Since its start in 1875, the Kentucky Derby has become the premier race for 3-year-old thoroughbred horses in the U.S., attracting 165,000 visitors a year to Churchill Downs in Louisville, Kentucky.
While the 1 1/4-mile race known is the main attraction, the scene on game day can still be a colorful throwback to the horse races of the European aristocracy -- from the plentiful food and drink to the natty attire and those famously floral hats.
The city is also home to a two-week Derby festival leading up to the big day.
You can buy tickets to the Derby and the Kentucky Oaks -- a race for fillies on the day before the Derby -- starting at $65 per person and ranging as high as $5,000. The cheaper admission price doesn’t provide you a cushy seat or even a clear view of the track. It just gets you onto the grounds, where you can watch races on TV screens. The priciest ticket gets you to the Millionaires Row of Churchill Downs, with access to a view platform, a gourmet buffet, a bartender who knows her Mint Juleps, a private wagering station and more. A $615 package puts you in the first floor of the grandstand and includes a lunch buffet.
There are 12 races today at Churchill Downs and another 13 tomorrow. To keep track of them all -- and maybe place a wager - - pick up the $8 Ultimate Kentucky Derby Guide, published by the Daily Racing Form. An official Churchill Downs program costs $10. Also available, for the gambler who wants to do more research, are a variety of betting guides priced at $10 to $20 each. They feature picks by racing experts who keep an eye on horses in practice the week before the Derby.
The hats at Churchill Downs can be as much an attraction as the horses. The Louisville Courier-Journal says the 2012 Derby’s biggest fashion trend is “crazy-strong color.” You might arrive wearing the $450 “Marla Derby” hat from Luna Boutique, a bright green hat with a wide brim. If that’s too bright, try the “Hot to Trot” hat, by Attitudes by Angie, which features a high array of white and black feathers and costs $698.
The classic Kentucky Derby beverage is the mint julep. Traditionally, the mix of mint leaf, bourbon, sugar and water is served in a silver or pewter cup, though most modern julep fans get their drink in a mere glass. At Churchill Downs, a mint julep will cost you $11. If you’ve had enough of traditional fare, the racetrack sells other alcoholic drinks ($7 to $9) and snacks ($4 to $8) from french fries to sandwiches and pizza.
A week before race day, rooms at budget hotels near Churchill Downs were priced at more than $500 per night, four or five times their usual rate. The classiest accommodations are far more expensive. A three-night stay at the Galt House Hotel in downtown Louisville costs $3,150 to $3,750. The packages include a welcome reception with live entertainment at the 1,290-room hotel, which is five miles from the racetrack.
6. Derby Week Activities
A week’s worth of events and attractions come before tomorrow’s big race. Visitors might stop at the Kentucky Derby Museum -- admission $14 -- for an overview of the race’s history. The Belle of Louisville, a steamboat built in 1914, offers sightseeing cruises on the Ohio River starting at $21 per person.
For those who want to drink in more than just local color, one option is a shot of bourbon whiskey, Kentucky’s signature spirit. More than 50 varieties of local bourbon are available at the bars and restaurants on Louisville’s Urban Bourbon Trail. A free application for iPhone or Android can lead visitors to the best spots, where bourbon is priced anywhere from $5 to $25 or even more per glass.
8. Kentucky Horse Country
Many of the notable breeding farms in Kentucky aren’t in Louisville -- they’re a 90-minute drive away near Lexington. For $40, Thoroughbred Heritage Horse Farm Tours offers a guided three-hour tour of race courses and farms where champion thoroughbreds are born, raised and trained. Blue Grass Tours adds in some lessons on bourbon making with its $75-per-person “Horses, Hooch, and History Tour.”
9. Dinner and Drinks
At Bourbons Bistro in the Clifton neighborhood of Louisville, you might start with an appetizer of fried green tomatoes ($6), followed by Bourbons’ pulled pork sandwich ($15). Wash it all down with one of more than 130 varieties of bourbon. Three miles away at the Proof on Main restaurant in downtown Louisville, a dinner might include Chickpea and Country Ham Fritters ($10) followed by a $26 entree of Marksbury Farm Chicken, along with a $7 side of Weisenberger Grits. Flights of bourbon -- featuring three different varieties each -- cost $16 to $24.
10. Hobnob with the Locals
If your goal was to see some of Louisville high society, you could have paid $300 to attend the third annual Taste of Derby, a fundraiser for hunger relief last night. With 1,000 guests, the event featured food and wine tastings and an open bar. Another option yesterday was Celebrity Day at the Downs, a luncheon that featured the marshals of the Pegasus Parade, including this year’s grand marshal, Cyndi Lauper. A single ticket was $99, while a preferred table was $892.
As a souvenir, you can bring home a $37 Kentucky Derby Museum 25th Anniversary Cookbook, offering recipes for such favorites as grits casserole or strawberry muffins. You can get a julep cup etched with the logo of the 138th Kentucky Derby for $60 or buy four prints of artist Peter Williams’s depictions of the race for $750. For those with less pricey tastes, a T-shirt with the derby’s official logo is $22.
Bloomberg Rankings examined the costs associated with attending the Kentucky Derby. Bloomberg does not endorse any of the products or services mentioned.