The Thoroughbred racehorse is a massive and powerful animal, and when 20 of them are barreling around the homestretch toward the finish line, the ground literally trembles.
At the Kentucky Derby, which takes place every year at Churchill Downs in Louisville, Kentucky on the first Saturday in May, the earth moves on more mythical levels for those who have been a part of its history. “You hear people who’ve had a near-death experience say that their whole life flashes before their eyes in a split second,” said Gary Stevens, the Hall of Fame jockey who rode to victory in the Derby three times during his career. “Just before I crossed the finish line for my first Derby win, that happened to me.”
Bob Baffert, who has trained three Derby-winning Thoroughbreds, was equally awestruck about his first win in horseracing’s most prestigious contest. “It was the most exciting feeling of my life,” he said. “When you see your horse taking the lead in the stretch, you’re not mentally ready for it—you can’t believe it when it’s happening.”
Even if you’re not riding or training a horse in the first leg of racing’s Triple Crown, there are plenty of opportunities to get in on the action at what Derby devotees call “the most exciting two minutes in sports.” Churchill Downs president Steve Sexton said approximately 150,000 guests will visit the track on Derby day and $100 million will be wagered on the big race alone.
But beyond the running itself, the Kentucky Derby offers a grand spectacle that’s worth the price of admission. “In essence it is really a gigantic party with 12 races,” said Sexton. “It’s a slice of Americana, a cross section of society—and a great people-watching opportunity.”
That demographic gamut spans from the college-age party crowd in the infield to the elite on Millionaire’s Row—the prime race-viewing territory where a 40-person “Finish Line” suite goes for a quarter million bucks. Here, said Sexton, “You’ll see the upper crust of society, ranging from governors of states to congressmen and women to celebrities to major pro athletes.”
The high rollers’ party doesn’t begin—or end—with the big race. Several charity events, such as the Barnstable Brown party and the Grand Gala, attract celebrity glitz and paparazzi on the eve and night of the Derby, respectively. Last year’s Gala attendees included Michael Jordan and Spike Lee.
Jill Byrne, a racing analyst and reporter for Churchill Downs and for TVG, the cable television and online racing and wagering network, said that part of what makes the Derby so special is that the race is limited to three-year-old horses, which means “it can only happen to a horse once in their lifetime.” And Derby Day can be just as unique for non-equine visitors. “People talk about the 101 things you should do in a lifetime,” said Byrne. “The Kentucky Derby is one of them.”
This year, one of the luminaries checking the Derby off her lifetime to-do list will be the Queen of England: She’ll visit a friend’s Thoroughbred farm in Lexington before attending Churchill on the big day.
After 132 years of hosting the Derby and a recent $121-million renovation, the racetrack grounds should be in prime form to host royalty. And the smartly attired crowd on Millionaire’s Row is sure to offer a regal backdrop for the Queen Mother. As Baffert put it, “It’s our marquee day—it’s when you want to shine.”
From the best parties to the choicest restaurants, we've put together a must-do list for the discerning Kentucky Derby attendee (this includes sipping the world's most expensive Mint Julep). Enjoy.