. Dearen says the high end seats are pretty much found in one of three places: Millionaire’s Row, the Turf Club, and the Turf Terrace. These areas feature food and beverages, servers, balconies, terraces, and stunning views of the race. Dearen says this is also where you’re most likely to see celebrities attending the race, such as Miranda Lambert and Tom Brady.

The next step down are the third floor clubhouse box seats, which is where most derby parties sit (horse owners and trainers). These areas all offer a good view of the finish line, which, according to Dearen is the best place to be.

“The finish line gives you a good view of the overall race,” Dearen said. “You see most of the stretch, you see the horses come under the wire; it’s kind of like being in the 50 yard line for a football game. You have the best overall view when you’re at the finish line.”

Don’t rush to leave after the race finishes.

According to Dearen, there’s usually about 160,000 people attending the derby every year. Because there are races going on all day before the derby happens (at around 6:30 pm), it’s easy getting to the racetrack since people arrive throughout the day. But there’s a mad rush to leave after the derby. Dearen says there’s a way to avoid this rush.

“Everyone tries to leave to go to their parties or restaurant reservations right after the derby, and it can be an absolute nightmare,” Dearen said. So we always suggest, since there are two races after the derby, just relax, stay in your seats, watch the two races after the derby, and don’t make the mad rush to leave when everybody else leaves.”

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