The Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve is right around the corner, and if you’re heading to Churchill Downs with a general admission ticket to the greatest two minutes in sports, we have your guide on how to make the most of your trip. Read on for tips on what to do, where you can go, and when key moments are happening.
1. Know what you can and can’t bring with you.
Pack wisely for Kentucky Derby day – and bring a poncho or a raincoat, even if the weather seems like it’ll be fine. But leave the umbrella at home: they’re banned at Churchill Downs. Want to bring food and a lawn chair? Do it! But seriously: if you do nothing else before you go to the Kentucky Derby, read the full list of permitted and prohibited items – you won’t be allowed in the gates with a selfie stick, backpack, and a few other items.
2. Before you leave for the Derby, get the app.
Want to skip lines for food and drinks or easily save your parking location? Before you head to the Kentucky Derby, download the Churchill Downs app. It’s available in both the App Store and Google Play, and it’s a lifesaver for streamlining your Kentucky Derby experience.
Cash is king at the Kentucky Derby; unless you have an online wagering account (TwinSpires.com is the official online wagering platform for the Kentucky Derby) you need to place your bets with bills. Hit up an ATM before you leave for Churchill Downs to avoid lines and service fees… and then stick to your betting budget for the afternoon. Another good idea is to place all of your bets before the races even start: wagering windows will open at 10 a.m., and you can bet on every race on Saturday once they’re operational.
4. Watch the garland of roses arrive.
Gates open for the Kentucky Derby at 8 a.m., and the famous garland of roses arrives at 9:45. The roses usually arrive at Gate 18 near the saddling paddock, so camp out there to see the spectacle. Trust me, it’s worth it!
5. Secure a spot to watch the race.
If you want to watch the race up close, you can do it on a GA ticket! Get to the track early and stake out a spot in the infield on the fence line surrounding the interior of the track. My personal recommendation would be to snag a spot on the turn to the homestretch; if you don’t know where that is, just head to the infield, turn so you’re facing Churchill Downs’ famous twin spires, and then walk to the right with the homestretch facing left. Here, I drew you a map! (Well, I drew on a map, but you get where I’m going with this.)
This is a great spot because you’ll have a good view and you’re close to restrooms, refreshments, and betting windows. Claim your spot with blankets and/or lawn chairs, and make sure that at least one person in your party stays there all day to defend your turf.
If you don’t want to get to the track early, no problem! The infield is still an amazing place to watch the race – all you have to do is look up. That’s because Churchill Downs has the largest largest 4K video board set up so you can see the racing action from pretty much anywhere at the track.
6. Get a julep.
Okay, this is a bit rich coming from me (and I’m about to lose all sorts of street cred here, but whatever) since I really hate mint juleps – I think they taste like toothpaste that’s gone bad – but they really are an iconic part of the Kentucky Derby. If you’re a bourbon drinker, this is your moment. Plus, you’ll get to keep the beautiful Kentucky Derby glass they come in, so you’re also getting your souvenir shopping done! Be careful, though: these things are potent, so pace yourself.
7. Button up!
If you already know who you’re rooting for in the Kentucky Derby, go find the good people at TwinSpires – they’ll have free buttons so you can show your support.
Their booths are scattered all around the track, so keep your eyes peeled and grab your horse’s button to show a little Derby pride.
8. Get a selfie in front of the twin spires.
Is there a bigger sports icon that the twin spires of Churchill Downs? Once you get in the gates of the Kentucky Derby, get your friends together and commemorate the thrill of being at one of the most famous sporting events in the world. You won’t regret it!
9. Hit up the infield for the most insane party you’ll ever attend.
Have you ever thrown a party with 60,000 of your closest friends? That’s the Kentucky Derby infield. Rain or shine, the place will be packed with revelers on the first Saturday in May. And, if you have a GA ticket (or any Kentucky Derby ticket), the place is yours on Derby day. And, honestly, there’s nothing like the thrill of emerging out of the tunnel that takes you under the track and into the infield: it’s an adrenaline rush that you need to experience at least once in your life.
10. Do a little people watching in the paddock area.
There’s no shame in gawking at the Kentucky Derby – people come to Churchill Downs dressed to get noticed on the first Saturday in May. If you want to take in the good, the bad, and the sartorially questionable, head to the paddock area and enjoy yourself.
11. Go star spotting on the red carpet.
If you love celebrity sightings, head over to the red carpet located near the Clubhouse entrance (don’t worry – GA ticketholders still have access to the area!) to see celebrities arriving for the Kentucky Derby. See my shoddily-drawn map below to get an idea of where it is. If you love big names from movies, TV, music, and sports, this is a can’t-miss event for you!
12. Stop by the paddock before a race to see the horses and jockeys get ready.
The area surrounding the paddock (which is the area where horses are saddled and paraded before each race as their jockeys get last-minute instructions from trainers and owners) is part of your general admission ticket – that means that you can get a front-row view of some of the best horses on the planet before they run. A word of wisdom, though: if you want to be at the paddock for the Kentucky Derby, plan on staking out your spot at least an hour before the race. The area is first-come, first-serve, so be prepared!
13. Raise a glass to the Kentucky Derby.
The official toast to the Kentucky Derby is at 5:13 p.m. in the Winner’s Circle, so make sure you have a julep, glass of champagne, or soft drink of your choice in hand to celebrate the occasion. While you won’t have access to the Winner’s Circle – that’s pretty much reserved for the people who own and train victorious horses – it’s a ton of fun to share a toast with 160,000 people.
14. Sing along with “My Old Kentucky Home.”
One of the biggest traditions at the Kentucky Derby is singing along to the state’s song as the contenders come out onto the racetrack. While the words will be shared on every TV screen in Churchill Downs, it’s a lot easier to sing along if you have a general idea of the lyrics. So! Here they are: