The 140th running of the Kentucky Derby is almost upon us. Watching the greatest two minutes in sports on TV is exciting, but attending in person is different from anything else in the world — and takes some preparation to do the right way.
This year will be my 16th consecutive Derby, and I've learned more than a few lessons the hard way. So let me help you avoid my mistakes and then...Go Baby Go!
1. Pay to park: Do not try to drive into the Churchill Downs parking lot unless you have a pre-assigned parking spot. Even then, I don't recommend it. As you near the track, the streets will be lined with people wielding cardboard signs offering parking. The lot is their front yard, and many of them ask you to leave your keys with them. Just do it. Don't go for the $10 parking; you'll regret it as you trudge back at the end of the day. The $50 spots will get you much closer and they're worth it.
2. Cash is king at the track: Bring lots of it. Parking requires cash, drink vendors require cash, betting requires cash. Bring more than you think you'll need. Spending an hour or so in line to use one of the few ATMs is not the way to spend Derby Day.
3. Speaking of lines — plan your bathroom visits: Get in line before you need to use the restroom. Bladder anticipation is difficult to master, but you'll be better off once you do.
4. For the ladies: If you must wear heels, then you really have to bring flats along to change into. Even if you have the best seats in the house, you'll be standing and walking all day.
Bonus tip: Purses larger than 12 inches are not allowed, so plan accordingly for your shoes. Also not allowed: coolers, cans, cameras with detachable lenses, outside alcohol (don't worry, they have plenty inside), backpacks and umbrellas.
5. The event is called "Derby." "What time are you going to Derby?" "What are you wearing to Derby?" Drop the "the" unless you're talking about the race itself. "Who are you picking to win The Derby?" The locals will notice if you get this wrong.
6. While the horses may be in for a sprint, you're there for a marathon. Repeat this mantra: "This is a marathon, not a sprint. This is a marathon, not a sprint." You should get there early and soak up all the fun you can. The gates open at 8 a.m. The first race takes off at 10:30 a.m. The actual Derby race isn't until 6:24 p.m. (Most people arrive around 11 a.m.)
7. Drink one mint julep. It's tradition (which is the reason cited by Southerners for doing all sorts of really fun things). But mint juleps are very sweet and stronger than you think. Too many juleps never ends well. One is an easy limit to remember.
8. Make your bet on the Derby race as soon as you arrive. If you hem and haw all day listening to "hot tips" and changing your mind, you'll go against your gut and likely regret it. Or, even worse, you'll forget to make the bet! How will you feel if your horse comes in then? You can bet on all the preliminary races throughout the day. (Note: "MTP" on the screens stands for "Minutes to Post." That's how much time you have to bet before the next race.) There are a total of 13 races scheduled at Churchill Downs for Derby Day.
9. Don't be scared to bet. Buy a program and get to it. Minimum bet is $2. When you get to the window, say the number of the race, the dollar amount, the type of wager and the horse(s) number(s). If you're making multiple bets, say this whole script for each bet. For example: "In the sixth race — 2 dollars — to win— on the 6." Write them down on your program in that order so you can rattle off your bets at the window.
If you've never bet on a horse race before but are looking for something a little more adventurous, go for a "trifecta." That means you're trying to pick the first, second and third place horses in a race — in order. That bet will cost at least $6. If you like three horses and want to bet on them in any order, that bet is called a "trifecta box."
Another bonus tip: Don't throw your ticket away until the race results are final. Many a photo finish has sent grown men crawling on the ground in search of a winning ticket they thought was a loser.
10. Ladies: Wear a hat. Just do it. You'll regret it if you don't. Men: You don't have to go for the full seersucker suit and hat, but at least put on something flashy or bright. That's part of what makes Derby so fun!
And finally, a last bonus tip: It's still not too late! You can walk right up to the gate at Churchill Downs on Derby Day, pay $50, and you're in! This gets you access to the Paddock, where the horses walk before every race, as well as the infield. You may not see an actual horse, but Churchill Downs just installed the largest high-definition video board of its kind in the world, so you can at least watch the races on screen while soaking up the one-of-a-kind ambiance.