With the Kentucky Derby only a little over a week away, now is the time to start planning for this most glorious day of the year. If you’re lucky enough to be making your way down to Louisville for the first Saturday in May and don’t know where to begin, fear not. As 2011 will mark my 4th trip to watch the Run for the Roses, I believe I am qualified to give a few pointers on how to survive the melee, and can help you milk the occasion for all it’s worth.
*Watch the works. Free to the public, the week leading up to the Kentucky Derby is full of exciting morning action at Churchill. Rub elbows with other fans, get the latest news on the Derby horses, and see for yourself those who will try to stamp their names in the history books. Works begin when it’s still dark outside, and will go on rain or shine, so come prepared for the elements and try to get some sleep the night before. Most people show up between 6-7am. All of the Kentucky Derby contenders will be wearing a yellow saddle towel with their name on it; Oaks contenders wear pink saddle towels.
*Learn the horses’ names. While it can be expected for bettors to be screaming “Come on, 8!” during the claiming races at Aqueduct, prove yourself to be a real Kentuckian for the day and give the horses the dignity of being called by their name. Even if it is a ridiculous one. You’ll sound like you know what you’re talking about.
*Study the Racing Form the day before the Derby and the day of. Know the horses and their human connections inside and out to make your best guess on who will end up wearing roses at the end of the day. While the Derby is sometimes considered a crapshoot, thanks to its usually full field of 20 horses, sometimes the best horse really does win. There are many, many ways to place a bet, and you can put down as little as $2 if you’re not bursting with confidence. If you’re supremely confident, you can bet on your horse before Derby Day, and that’s kind of nice, as you can count on the windows being the busiest place next to the port-o-potties on the first Saturday of May.
*You can park practically anywhere but on top of the twin spires themselves on Derby Day. The neighborhoods surrounding Churchill Downs open up for business, and usually cost around $25 for the day, unless someone is really greedy and is just trying to prey upon the tourists. Several businesses will also be selling parking spaces near Churchill, but the official parking lot is the one at Papa John’s Stadium, off of Central Avenue. There are shuttles running to and from this lot, but they are far and few in between and never seem to be around when you actually need them.
*Wear comfortable shoes. Unless you have the special privilege of parking in the V.I.P. section, you are going to be walking a lot to actually get from your car to the track. The parking lot at Papa John’s Stadium is below a merciless amount of stairs, then a 1-mile jaunt down the crowded sidewalks to the front gates of Churchill Downs. This may not sound like a great distance, but ladies, after standing all day in your high-heel shoes, you are going to be walking barefoot all the way back to your car, and you can save yourself some agony by bringing along a spare pair of sneakers.
*Visit Wagner’s Pharmacy. What do you say about Wagner’s? The food may not be knee-weakening, but the atmosphere is unmatched anywhere outside of Churchill Downs itself on Derby week. This diner-pharmacy combo is the most happening spot to be on Derby Day, so come early if you plan on stopping by, and expect a wait. The walls are bedecked with winner’s circle photos and portraits of the Greats like Secretariat and Citation; make sure you check out that crazy picture of a jockey surfing on a horse as it slides across the finish line. Miraculously, the horse didn’t get hurt, and can be seen standing in the winner’s circle in another picture, looking just the tiniest bit dirty.
*Try a mint julep. The traditional drink of the Kentucky Derby, this mint-Bourbon whiskey concoction comes in a collector’s Derby glass, so that helps explain the hefty price tag. Personally, I feel like this Kentucky tradition tastes like mint earwax. But you have to try it, because it’s the Derby. Some people love it. Personally, I’d rather opt for the official drink of the Kentucky Oaks, the Lilly. The Lilly comes in a Kentucky Oaks glass and is a sweet, fruity drink and won’t give you that horrible julep aftertaste.
*Learn the words to “My Old Kentucky Home” prior to the event so you don’t appear on national TV as some drunken buffoon who doesn’t know the most time-honored tradition in Louisville. If you plan to play the role of a drunken buffoon, then at least know the words so you can belt ’em out with gusto.
*Take a walk. When you’re surrounded by the tornado that is the Kentucky Derby, it’s hard to let everything sink in. I highly recommend taking a long stroll around the grandstand and the paddock area before the stakes action really gets rolling. Take in the big hats, the pomp and circumstance, the track rats, and everything in between. You may even run into a few celebrities along the way.
*Witness the infield. I don’t care if you’re clad in a tuxedo or high heels (now that would be an interesting Derby ensemble), you’ve got to see the infield. While I don’t recommend hanging out there for any length of time, this madcap mud-slicked drunkapalooza has become an endearing tradition. Some of the most fun Derby-themed costumes are worn here, and while most of these people will never see a horse the entire day, the excitement and mayhem surrounding Planet Infield is unparalleled. The crazy doesn’t really get started until the middle of the day, and you can walk through the tunnel between the grandstands and the infield to catch a glimpse. Watch out for the mud dogs, those fans who have been flying down the lawn’s slip ‘n slides on rainier Derby Days; you don’t want to brush up against them.
*Dress up, but don’t wear a strapless dress if it’s forecast to be 40 degrees and raining outside. That’s just insane. The Kentucky Derby is the second to last race on a card that spans around 14 races, and you will become exhausted from the elements after that much time in the sun/rain/snow. (Has it actually snowed on Derby Day? Good question. I would not be surprised to hear that has happened at least once in its 136-year history.) In other words, wear a fancy hat, wear a suit and tie, but come with a jacket if it’s supposed to be cold; if it’s slated to be a downpour, be creative in your rain slickers. And wear sunscreen. Trust me on this.
*Bet on Calvin Borel. He’s won the Kentucky Derby three times in the past four years, his most memorable being on Mine That Bird in 2009, the longest shot in the field. Just do it, or you’ll feel like the biggest idiot in the house if he wins again.
*Have a piece of Derby pie. If you love chocolate, this is a must-try. I’m craving it right now just thinking about the chocolately, walnutty goodness. The official pie of the Kentucky Derby is available at most grocery stores in Louisville, as well as several restaurants in town during Derby week.
*Download the free Kentucky Derby app for your Android or iPhone. It’s full of useful information, including contender profiles and the latest breaking news. It also provides a pocket-sized schedule for all of the coming stakes races.
*Bring your camera. It’s the Kentucky Derby, and there aren’t many photo opportunities in the world like this.
The 137th running of the Grade I $2-million dollar Kentucky Derby will be run next Saturday, May 7th. Check back at The Call to the Post next Friday for analysis on all the contenders.