Sunday, April 27, 2003

Fan's guide to the Kentucky Derby

By Jim Hannah
The Cincinnati Enquirer

LOUISVILLE - Louisville comes alive every year on the first Saturday in May to celebrate the two greatest minutes in sports - The Kentucky Derby.

If you plan to rub shoulders with people who call themselves Kentucky Colonels, dine on burgoo, sip mint juleps and dress like a Southern Belle or stately gentleman, here are some tips for attending the Run for the Roses.

Getting tickets

Derby tickets get passed down from generation to generation, go to the rich and beautiful and are sometimes at the center of divorce battles.
Track officials suggest people arrive early to Churchill Downs. Gates open at 8 a.m. First post is at 11:15 a.m. Derby post will be at 6:04 p.m.
NBC begins its Derby coverage at 5 p.m. The race also will be carried by WCKY-AM (1360). Wagers on the Derby are accepted at Turfway Park in Florence and River Downs in Anderson Township.

Cincinnati ticket brokers randomly surveyed by the Enquirer say they will have tickets to the Derby up until the last minute.

But expect to pay about $175 for the worst reserved seat in the grandstands and up to $3,000 for a seat on Millionaire's Row. Three grand will get you into a sky box reserved for the likes of former presidents, corporate titans and movie stars, with a dress code to match.

A mid-week check on eBay found one entrepreneur trying to peddle a single ticket in Millionaire's Row for $15,000. There were no bidders. There were more reasonable offers on the Internet auction site. Bids for eight reserved seats were at $151.50 with the auction set to continue through Monday.


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"The Derby is huge," said Kevin Hacker, president of Premium Tickets in Cincinnati. "More people attend the Derby than the Super Bowl. It's the closest national event to us here in Cincinnati. There is nothing in this town that compares."

An affordable way to attend the Derby is to buy from the unlimited supply of $40 general admission tickets sold the day of the race.

You won't have a reserved seat, and you might not even see a horse, but you will be able to say you went to the Derby. A ticket gets you access to the paddock area and the infamous infield.

What to wear

Dress seasonally and reasonably. So men, outside of Millionaire's Row or a coveted box seat, forgo the Kenneth Cole-designed black suit, and women, leave your stiletto heels at home. If it's sunny, assume it's going to be hotter than you expected. If it's cloudy and cool, expect it to be colder than you thought.

Men and women should don their Sunday best for reserved seats and the paddock, while anything goes for the infield, including wearing nothing at all.

Everyone should wear comfortable shoes for walking and standing in long lines.

Veteran Derby-goers will tell you the Derby is a marathon: Pace yourself and dress right.

One Derby tradition observed by everyone is the donning of a Derby hat. Hats are typically of Southern Belle style, keeping the face shaded and hair-do intact.

Be aware of pickpockets who prey on people in big crowds. Veteran trackgoers recommend money clips for men.

Wallets repeatedly removed from back pockets in boozy, crowded conditions have been known to be lost or stolen.

What to bring and what to leave home

Leave your umbrella at home if it rains and the suntan lotion in the medicine cabinet if it's sunny. Both will be confiscated at the gate.

A number of items allowed before the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks are now banned.

Guards will not allow patrons to bring in umbrellas, coolers,

thermoses, grills, backpacks, briefcases, luggage and duffel bags. Bottles and cans are banned; this includes all beverage and suntan lotion containers. Pocketknives and scissors are considered weapons and also forbidden. These rules are strictly enforced.

Items allowed include snacks in clear plastic bags (maximum size 18 inches by 18 inches, and no trash bags).

Purses and baby bags are allowed but will be subject to searches that can delay your time in entering. Strollers will be allowed only if accompanied by a child. Mobile phones, cameras and camcorders will be allowed, but patrons are required to turn on electronic items before entering. This is to prove the items are what they appear to be. Binoculars are also acceptable, but leave the carrying case at home. Lawn chairs can be brought in Gate 3 only. Blankets and tarpaulins can be brought in Gates 1 and 3 for infield use only.

How to get there

It is a 100-mile trip south on Interstate 71 to Louisville. Expect the drive to take two hours.

Traffic in and around the Downs is gridlock on Derby Day. There are numerous street closings near the track, and there is no parking at the historic track. There are several shuttle buses to the Downs.

The best parking option is at the Kentucky Derby and Exposition Hall, commonly referred to as the fairgrounds. You take a $10 round-trip shuttle to the Downs.

To get to the fairgrounds from I-71, merge onto Interstate 264 west via exit No. 5 on your left. Take the Crittenden Drive exit, No. 11, toward the airport/fair and expo center.

Go less than a quarter of a mile and take the ramp toward the Fair and Expo center. Stay straight and merge onto Freedom Way. The entrance to the fairgrounds is straight ahead.

