Kentucky Derby Tips: A Day at Churchill Downs

Are you thinking about going to the derby or just want to know what it’s like? Come with us as we share our experience along with useful Kentucky Derby tips to help plan your trip. 

The Kentucky Derby has always been an event I wanted to attend; a bucket list item one could say. I wasn’t sure when I would be able to check it off my list or if at all since it can be an expensive experience. But a few years ago, the stars aligned and our friend came through with fabulous seats.

We were suddenly scrambling for a hotel room and adequate outfits for the occasion.

    And what an occasion it was..

Kentucky Derby

The Kentucky Derby Festival – Thunder Over Louisville

Here’s a crazy thing we learned: the Kentucky Derby is not just about the derby race. It’s actually a two-week extravaganza that ends with the race.

The festival kicks off with Thunder Over Louisville, the largest fireworks display in North America. It is the most thrilling and outrageous fireworks demonstration that we have ever seen and has been rated one of the top 100 events in America. 

Another Great Kentucky Trip: Red River Gorge Area

Two bucket list items in one place: Louisville, Kentucky. Before hitting the Kentucky Derby make sure to see Thunder over Louisville, North America's largest fireworks display.
Thunder Over Louisville from Slugger Field

There were three separate intervals we assumed were the finale because of the massive spectacle before us. Nope, just part of the show.

Kentucky Derby
Louisville Slugger Field

The Best Way to See Thunder Over Louisville

The best way to experience Thunder Over Louisville is to buy a ticket to the Louisville Bats game. The minor league baseball team plays at Louisville Slugger Field which has a great vantage point for the fireworks. 

The tickets are an all day admittance with in and out privileges to the park which gave us a seat for the baseball game, air show, mid-day concert then the fireworks display at night. 

And to me the most important, access to the bathrooms with no long lines. Well worth the ticket price!

Kentucky Derby
Thunder Over Louisville – Air Show
Kentucky Derby
Thunder Over Louisville – Air Show

In the days before the big race, the Kentucky Derby Festival continues with The Great Balloon Race, The Great Steamboat Race, The Pegasus Parade and Derby Marathons. The list goes on and on… who knew? We sure didn’t

The Longines Kentucky Oaks 

The Kentucky Oaks race is held the day before the Derby and is just as spectacular as the Derby itself.

It is an all pink celebration in honor of the Oaks official flower, the stargazer lily, and in support of Churchill Downs’ official partnerships with Bright Pink and Horses & Hope.

Kentucky Derby
Churchill Downs is adorned in pink
Kentucky Derby
Pretty in Pink
Kentucky Derby
Grey Goose Oaks Lily – Drink of the Day
Kentucky Derby
Even the horses and jockeys wear pink

Take a Kentucky Bourbon Tour

The Day of the Kentucky Derby

The Kentucky Derby is the longest annually held sporting event in the United States. It has been a big celebration since 1875 and is fondly mentioned in the popular book, “1,000 Places to See Before You Die.”

The day of the Derby is brimming with extravagant outfits, traditional Mint Juleps, exhilarating races, over-the-top-hats, and an all-consuming feeling of excitement.

So when is the Kentucky Derby 2019? The 145th Kentucky Derby is Saturday, May 4th, 2019 at 5:50 PM (CDT) at Churchill Downs in Louisville, Kentucky. 

Kentucky Derby
Not just fancy hats are worn!

What Time do the Gates Open at the Kentucky Derby?

The gates open early, at 8:00 AM, for both the Longines Kentucky Oaks and the Kentucky Derby. Guests can enter at the Paddock, Clubhouse, or Infield Gate. 

Kentucky Derby Parking

Parking is available (RESERVATION ONLY IN ADVANCE) at Churchill Downs for the Oaks and the Derby. Additional parking spaces are available the day of the Derby at Cardinal Stadium and the Kentucky Exposition Center with no reservations necessary. Locals also offer parking on their property throughout the neighborhood surrounding the track. 

Because we didn’t arrive till a few hours before the races began, we chose to park in a local’s driveway for a small fee. We had no issues getting out of our space and the people were very nice.  

Kentucky Derby
The Kentucky Derby’s Signature Drink: Mint Julep
Kentucky Derby
I could not find an inexpensive hat to fit my peanut-sized head & I think the lady behind me is noticing..

Do-Miss Experiences at the Kentucky Derby

Make sure to pull up the Derby Day Schedule to plan your day. 

