The Kentucky Derby Weekend Guide
Updated: Mar 13, 2019
One of my favorite events that I got to experience while being a student at the University of Kentucky was going to the Kentucky Derby. Most people look at the Derby as a once in a lifetime experience, but not for the people that either live in Kentucky or attend school there. For us, we have so many events that weekend. Not only is graduation that same weekend, but you can't forget about Oaks Day (the day before the actual Derby). With a world wind of events, it's hard to manage where to go and what to see, hence the reason for my weekend go-to guide. Not only will I tell you where to go, but I will also give you some tips on how to rule the Derby.
Places to Go
Usually on Oaks Day, the distilleries are buzzing with tours and special events just to celebrate the Derby. When I worked at Buffalo Trace Distillery, we had tour buses galore filled with people from all over the world. Oaks Day was one of my favorite events to work. Not trying to be too biased, but Buffalo Trace offers free tours and tastings. I promise it's worth it. Before you make your plans for Derby weekend, make sure to check out distillery websites to see if its hosting any events on the property. Don't be afraid to call either if you have a big party and want to do something exciting that day.
The homestead of the Kentucky Derby, Churchill Downs. Besides going there for the Derby, Churchill Downs does have its own Oaks Day festivities. People can watch horses race as well as place their bets. It's also a good way to see how tomorrow will go. If you are like me though, you rather save Churchill Downs for Derby day and check out exciting places in Lexington, Frankfort and Louisville.
My favorite racetrack in Kentucky (yes, it's better than Churchill Downs). Keeneland will hold a viewing event for people that can't actually attend the Derby. You can go in the race track facilities and there's a huge screen to watch the races. You can also place bets there. Keeneland is only open for real racing in October and April. I would plan another trip to Kentucky during one of those months just to experience Keeneland season. The colors of the changing seasons and tailgating is like no other.
Kentucky Horse Park
The historical Horse Park is a museum all about horses and racing. People can learn about the history of horses and how transportation/races have changed over centuries. It's a great place to take children to and maybe get a chance to pet horses on the property.
Tips for the Derby Weekend
1. When attending the Derby, try to get seats in the stands: With general admission, you get a spot on the grass (which is first come, first serve). You never know what the weather will be like on Derby day and it has rained in the past. It's not fun wearing a nice dress, hat and heels while standing in mud. Though seats might be expensive, I promise you it's worth being covered up.
2. Pack/wear sunscreen: While being on the grass, I got a major sunburn. Even though I applied before we left, I needed to keep reapplying. Try to pack a travel bottle of sunscreen that can fit in a small bag. If you are in the stands, you might not have to worry about sunburn as much, but still consider it.
3. Plan events and hotel a year advance: Since graduation for UK is the same weekend as the Derby, plan your hotels accordingly. Hotels are booked in Louisville all the way to Lexington. Most people book a year out anyways since the Derby is the same weekend every year. Also, make sure your Oaks Day events are also planned out in advance. Don't be afraid to look into tour groups that help plan everything for you. The Mint Julep group is one I know well from the distillery.
4. Hats and a bowtie: Ladies, pretty much every one is wearing a hat. It's doesn't have to be super fancy, but some women (and even men) go above and beyond on their hat. Find the hat first that you want to wear and then pick the dress. I promise it will be easier depending on how extravagant the hat is. Now for men, bowties are what you wear to the Derby. Not a tie, a bowtie! Have fun with it too. Men will wear bright colors because it is spring, so don't be afraid to wear pastels.
5. Pack flip-flops: You're feet will hurt and might get muddy if it rains, so pack a pair for your sake.
6. Save the cups: I can't stress enough to save your Mint Julep and Lily cups. The cups are collectables and they change every year. They are real glass and totally worth taking home. A simple momentum of your weekend in Kentucky.
7. Make sure to save room in your luggage for bourbon and pack alcohol travel zip-lock: Companies now sell bubble wrap zip-lock holders for alcohol so they no longer have to be wrapped up multiple times in your clothes. Buy a few of them before you leave for your trip because I promise you, you will buy bourbon and it will save your clothes greatly.
8. Lookout for celebrities: With the Derby being a global event, many celebrities have been known to show up. The Queen of England came many years ago, so it just proves how exciting the Derby is. Be on the lookout!
I hope this guide gets you excited for the Derby. I'm so sad I get to miss it and celebrating Oaks Day at the distillery. It's amazing how many people from all over the world come to Kentucky for this experience. Say hi to a celebrity, pet the race horses (if you can get near them), drink mint juleps, a lily cocktail or two and enjoy some Kentucky bourbon. Take in what Kentucky has to offer because who knows when you will be back and the sun (always) shines bright in the old Kentucky home.🏡