This post contains a few tips and tricks on what to expect at Churchill Downs on Oaks and Derby days.
There are two online resources at your fingertips for details on security, transportation, parking, and what is and is not allowed in Churchill Downs: ChurchillDowns.com and KentuckyDerby.com. Both are helpful in different ways and I recommend reading each site in its entirety.
Below are tips and tricks based on our experiences at the 2018 Kentucky Oaks and Derby.
I found Louisville to be a progressive city in a state that seems to be politically divided. Eastern Kentucky is coal country where they believe the “promise” that coal jobs are coming back and Western Kentucky is not coal country where they know coal jobs are not coming back.
Louisville is the northernmost city of “the south” and is full of Southern Belles. I’ve never been a girlie girl and I’ve been living in the outdoors-loving Pacific Northwest for two-and-a-half years now, so I was slightly intimated with what to wear during our trip. I was confident that athleisure was a no-go but should I be dolled up in dresses 24/7?
I still don’t know the answer to that question but I do know that I was the only female in the state of Kentucky not wearing make-up. This also meant I was the only female at the Kentucky Derby who did not have make-up running down her face due to pouring rain.
The population of the Kentucky metropolitan area is 1.2 million, so roughly 400,000 more than the city of Seattle but only a third of the population of the Seattle-Tacoma-Bellevue area. Louisville had a small town and big city feel all at the same time with a feeling of community. People were friendly and accommodating and greeted us with a smile, even if their day had gone to shit.
Louisville in the Eastern Time Zone which was surprising to me. We also saw many commercials and roadside adverts that referenced the midwest. As an example, there was a roadside advert for a waterpark I’d never heard of located near Louisville which boasted “the biggest in the midwest”.
Let’s be honest. The biggest waterpark in the midwest is Wisconsin Dells.
Everyone has a different view of the regional borders of the US and my definition of midwest includes: Minnesota, Iowa, Wisconsin, Illinois, and maybe Missouri and Kansas but for some reason, not Nebraska. To the west of the midwest states are the plains states and to the east of the midwest is a region for which I have no name. It’s a region I am unfamiliar with and prior to this trip, I may have mistaken the shape of Tennessee for Kentucky.
We drove our rental car to Churchill Downs on both race days. It was recommended by Churchill Downs to park in the Papa John’s Cardinals Stadium parking lot which we did. The cost to park was $20 with no in-and-out privileges.
Apparently, parking during the 2018 Kentucky Oaks/Derby was different than it had been in previous years. This was due to ongoing construction in the front of Churchill Downs for the Breeders Cup.
The walk from the stadium to Churchill Downs was about a half of a mile. There were no shuttles from the stadium to the security entrances, not even for handicapped persons, so keep this in mind. There is, however, a Starbucks, a sports bar, Kroger (not the location which makes the garland of roses), and Little Caesars on the walk in the event you need a drink and/or pizza.
Ridesharing services dropped off and picked up in a designated area of the stadium parking lot.
We went through the security entrance located on the backside of the track, so the opposite side of the permanent seating. There were 20 or so security lines and security was comparable to stadium security.
Bag sizes are restricted but don’t worry too much if you are slightly larger than the maximum dimensions. I had a clear tote bag and a carabiner hooked on to one of the handles. I wasn’t sure what I’d use the carabiner for but it added almost no weight to the bag so why not. (I used the carabiner on both days.)
At security, you’ll be required to place your bag on a table to be searched while you walk through a metal detector. The primary contraband the security team looks for is alcohol and weapons are secondary. The inspection of my tote by security was a half-hearted attempt. I could have easily smuggled alcohol on both visits. They gave a quick shake to our sunscreen bottles to verify it had a lotion-type consistency and we were on our way.
There are designated security lines for people with bags, people without bags, and people with foldable chairs though I witnessed people with chairs going through the “people with bags” security lines.
Protip: One of our chaperones packed a few empty gallon-size Ziplock bags and precut ribbon in her tote. The night before, she poked a hole in one of the top corners of each bag so that the precut ribbon could be threaded through the hole, tied and used as a handle to the bag. One of her family members used one of her bags to store his drink glasses which freed up his hands for more drinking.
Guests are permitted to bring foldable chairs into Churchill Downs but to the infield only. If you purchase infield and paddock tickets, I highly recommend you bring a chair for your infield experience. If you do not bring chairs, the only place you will have to sit is on the grass in the infield which could be wet, muddy, and/or contain broken glass.
The infield is the area inside the tracks. It’s a mix of grass and dirt walkways. Both get equally messy when it rains. In the infield, you’ll find everything you need except a view of the race which is somewhat ironic since you’re in the middle of the damn track.
- Permanent bathrooms
- Betting windows
- Weather of all sorts
- Beer, cocktails, water, pop
- DJ playing music / very drunk people dancing / even more drunk people puking
- State fair type foods (e.g. funnel cakes, pretzels with liquid cheese, chips with liquid cheese, potato chips)
- No covered area except for the tunnels under the tracks
- Don’t walk around barefoot due to potential broken glass on the ground
The paddock is worth a visit but you should expect to spend a fair amount of time slowly pushing your way to the railing to get a front-row view of the horses. The paddock on Oaks Day was not too crowded but it was very crowded on Derby Day even though it was pouring rain.
Near the paddock, you’ll find the following:
- Entrance to the strip mall (see below)
- Beer, cocktails, other misc beverages
- No covered area except for the nearby strip mall and gift shop (no drinks allowed in the gift shop)
The strip mall
Below the seating near the paddock and the finish line is what can only be described as a strip mall. In here you’ll find the following:
- Permanent bathrooms
- First aid office (free Bandaids!)
- Beer, cocktails, other misc beverages
- State fair type of food
- Betting windows
- A few benches to rest your tush
- Shelter from the fucking rain
Smoking is allowed in the three areas we frequented (infield, paddock, strip mall). I cannot speak to smoking in suites or the grandstands but I suspect it’s permitted.
I found there to be a lot of smokers, both cigar and cigarette. This was bothersome to me and my clothes smelled like smoke after both days. Beware – this is a heavy smoking event.
I recommend bringing your own food to the Churchill Downs. Say, a sandwich and chips. Food is permitted to be brought in as long as it is packed into the required bag sizes.
Almost anything and everything goes in the infield and paddock. Though a fan of athleisure, I would not wear athleisure to an event such as the Oaks or Derby, however, there were a few people dressed in athleisure.
High heels. Avoid them unless you are one of the lucky few who have suite tickets and will be catered to every second of your visit. If you choose not to heed my advice and choose to wear high heels and have an infield and paddock ticket, then pack a pair of rubber or quick-drying flip-flops. Flip-flops will save your day and you can thank me later.
I wore dresses on both days. The dress I wore on Oaks Day was made of cotton and kept me cool during the heat of the day. The dress I wore on Derby Day was made of something other than cotton and it took nearly 24 hours for that dress to dry out after the downpour at the Kentucky Derby. I felt as though I was dressed appropriately for the infield and paddock. I’d probably go one level up in the dress code with grandstand tickets.
Protip: Tom’s shoes do not dry quickly and if there is any chance of rain, avoid wearing them. My Tom’s shoes were still damp on Monday night, almost 60 hours after we were safely out of the rain.
The best advice I can give is to wear something that you will be comfortable wearing all day – clothing, hat, jewelry, and shoes. This should also be something that any number of body parts will not fall out of after a few too many cocktails while wearing high heals and walking on uneven cobblestone.