The continuous shuttle service begins at 7:30 a.m. The last bus leaves Churchill Downs at 8:30 p.m. Round-trip tickets can be purchased at the Freedom Hall ticket office beginning at 7:30 a.m. No one-way tickets will be sold. Boarding is in front of Freedom Hall. Parking at the fairgrounds is free, courtesy of the Downs.

There is also a shuttle service primarily aimed at guests of the downtown hotels. Fare for this shuttle is $5 each way.

Buses for downtown shuttle service will stop at the north side of Main Street between Fourth and Fifth streets, then at stops between Main Street and Broadway on Sixth Street, southbound on Sixth Street and continuing on Broadway to First Street. Second Street and Broadway is the last boarding point.

The shuttle will not travel on Fifth Street between Broadway and Hill Street.

Tips for getting around the track

Once inside, getting around the crowded track is a challenge. Elevators are slow, corridors are crowded, security is tight and lines are long. There is a tunnel that connects the grandstands to the infield, allowing patrons with a $40 general admission ticket to mingle between the two distinctly different areas.

The paddock area is ideal for the person who wants to avoid the rowdiness of the infield. You can check out the horses before they make their way to the track, and there are big-screen televisions for watching the races.

It's a perfect location to sip a $7 mint julep sold in a collectible glass and smoke a cigar as you try to catch a glimpse of the stars making their way to Millionaire's Row.

Braving the Infield

For the adventurous, there are a couple of tips you need to know about the infield. The first and second turns of the racetrack are traditionally reserved for the more sedate crowds.

The college crowds traditionally congregate on the backstretch and third turn.

Although more tranquil in recent years as security thwarts the creative beverage delivery systems, these areas still resembled a Girls Gone Wild video during last year's race.

Downs officials said they again would have an "infield store" where people can buy items they can't carry with them because of the tighter security.

Officials said they don't expect to make a profit in the name of post-Sept. 11 security by selling items people are now banned from bringing. In fact, they add, the company that operated last year's infield store declined an offer to operate this year's store because it lost money.

Prices you can expect to pay at the infield store:

• Twenty-ounce soda or water, $1.20

• Hot dog, $1.75

• Disposable cooler, $3

• Sunscreen, $7.50

• Candy bar, $1.25

• Big cigar, $10

Where to stay

Hotel rooms will be available for Derby week, but expect to pay a premium. Some hotel operators charge double, even triple for their rooms, while others require you to buy a three-night package.

The best option appears to be to use the Greater Louisville Convention & Visitors Bureau's Web site as a source.

Use its directory of Louisville area hotels to call the hotels directly and ask for room availability.

One Louisville travel agent said many hotels mark up the prices of their rooms so high that they are left with empty beds on Derby Day. Those rooms then go for discounted rates for last-minute travelers who show up.

If you have patience, you can try to use the bureau's hard-to-navigate online reservations service. Click on "online hotel reservations," the second item on the top left corner of the bureau's home page.

From there, click on the "Visitors" link, and then the "Kentucky Derby Rooms" link. Don't bother to look at the long list of participating hotels - most are already booked. Instead, scroll to the bottom of the page and click "Here to book your discounted hotel room."

Finally, you are linked to the reservation service. Type the dates of the nights you want to stay. Leave blank the boxes asking you the price range you're looking for. The site then will give you a list of available rooms.

At midweek, if you requested a room just for Derby night, there were no vacancies listed with the online reservation service.

But if you requested a room for Derby Eve (May 2, the date of the running of The Kentucky Oaks, the "Derby for Fillies") and Derby Day (May 3), there were rooms available in several parts of town and across the price scale.

Rooms also can be reserved by calling the visitors bureau at 1-888-LOUISVILLE from 9 a.m.-6 p.m. Monday through Friday, 11 a.m.-4 p.m. Saturday and 1-5 p.m. Sunday.

Where to eat and drink

Upscale restaurants print special menus for Derby weekend that feature expensive dishes. Getting a table at one of these establishments is about as competitive as finding a Derby ticket.

If you don't mind slow-moving, bumper-to-bumper traffic, join the growing tradition of cruising Bardstown Road through the Highlands on Derby weekend.

To get to the Highlands from the fairgrounds, take I-264 east to the Bardstown Road exit, No. 16. Go north on Bardstown Road toward Louisville.

The entertainment district has dozens of bars and clubs that will be hopping from sunset to sunrise.

A little-known city ordinance allows taverns to stay open straight through the Derby weekend. A bar can open at 6 a.m. Friday and not close until 6 a.m. the following Sunday - 48 hours straight.

Oh, and bring the bottle of aspirin.

Web sites

For more information:

The Kentucky Derby Festival: (502) 584-6383,

Churchill Downs: (800) 28-DERBY,

Greater Louisville Convention & Visitors Bureau: (800) 626-5646,

The Courier-Journal:


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Where else to go in Louisville
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