I have created this page so that people who are going to the Derby can get some "helpful hints" for more easily navigating Churchill Downs on Derby Day.
An application for reserved seating tickets is available through Churchill Downs' official site at Churchilldowns.com. Applying for a ticket does not mean you will be selected to receive one, however. Applicants for next year's Derby are ONLY accepted between the day after this year's Derby until Sept. 1. Winners are notified between November and February that they have been selected. To apply for tickets you must join the (free) Twin Spires Club on the Web site. The more club points one accumulates (by wagering at Churchill Downs-owned facilities) the more likely one is to get a ticket. The cheapest, bleacher seats are normally about $100 each.
Churchill Downs has unlimited general admission seating for $40, available first come, first served on Derby Day. This grants admission to the infield and paddock area. People with these tickets do NOT have a view of the racetrack. You'll have to stake out a spot in the infield grass between the drunken college partiers. If you choose this option, good luck to you. It is not for me.
Numerous online ticket brokers offer Derby tickets for 10 times or more the face value of a ticket. Online auction sites are sometimes the best bet. Be aware that the prices may not exceed face value of the ticket, according to state law. NOTE: Scalping is ILLEGAL in Kentucky, and undercover police officers do check. It's OK to buy a ticket outside Churchill Downs on Derby morning as long as you don't pay more than the value printed on the ticket.
What to wear depends largely on where you're sitting. In the infield, most anything goes, and it's not uncommon for a few younger, usually drunk, college women to be topless, at least briefly, at some points. There's no need to dress up there. Instead, wear shorts and a top that will keep you cool. On a few occasions it's actually been too cool. If it looks like one of those days, dress in layers so you can shed some if it warms up. I've read in guides before that some areas of the infield are traditionally more sedate, but I tend to disagree. It's pretty much all been taken over by the college crowd.
In the grandstand, it's dressier, sometimes considered "smart casual." Women may like to wear a summer dress and a Derby hat (the bigger and gaudier the better, it seems), while men might like a polo shirt or button down shirt and khakis or nice pants. A Derby cap or hat is also appropriate for men, but not considered as integral a part of a male Derby-goer's outfit. Make sure you can keep cool in whatever you wear. Since umbrellas are not allowed and the seats are not covered, it might not be a bad idea to bring along a plastic rain poncho stuffed into a purse or clear plastic bag. On some days it's actually been too cool to be comfortable. For those days, I recommend dressing in layers in case it warms up later in the day. A jacket that was helpful on a cool morning is great for covering up a hot section of bleachers on a warm afternoon.
Parking near the track is generally unavailable or very expensive. You're generally better taking a round-trip shuttle bus from Cardinal Stadium or from the Kentucky Fair and Exposition Center. These are generally no more than $10 per person, round trip, and the fairgrounds typically has free parking.
NOTE: Don't try to rush out of Churchill Downs immediately after the Derby to try to be first on any shuttle. Generally, several thousand other people will have the same idea as you, and a number of them will be faster. You don't want to be caught in that crushing crowd right then. Be patient and wait it out until after the last race and then some. The shuttles will continue until quite late into the evening, so no need to worry about not catching one back to your vehicle. It won't happen. For those staying in the Lexington area, Blue Grass Tours runs shuttles ($55 per person in 2005) to Churchill Downs. Call 800-755-6956.
For the first time since 2001, coolers are allowed at the Derby in 2009. They may contain ice, non-alcoholic beverages as long as they are not in glass containers, and food packaged in clear plastic containers or bags no bigger than 18 inches by 18 inches. Box lunches (in clear plastic) are limited to two per person. Plastic bags of food are also limited to two per person. Note that because of the allowance of coolers, no infield general store will be offered.
Rules about what may be brought into the racetrack change every year, so you might check a week or two before you leave. Normally, no themoses, bottles of any kind, grills or trashbags are allowed. No knives of any type are allowed, and no scissors. No outside alcohol may be brought into Churchill Downs. No umbrellas are allowed.
Clear plastic bags that are not trash bags are allowed. They must not be bigger than 18 inches by 18 inches. (The local newspaper, The Courier-Journal, normally distributes a complimentary copy of the day's newspaper inside one when people are arriving at the track.) You may put food items inside your clear bag. No duffle bags, backpacks, luggage or wagons are allowed. Strollers are allowed if children are riding in them.
Chairs for infield use are allowed through gate 3 only. Blankets and tarps are allowed through gates 1 and 3 for infield use only as well. No stakes are allowed for the tarps, though, so bring some pre-cut (no scissors or knives, remember?) rope and get there EARLY so you can hook it up to the infield fence.
You are allowed to bring cell phones, cameras, camcorders, binoculars, purses, baby bags and seat cushions without backs. You will probably have to turn on the electronic items at the gate.
One good idea is to bring a small, portable radio (NOT a boombox. Those are not allowed). At least one radio station covers the call of the races throughout the day, and many people are unable to hear the race announcer over the noise.