As Louisvillians, we seem to have a love-hate relationship with the Kentucky Derby. Some maintain that this is the biggest annual event in the entire state and earns some much-needed recognition for our beautiful but oft-overlooked Commonwealth. Others grumble about the inundation of outsiders the race draws – day-trippers and Yankees who flood in and out Louisville in the blink of an eye and give little regard to the traditions and cultural landmarks of the area. But one thing our fair city has never been accused of lacking is good old-fashioned Southern hospitality, no matter how provoked we are by the explosion in local population on the first Saturday in May. The Derby draws visitors from distant corners of not only the US, but the entire globe, and great travel material is published every year on what makes the Derby experience both thrilling and wholly unique. Below you will find a round-up of the different articles and websites that have contributed their own angle on the Derby and its host city.
A lot of this information will seem obvious to seasoned Derby-goers, like the distinction between Millionaire’s Row and the infield and how that difference hinges on more than simply the price of your ticket. There are, however, some helpful tips regarding the logistics of traveling to Louisville for the grand affair. Potential visitors are encouraged to book restaurants like Proof on Main in advance, peruse Hotels.com for rooms in neighboring cities like Frankfort and Lexington, and flying into other great Southern towns like Nashville to transform a normally single-day event into a weekend get-away. Mention is also made of the Derby post parade, which often gets overlooked in the fracas after the race. For out-of-towners who want to feel the true spirit of tradition that pervades Derby, it is worth it to stay and hear the whole of Churchill Downs sing “My Old Kentucky Home” as a line of beautiful thoroughbreds marches on display.
The first Saturday in May is Louisville’s shining moment in the sun for one wonderful, brief interlude every year. Many remain unaware, however, of the River City’s other attractions. Don’t forget, advises the Boston Herald, that Muhammad Ali was born and raised in this jewel upon the Ohio, and memorabilia collected throughout his life is conveniently stored just down the street from Churchill Downs, in the Muhammad Ali Center. The food around town is also given generous consideration and travelers to Louisville for the weekend are encouraged to branch out and dine in. Even those who have heard of a Hot Brown may not know that, like the one-time Cassius Clay, it originated in Louisville, and Lynn’s Paradise Café gets another nod from a national outlet, solidifying her status as a local celebrity.
Again, the Miami Herald’s recent article about traveling the Triple Crown lists a couple of no-brainers, like “plan ahead” and “don’t expect to get a seat.” The benefit of this piece is that it also covers the other two legs of the three-tiered “Super Bowl of horse racing.” This actually comes into play if you’re enough of a horse racing enthusiast to attend all three events. Unsurprisingly, the attendance at the Preakness and Belmont Stakes relies heavily on whether or not the winner of the Kentucky Derby remains in the running for the Triple Crown. Last year, for example, the Belmont saw only 55,779 at the track, despite its affordable tickets and 33,000 seats.
Who knows the Derby better than the people who host it year after year? If you want the best, most straightforward tips for attending Derby, look no further than the official website of the 138th Kentucky Derby, maintained by Churchill Downs itself. They have not only provided gate opening and post times down to the minute (according to them, the Derby runs at “approximately 6:24 p.m.”), but have gone completely country club and published what is mistakenly considered an “implied” dress code by many hopeful and woefully misinformed Derby attendees. Did you know, for example, that jeans, shorts, tennis shoes, and athletic apparel are prohibited in places like the Trophy Room and the Trackside Village? They are more lax about what can be donned in the infamous infield – they have even compiled a digital gallery of some of the more outrageous infield outfits from past years.
At the end of the day, the Kentucky Derby is still a sporting event, and an extremely important one if you’re in with the equestrian crowd. The premier sports network has been following contenders in the Derby for weeks now, supplying readers with rumors, observations, and hard facts that will come in handy when cashing that all-important bet this Saturday. Their ongoing “Road to the Kentucky Derby” has been keeping an eye on the field and is updated almost daily. If a factor bumps your favorite out of the understood “top contenders” rankings – like when Bodemeister fell apart at the end of the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Sprint, El Padrino ran “a disappointing one-paced effort in the Florida Derby,” and Daddy Long Legs “was at Churchill for the Breeders' Cup last fall and didn't finish until about Christmas” – you’ll be the first to know. Make sure you check the Three-Year-Old Graded Earnings table as the race nears, and in the meantime, check out a couple of ESPN’s excellent blogs, written by the likes of Julien Leparoux and Mike Smith, for some interesting angles on the equestrian world.
This long-running newsletter is a true Louisville original. Named for the thoroughbred who won the 1998 Santa Anita Derby and lived for many years as a successful sire, this colorful “publication” is churned out weekly by Ed Musselmen, a colorful former jockey agent and trainer who is well known around the backside of Churchill Downs and who loves to stir up trouble for some of horse racing’s biggest names, especially Bob “Sausage Man” Evans and Barry “White Shoes” Irwin. The content, while rarely true, is certainly entertaining, especially for those familiar with the horse racing industry and its large cast of characters. For example, this breaking-news headline ran just last week: “A restraining order has been place against trainer Dale Romans by the Kentucky Fried Chicken located in the 5000 block of South Third Street in Louisville.” You may want to browse the hilarious archives online to get into the real spirit of the Kentucky Derby – the one represented by all those men and women behind the scenes you don’t often consider on racing day.
Photo courtesy of Tabitha Kaylee Hawk.