Kentucky Derby Is Over - Now It's Time To Start Planning 2014

By Forbes, Larry Olmsted | May 06, 2013

Despite the rain, nearly 150,000 revelers had the times of their lives at Churchill Downs racetrack in Louisville this past weekend. It was the first Saturday in May and for 139 years that has meant just one thing: “The Run For the Roses,” The Kentucky Derby, “The Most Exciting Two Minutes in Sports.”

As usual, the stars came out for racing’s biggest day, from Kid Rock to Robert Griffin III to country star Martina McBride who sang the National Anthem. The pomp and circumstance was in full swing, with the fancy dress, over the top hats, and as always, the University of Louisville marching band leading into the race with a stirring rendition of My Old Kentucky Home.

But it’s not just the race, it is a weekend full of balls, parties and stunning food, red carpets and black ties. I’ve written at length here in about why I think the Kentucky Derby is an awesome, truly once in a lifetime bucket list event and why it offers a superior spectator experience to just about every other major sporting event – if you do it right. There is a world of difference between rolling into sold-out Louisville without a hotel room and buying a general admission infield ticket to stand exposed in the rain, or the often sweltering heat, and having a comprehensive VIP package with the best seats, best VIP hospitality lounge, hotel, transfers and pre and post-Derby balls.

With ticket packages for 2014 already on sale now, a full year in advance, it’s not too soon to get it right for 2014. Here’s what you need to know:

VIP lounges like The Turf Club offer the best spectator experiences within Churchill Downs racetrack.

The very best seats go fast, especially those in the A-list areas, the Turf Club and Millionaire’s Row. Every year, Derby Experiences, the official provider of travel packages for Churchill Downs, sells out completely. While they typically have some seat/package availability right up until the week before the race, these are slim pickings and the best options sell out much earlier – it’s not too early to book right now. Bear in mind that up until this year’s tumultuous rain showers, the Derby was coming off several consecutive years of record attendance.

Derby Experiences is a joint venture between Churchill Downs, the Louisville racetrack that hosts the Derby, and QuintEvents, a respected luxury sporting event travel specialist that is also the NFL’s official provider for similar NFL On Location Super Bowl packages (and the Pro Bowl) and the NBA’s official provider for the All-Star game. “Everything sold out, every ticket, every hospitality slot, every parking spot,” QuintEvents principal Ken Kurek, told me leading up to last year’s Derby If you want the best selection, start shopping now.

Ticket packages with reserved seats and hospitality lounges are a lot more fun than hanging out in the infield all day in the rain or sweltering heat.

These are your options: General Admission tickets for the infield have always been the easiest and cheapest way to go, but it can be really hot and sunny, or alternatively cold and rainy, and the infield is completely exposed with no seats, no shelter, usually really crowded and somewhat unpleasant unless you love a Spring Break atmosphere. Unlike reserved seats, these standing room only tickets are sold by the day, $25 for the Oaks and $40 for the Derby. The good news is that they don’t sell out and you can get them right up until the race.

Churchill Downs sells some tickets a la carte, mostly for seats only. If you buy these, you have a spot in the grandstand, but you are stuck with the massive general admission lines for everything for food to placing bets, and these can run 20+ minutes per race. You will end up spending a good chunk of each day standing in lines. Virtually all reserved seat tickets are good for two days, Kentucky Oaks Day Friday and Derby Day Saturday. For this year, the racetrack built new stands and added an attractive new option. The new seating area, called Section 110, bridges the gap between just a seat and the more expensive lounge hospitality packages. Section 110 has its own self-contained food and drink venue, the seats features modern stadium style drink holders, and tickets here include unlimited food and drinks (alcoholic and non). Section 110 sits at the first turn, aka the “Clubhouse Turn,” and these are the best reserved seats readily available to the pubic that are not part of a larger travel package. About a third of the seats in Section 110 are covered, which is much more desirable in rain or sunshine, and those tickets were $799 this year, while uncovered seating was $698. Both are good for the two days of racing and with food and beverage, this is among the best buys at Churchill Downs. Churchill Downs 2014 direct ticket sales have not yet started, but they are taking 2014 preregistration for ticket requests.

All of the best seats are reserved for travel packages, and if you can afford to go this route, it is simply a much, much better way to do the Derby. It will make your experience wonderful, and every package, at a minimum, includes both a ticketed seat in the stands or a lounge and access to one of the track’s private hospitality venues, which range from bare bones with cash bar and fast food for sale, to ultra-swank with tuxedoed waiters serving food and an open bar. Some are much nicer than others, but all offer an oasis of refuge from the very crowded general admission parts of the main racetrack, and are places where you can go between races and sit down, eat, drink, place bets and generally relax – without long lines. More common than this year’s rain is heat and it is often sultry at Derby time. You just don’t want to sit out trackside in a suit and tie and hat for 5-9 hours in the sun. Trust me, once you experience these hospitality venues, you will be glad you bought a package, all of which also include special fast access VIP entrances to the track.