  • The Infield. Even if you have seats, go check out the insane party that takes place on the infield. 
  • Drink a Mint Julep. 
  • The opening ceremonies. 
  • The midday celebrity red carpet stroll. You never know who you’ll see!
  • Walk the Paddock to see the horses. Maybe you’ll change your betting strategy. 
  • Learn the words to “My Old Kentucky Home” so you can sing along when its time. 
Kentucky Derby
Oh the hats…

Kentucky Derby Tips to Prepare and Survive

  1. Tour the Kentucky Derby Museum beforehand if possible.
  2. Watch Secretariat, a movie about the first horse to win the Triple Crown in twenty-five years, setting race records in all three events.
  3. Book your hotel as far in advance as you can, they book up quick.
  4. If you have hotel points, use them. Hotels increase the room prices, but the points stay the same.
  5. Give yourself extra time. Plan ahead and get to all events early.
  6. Getting home: It’s probably worth spending the extra money for transportation arranged beforehand. The taxi lines were horrendous.
  7. Ladies, if you wear heels, bring an extra pair of shoes (flip-flops or flats), it is a LONG day.
  8. Brush up on your betting strategy beforehand here.
  9. Bring a pen or sharpie for writing down bets.
  10. Wear sunscreen and bring sunglasses. 
  11. Stay hydrated. Again, it’s a long day.
  12. Place your bets all at once in the beginning of the day or at least for the Derby race. The lines are really long so do research and get your bets in early. 
  13. Bring cash, the ATM lines are long as well.
  14. Speaking of long lines, make sure to get in line for the bathroom BEFORE you have to go. 
  15. Pack snacks, the food is expensive and it’s a long day so it’s always smart to have goodies on hand. 

Looking for more tips on travel in the South?

Other Related Posts:

Plan Your Trip to Kentucky

We have been budget traveling for over ten years and love finding deals. Here are a few websites that we use consistently to save money and time booking accommodations, flights and car rental.


  • has a best rate guarantee program that allows you to price match up until 24 hours prior to arrival and its rewards program gives one free night for every 10 nights collected.


  • is a comparison website that searches through tons of flights. It compares airline pricing up to three times a day, having up to date information and also includes airlines such as Southwest and Allegiant that other websites do not include.

Car Rental

  • Priceline is usually the cheapest for car rentals and has a best rate guarantee program as well.

Do you have any Kentucky Derby tips? What was your experience like? Tell us in the comments!

Here are the best Kentucky Derby tips to plan your trip! Place your bets early, parking info, and the do-not miss events.

Kentucky Derby


Follow Angela:

Angela E. is a travel writer from the Chicagoland area who has visited all 50 states in the US and has traveled extensively around the world. She is passionate about exploring the great outdoors and hiking in particular. Her love for nature has taken her to some of the most beautiful locations on the planet. She has written extensively about her travels on her own website, Dang Travelers, and has been published in collaboration with other travel websites and multiple visitor bureaus around the country.

21 Responses

  1. tom

    Strange but I have never ever seen someone report about the Derby in a travel blog before–you’d think many people would talk about how to do it, but no. So good choice for a post! The photos really present what the experience is like.

    • Dang Travelers

      Thanks Tom! We went before we started the blog and since it is Derby weekend I figured I would put together something about our experience. It was an awesome weekend filled with laughter, drinks and new friends.

  2. Tami

    I never thought I’d be interested in the Derby, but years ago a friend of mine invited me to a “derby” party in her home. We watched the races, had mint juleps (non-alcoholic), and played trivia games about the history of the derby. It was surprisingly entertaining! How fun that you got to attend in person. Pictures look great!

  3. Natasha A

    Great Tips! I’ve always wanted to go to the Kentucky Derby but never had the chance. Didn’t even realize it was two weeks! Crazy!

    • Dang Travelers

      We didn’t realize it either and what a two weeks it is! Louisville really kicks it up a notch.. Thunder Over Louisville is a show you’ll never forget!

  4. Lara Dunning

    I didn’t realize there was so much going on before the race. It sounds like quite an experience, especially if you are there for the full two weeks.

  5. Theresa

    Was on the fence about adding the Derby to my US Bucket List, but your informative and entertaining post has swayed me in the right direction – it’s on my list now. 🙂 By the way, liked the hot pink pants. Cute!

  6. Marta

    I had heard about the derby before (and about the hats!) but I didn’t realise it was such a long and elaborate event – I always imagined it was just a race! I must say, I am intrigued now and I’d love to see at least part of it

  7. Paul

    Never heard of the Kentucky derby before, maybe because I’m from the UK I don’t know! But it looks like an awesome couple of weeks with really cool events!

    • Dang Travelers

      That is probably why! It’s an annual horse race in Louisville, Kentucky. It has been held 142 years and is considered the longest running sports event in the United States. It an exciting event to attend!

  8. Ajaya Kumar Rout

    It looks like you had a rocking time at the Derby.The snaps are amazing.

  9. Criz

    Back home when we talked about “derby” it’s about “Rooster or Cockfighting”, it’s interesting to hear about this kind of derby! This looks cool and festive with those hats, and I wanna have that Grey Goose Oaks Lily too! 😉

    • Dang Travelers

      Really?! That’s interesting! It’s funny how a word or even a gesture can mean something totally different depending on where you’re from.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.