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For the newcomers: How to thrive at your first Kentucky Derby

The Churchill Downs entrance features a might a statue of Barbaro, a popular race horse and past Derby champion, who died in 2007 at the age of 4.
William Padmore
The Churchill Downs entrance features a might a statue of Barbaro, a popular race horse and past Derby champion.

This is a story for Kentucky Derby noobs. LPM’s William Padmore has three things you need to know to survive your first Derby.

In the basement of Rodes clothing store in Louisville, tailors and stylists move at an aggressive pace.

With a surgeon’s precision, Bruce Mayberry steam presses garments from a long row suspended above him, each one vibrant as an Easter egg.

Rodes has been tailoring outfits in Louisville since 1914. They are one of dozens of tailors and milliners working late hours for the season. Jordan Young curates the outfits for the women’s section.

Rode's Women's Buyer Jordan Young stands in front of a hat rack filled with colorful hats made for Derby
William Padmore, Louisville Public Media
Rode's Women's Buyer Jordan Young stands in front of a hat rack filled with colorful hats.

“I think as the attendance grows and as interest grows, the whole shift of ‘what are people wearing?’ and everyone looking at that also kind of grows too,” Young said.

After speaking with fans, tailors, tourism leaders and track aficionados, I landed on three important points.

  1. The outfit is crucial, whether you’re making a couture investment or just want to go a little bit wild. 
  2. There are tons of things to do outside the race itself.
  3. Once you get to the track, get into the spirit but not too spirited. 

I’m still finishing my personal stylings for the track, and I’m planning for fickle Louisville weather.
“The thing about Louisville that you'll understand is that we could have any kind of weather on the first Saturday of May,” said Chris Burns, another stylist at Rodes. “It could be 90 degrees and sunny. It can be 30 degrees and snowing. And we have had both.”

Whether you brought your good credit cards to a place like Rodes, where a suit coat can cost upwards of $1,000, or you’re throwing together a look from your own closet, don’t be afraid to peacock a little.

Number two: Something to do

Wikimedia Commons

Doug Bennett, Executive Vice President at Louisville Tourism, said the popularity of Kentucky Derby Festival events have grown over the years. Visitors can join locals for the Steamboat Race, the Chow Wagon and other events in the two weeks leading up to the big day.

“I like the Kentucky Derby Museum’s ball,” Bennett said. “It's one of the older ones, you're right there at Churchill Downs. And you know, in a couple days, there are going to be thousands of people where there are just a few.”

Premiere events before Saturday include Oaks Day Friday, when the fillies race for lilies, and Thurby which track officials bill as the race for people from the area.

Bennett said he expects all three days of racing to approach or exceed 100,000 attendees.

“Make your restaurant or hotel reservation if you can find them at this point,” Bennett said, referring to last minute Derby visitors.

And, if everything is booked, there’s no shame in celebrating the day at a bar or local party; just ask around.

Number 3: Taking it all in on the big day

Seeing the twin spires up close is to be in the presence of history, and you can feel all 150 years.

The anticipation of a huge event was in the air on my first visit to Churchill Downs.

Greg Bush, executive Director for Special Projects at the Downs, stands at a teller booth in a multicolored shirt.jpg
William Padmore
Greg Bush, executive Director for Special Projects at Churchill Downs.

Greg Bush is Vice President for Special Projects. He said he hopes fans come for a good time in a safe environment. General admission tickets this year start at $275, but Bush emphasized that the ticket includes the cost of general access food and drink. He encourages folks to pace themselves.

Those mint juleps, I heard, can hit hard.

“When you’re at the Downs we want everyone to be happy and enjoy themselves, but they must behave,” Bush said.

And while the pomp and circumstance I’ll see on Saturday is already clear, it is in its simplest form a horse race. And I’ll be betting.

My strategy is simple: Show up at Churchill Downs Saturday and pick the horse with the weirdest name.

William is LPM's "All Things Considered" host. Email William at wpadmore@lpm.org.

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