Basic packages include the VIP access, a hospitality lounge and seats, both of which come in wide variety of price points and quality levels. Beyond this, Derby Experience packages are infinitely flexible and customizable and can be purchased with or without lodging, which usually includes super-convenient ground transportation between the hotel and track, and beats trying to hail a cab. Derby Experiences pre-books huge blocks of rooms at all the top hotels in town, including The Galt House, the official hotel of the Derby, where Derby Experiences runs a temporary lobby office all weekend for its customers. The Galt House is also home to the major post Kentucky Oaks black-tie ball, hosts lobby happy hours, and offers a range of trackside shuttle options. For more meager budgets, Derby Experience uses less expensive hotels beyond the city center. You can combine ticket and hospitality packages without any of this lodging.

Unique experiences like a semi-private Paddock Tour, seeing jockeys mount up in front of you, are things you can incorporate into your KY Derby ticket package.

You can also add entertainment and events to these packages on an a la carte basis, as Derby Experiences sells tickets to premier evening events, such as Taste of the Derby food event, the Julep Ball, the celebrity laden Barnstable Brown ball, and the ultra-cool Winners Party, held in the Kentucky Derby Museum at Churchill Downs immediately after the race. Derby Experience customers can also book semi-private paddock tours, seeing the horses saddled and the jockeys mount up for a race right up close, and these can be done throughout either Oaks or Derby Day. Derby Experiences even offers day trips, such as tours of famous Kentucky horse farms, rounds of golf or visits to nearby bourbon distilleries.

Specific seat and hospitality combinations vary greatly within the track. The highest tier options, the Turf Club and Millionaires Row, have reserved tables within the venues which are the ticketed seats. This year Churchill Downs offered an even more opulent invitation-only option called The Mansion. The Turf Club is generally positioned and priced as the marquee option, and this is where top celebrities watch the race from, but a major drawback is that viewing is entirely through windows. I prefer Millionaire’s Row, which has the same table seating, but adds a large balcony with an excellent view where you can go out and watch the race from. Both offer extensive food and drink service and private betting windows all day long. Again, all packages include both Oaks and Derby Day, so the Kentucky Oaks is a great dry run to get everything figured out to your liking in advance of the main event.

Because you can see the entire track from above, seats are better the higher you go, so the 6th floor Millionaire’s Row is considered superior to the 4th floor Millionaire’s Row, and both are better than reserved clubhouse seats which run from the first to third floor (six is the top), which in turn are better than the track level grandstand. Besides height, location matters: the closer you are to the finish line the better, and the Clubhouse, but not the grandstand, sits along the home stretch.

Personally I think the best combination of value, quality and experience is to get a good clubhouse seat on the second or third level as close to the finish line as possible, coupled with hospitality in the Secretariat Lounge. This is a large and private lounge very centrally located on the clubhouse’s second floor. This way you can watch races in the traditional fashion, from good open air box seats, and then come in as often as you want between races for an air conditioned venue with open bar, free flowing food, live music, large screens and private betting terminals. It’s not quite as flashy or celebrity-driven as the highest tier options, but offers more of a race day experience with all the adrenaline and excitement of the crowds and open air access to the track and horses. You’ll see more of Churchill Downs, without ever having to wait on any of the long lines.

As you go below the Secretariat Lounge in price you get less elaborate hospitality tents and rooms, which can still be coupled with less pricey clubhouse and grandstand seating. For instance, packages combining the least expensive uncovered reserved grandstand seats with 3-nights lodging at a Hampton Inn on the outskirts of town and a smaller hospitality suite with cash bar and cash food service run about $2,000 per person. A 4-day/3-night package with upgraded lodging at the Embassy Suites, high-quality second or third floor clubhouse seats, and the Secretariat Lounge is about $5,300 per person. The same package with seats and hospitality in the Turf Club bumps to $6,500 and for Millionaire’s Row $8,000. All include Kentucky Oaks Day, so in every case you get two full days of racing, fun and hospitality.

I look at it this way – the difference between a high-end package including all lodging, first-rate hospitality, transfers and excellent seats for the weekend and the cheapest package is the same or less as the difference between a coach and first class seat on a typical domestic flight. If you are the kind of person who would ever consider buying a premium airline seat, it does not make sense to not do the Derby first class. If attending this great event in the most convenient, luxurious, and turnkey fashion is your goal, with eager staffers available to make itinerary changes on the fly, simply book a complete package through Derby Experiences, Churchill Downs’ official provider, and all you have to do is get yourself to Louisville and enjoy. This part is easy: in addition to the city’s own airport, Cincinnati and Indianapolis are both less than an hour and a quarter away.