This Saturday marks the 135th Kentucky Derby. Even if you’re not a gambler (admittedly, I am), it’s still a thrill to witness "the most exciting two minutes in sports" first hand; the thoroughbred horse race is, without a doubt, something to experience at least once in your lifetime. At least this was the feeling my best friend Molly and I (below) had when we gassed up her car a few years ago and drove, on a whim, nearly 800 miles from New York City to Louisville, Kentucky’s famous racetrack Churchill Downs, with big hats resting on the back seat (I mean, where else could we wear them?).
Louisville goes crazy in the two weeks leading up to the Big Race, but on Derby Day, an insanely eclectic party takes to the streets, with everyone becoming fast friends: Think women in heels and hats walking with shirtless men in jean shorts, and residents offering up curb-side barbecue and their lawns for parking.
Churchill Downs itself looks like a half-eaten wedding cake, with the largest tier and crowd on the bottom. The best views and most expensive seats, however, are in highest tier, a.k.a. “Millionaires Row,” where high-flyers sip the official drink of the Kentucky Derby—the “Early Times Mint Julep.” And then there’s the infield. Often compared to Bourbon Street during Marti Gras, 80,000 people convene on Derby day in the 40-acre grassy area inside the track. Molly and I had wanted to see it, but a woman from L.A. warned, "There are things in there you can't imagine.”
This year on Derby Day, there will be 13 races, but the one everyone comes to see is the 11th race of the day, dubbed “Run for the Roses” (for the blanket of 400 red roses that will be placed on winning horse). Even if you don’t want to bet on every race, there's never a dull moment. The outfits alone are worth going to see—women parade their hats, circling each other like thoroughbreds in the paddock.
Before the race, the anticipation is palpable. Horses are paraded one final time in case there are any last-minute bets, but before you know it, they’re off. The only sound faster than the hooves is the clicking of the cameras. When I was there, I remember someone shouting "The Grand Canyon and the pyramids got nothing on this."
Last-minute Derby enthusiasts need not drive, though; round-trip flights to Louisville are going for around $500 from New York, $522 from Los Angeles, and $462 from Chicago. The Visitors Bureau even has a list of hotel rooms still available for the coming weekend.
This year I’ll be placing my bets at the OTB, but tickets are still available and can be purchased starting at $40. As a general rule, I pick the horse whose name I like the best—this year I think I’ll go for “Mr. Hot Stuff.”
Jennifer Bain is a online editorial freelancer at Travel + Leisure.