How to Enjoy the Derby in 10 Easy Steps
LOUISVILLE, Ky. – More than a week removed from partaking in what Hunter S. Thompson called “the Derby’s special vibrations,” I’ve had time to reflect on the entire experience. The Kentucky Derby is the longest continuously held sporting event in the United States, and it truly is something to be checked off your bucket list. As John Steinbeck wrote in 1956: “What an experience. I am glad I have seen it and felt it at last.”
A few things I learned (some the hard way).
- Ladies in the know wear comfortable shoes, like flip-flops, to the racetrack and pack high heels in their purses. After walking the expansive grounds and weaving through the enormous crowd (and when the mint juleps no longer numb the pain), the flip-flops will again come in handy. Vendors who were smart enough to stock them sold out before the big race, leaving some sore feet bare.
- Find a hotel, flight and ticket now. Hotels, especially those closest to the track, begin to fill up a year in advance. Flying into Cincinnati or Indianapolis can save money on travel. A request for 2013 tickets can be submitted on the event’s Web site, and packages are already on sale on sites like QuintEvents. Don’t end up picking up tickets the day before the race from an office in the back of a bakery in Indiana.
- Many people at the Derby, and its accompanying parties, can’t name a horse in the race or a previous winner. I can’t decide if that’s good or bad. I’m glad they get to experience the charms of the sport on its biggest stage; let’s hope that will be enough to bring them back.
- Participate in the traditions, even if they are clichéd. Wear a fancy hat, buy an $11 mint julep in a souvenir glass, go ahead and shed a tear during “My Old Kentucky Home.” Just beware of those glasses later (see Item 1).
- There really is something to Southern hospitality, even if Kentucky isn’t technically Southern. The accent, the warm smiles, the eagerness to please, the excitement for all things Derby. “You feel it in your bones,” a Louisville native told me on the eve of the race. He wasn’t lying.
- Take the time to experience Kentucky outside Churchill Downs. Visit a horse farm like Three Chimneys or a bourbon distillery like Woodford Reserve. Spend time on Fourth Street here in downtown. Savor a hot brown in all its cheesy, meaty glory and sip a beer that’s been expertly aged in a bourbon barrel.
- Be prepared for everything. Hot temperatures, cold temperatures, rain, sunshine. A thunderstorm caused officials to suspend racing and evacuate the infield on Oaks Day this year, presumably to practice caution after what happened at the Indiana State Fair in August. (Seven people died when wind caused a stage to collapse.)
- Get there early. A large crowd is a given. This year, a record crowd of 165,307 attended the Derby. The locals can’t even claim Friday as their day anymore; the Oaks drew its second-largest crowd with 112,552. The good news is that this isn’t Churchill Downs’s first horse race. The parking/shuttle system is down to a science (we had success parking at Louisville’s football stadium), as is the cleanup.
- Remember the horses. Visit the paddock, the backside, attend the early-morning workouts. Marvel in their beauty and their power.
- Stop what you’re doing and take it all in: the sights, the sounds, the history, the emotion, the bacchanalia and the glamour. It is at once overwhelming and remarkable. And after you’ve felt it, you won’t want to miss another.
Now, without further ado, it’s time to put a twist on a phrase I heard many times in Louisville: Happy Preakness!