Do you remember when The Kentucky Oaks was considered Louisville's Derby? The excitement and atmosphere of the Derby was there, but the crowd was light, you could get a seat in the grandstand with your general admission ticket, and you might see a celebrity or two. Today, Oaks Day is just as crowded and just as expensive as attending the Derby. Unless you're going to the infield, you're expected to don Derby Day attire, including the big hat; every seat is reserved; and parking onsite is not going to happen. The locals, including me, have begun to make Thursday of Kentucky Derby week their day at the races.
Thursday of Derby week offers much of the same things Louisvillians love about Kentucky Oaks and Kentucky Derby Day, but in a much more low-key and cost-conscientious atmosphere. It is a day much like any other during Churchill Downs' Spring Meet, but it offers patrons a glimpse at what Churchill Downs will be like that first weekend in May. It often includes races with some notable names, like 2009 Breeders' Cup Dirt Mile winner Furthest Land, who will run in Thursday's 5th race.
Parking at Churchill Downs is limited during Derby week due to the extra tents and equipment set up in the parking lots, but if you arrive early, you should be able to get a spot. As is common for Derby and Oaks, there will also be plenty of people who live around the track that are willing to let you park in their yard for a nominal fee.
When you arrive at Churchill Downs through Gate 10, off of Longfield, you'll be greeted with merchandise tents offering Kentucky Derby and Kentucky Oaks souvenirs and other specialty items not offered in the track gift shop. You’ll also see some of the décor and vendors that will be available to the Derby and Oaks attendees.
You may want to pay special attention to the paddock in-between races on Thursday. Kentucky Derby and Kentucky Oaks contenders (or other horses running in the stakes-filled undercards) often school in the paddock on this day. Sometimes an announcement will be made as to which horses are currently in the paddock and sometimes you may just have to be bold and ask the hotwalkers yourself if you think they may be escorting a big name.
Typically, the infield is open on Thursday and sometimes you’ll even have the opportunity to enjoy an infield concert. However, I cannot find that any concerts are scheduled this year. Just as it is throughout the rest of the Downs, the infield is completely decked out for Derby, including the Bacardi Infield Club, the rows of food and julep vendors, and even the lines of port-a-pots. Most food and drink vendors are open, but be warned—some have already set their prices for Derby and Oaks day, so you may want to wait until you get back to the grandstand side to get your beer.
If you can get out of the house early, you can start your day at Churchill Downs with Dawn at the Downs. Enjoy breakfast in Millionaires Row while watching the Kentucky Derby and Kentucky Oaks contenders conduct their morning workouts. According to the Churchill Downs website, from Millionaires Row 4, a host will announce the horses on the track, discuss the contenders' past performances and provide insight to the Kentucky Derby and Kentucky Oaks races. Morning workouts will be shown live on the television monitors and the announcements will be heard throughout the track. You’ll need to make a reservation for breakfast and a seat in Millionaires row, but no reservation is required to watch the workouts from the rail in the First Floor Clubhouse, Sections 116 and 117.
Over the last few years, as the secret of this day has gotten out, the crowd has increased. However, if you plan for it, you won’t have a problem. Gates open at 11:00 AM with the first post at 12:45 PM. Churchill Downs is slowly catching on to the popularity of the day and have raised the admission for Thursday from the usual $3 to $5. Let's hope this is not going to continue and one day we're paying $10-$20 for admission and $7 for a beer on this Thursday or we may have to make Wednesday of Derby week the day for the locals!
So get in the Derby spirit and spend your Thursday watching the ponies before you head down to Broadway for the Derby Festival's Pegasus Parade.
Photo: Courtesy Jessie Oswald