The Kentucky Derby has held a deep fascination for me since I was a child. The elegant dress, the flamboyant hats- it seems like the horse race from My Fair Lady had come to life. Moving to the Southeast, I was closer to the race than ever before. So much so that I had a Kentucky Derby themed party last year. As luck would have it, I was chatting with a friend at Orpheus Brewery and told her about my obsession with the race. “Did you know that infield tickets are only $50?” I stammered. She let me know that yes, of course she knew that because her family is from Louisville and she is going home for the race and would I like to come? I have never jumped on an invitation so fast.
Louisville, Kentucky has been home to the Derby since its creation in 1875. Churchill Downs has become a pilgrimage spot for horse racing fanatics as well as people wanting to experience one of the greatest traditions in American sports. The track is located right outside of the University of Louisville and near the historic town square. Louisville is a charming, forested town with a high concentration of Victorian homes. I was charmed by Louisville and would highly recommend the city as a destination in itself. Eric and I had a great night out in the Highlands and I wish we would have had more time to enjoy the city and surrounding area. The drive was seven hours one way; this made the trip doable, but exhausting from Atlanta. Eric and I went to bed early, trying to prep ourselves for the craziness ahead.
When I tell people that I was going to the Kentucky Derby, the first question I get is how did I ever find tickets? What many people don’t know is infield tickets are available the day of the event and are a reasonable $60. Compare that to the price of bleacher tickets in the grandstand at $350-$500 or box seats which are sold in groups of six for anywhere from $2,500-$6,000. The infield was the only real option I had to attend. There is a reason infield tickets are exponentially cheaper: it’s chaos in there. Of the 167,227 fans at the Derby, the vast majority are slumming it in the infield.
Our groups’ walk to Churchill Downs was interrupted by protesters aggressively yelling in our face. I’m not sure if it’s the gambling, the drinking or the hat wearing but God hates the Derby. According to my friend and gracious host Meagan, they show up every year. Exciting to know that getting spit on is part of a grand tradition!
We traveled to the infield via tunnel to separate the peasants from the grandstand crowd. This created a dramatic entrance into Churchill Downs. It was as if a massive drunken football team was entering a stadium. Our task? To find a place to sit down and set up camp somewhere in the massive interior space. The infield is completely surrounded by the one and a quarter mile track; if it wasn’t for the attire and 171 foot wide video screen, I might have forgotten where I was. Everywhere I looked I saw stands selling drinks, memorabilia and more drinks. It was a massive tailgate without the football. It was the most southern I have ever felt.
Gambling at the Kentucky Derby is essential. How else will you know who to scream and shout for? I had picked my horse from the Louisville Courier-Journal cheat sheet and studied up on the proper way to place a bet. My horse was Creator. I chose him based on his coloring and Illuminati-like jockey jersey.* I bet—and lost—on Creator to place, which means he needed to get first, second or third place. A win bet is first place and a place bet is for first or second place. If you want to get fancy, you can try a trifecta bet where you must chose the correct three horses in the correct order. The most intimating part of betting is using the proper lingo. I couldn’t saunter up to the window and place 20 on “Creator doing alright”, I had to burrow up to the window shouting “20 on 13 to place on the 12th”, which translates to “$20 on Creator to get 1st, 2nd or 3rd on the 12th race of the day”. Eric bet on Nyquist and Exaggerator to pull off the exacta; the horses could be in first and second in any order. A bet which ended up recovering my lost winnings.
After finding a place to set up camp, Eric and I left to get a the iconic drink of the race. The mint julep is made with mint, sugar and bourbon. It’s been a tradition at the Derby since 1938. The simple task of buying a drink in a collectible cup turned into an quest which took us a few hours. Our infield exploration was held up by a massive thunderstorm where we took shelter under a shed. The havoc that this storm caused to the track was only made apparent to me watching the race recap the next day. As I said, the infield feels strangely isolated from the actual event.My hat never recovered from the rain but that didn’t stop me from wearing the droopy feathers with pride and sipping on my overpriced sugar water and bourbon. Between photo ops, sipping on smuggled booze and meeting new friends, I missed “Our Old Kentucky Home” and would have missed the entire race if a mass of people hadn’t pushed toward the fences.
Thanks to the gigantic screen I was able to follow the race while keeping my nose squashed up against the chain link fence keeping us hooligans off the track. Watching the racehorses dash by only yards away made it feel like I had attended the greatest minute in sports instead of the greatest fashion show in tailgating. As the adrenaline and booze began to fade, it was time to pack up and head home. I had loved my time at the Kentucky Derby; the people were all friendly and the pomp did not disappoint. I would love to return one day to experience the event from the grandstands but I might have to wait a few income brackets before that happens.
*Creator went on to win the Belmont Stakes! Perhaps my betting instincts weren’t too far off after all.
ABV High / IBUs Low / Sugar Content High
Two out of five porta-potty races
We bought our Juleps from a woman hawking them around her neck like a popcorn vendor at a baseball game. You might think that this would mean that there was less bourbon in there. I assure you that was not the case.
The Julep was super syrupy with the consistency of a snow cone. Not worth the price anywhere else on earth except Churchill downs.