The Kentucky Derby has been held since 1875 – no wonder it’s considered one of the great days in America’s annual sporting calendar.

This year will be the 150th year of what some call the “the greatest two minutes in sports.”

The Red Roses Race takes place at Churchill Downs, Louisville, Kentucky on Saturday May 4. The race is at 6.45pm – but that’s merely the finale of a fortnight of race days.

The Kentucky Derby Festival provides entertainment for race fans for a full two weeks leading up to the race. The Derby Week itself is full of memorable experiences with different daily themes, big crowds and traditional touches throughout.

So how do fans celebrate the event? Do you prepare for a whole fortnight’s holiday – or just check the Kentucky Derby odds and whizz in and out for the big race itself?

Of course it depends on your dedication, budget and time available.

Even shortening a visit to the Derby week of official events is a considerable commitment for many visitors. But just going all the way to Kentucky for a single race day may seem a waste for many Americans.

Perhaps the best compromise is to make a weekend of it. The Derby weekend is packed with activities and social events that add to the appeal of the racing.

This year for example, the weekend starts on Thursday, May 2. This is nicknamed ‘Thurby’ and it’s traditionally the official start of full-scale Derby entertainment at Churchill Downs.

It’s a chance to enjoy races, live music… and sample some of Kentucky’s other great claim to fame, bourbon. Best of all, Thurby crowds are smaller than Friday and Saturday.

Expect a wide range of social events on Thursday evening like special dinners and parties where guests can mingle with horse racing VIPs.

The Friday is expected to be a big day in Louisville. It starts with the Kentucky Oaks, the premier horse race for three-year-old fillies and continues non-stop till the evening’s Barnstable Brown Gala, nominated as one of the top ten parties in the world by Conde Nast.

Saturday of course is the biggest day at Churchill Downs. The atmosphere will be electric from mid-morning when racing begins – and it keeps going until well into the evening.

How to Travel

Get the travel plans right and the Kentucky Derby can be a glorious experience. Get them wrong and it could seem like hours of travel just to watch a race you can see on TV.

Here are the expert race-goers’ Kentucky Derby travel tips:

  • The Kentucky Derby’s timing coincides with mild weather and the spring flowers in Kentucky, making it a picturesque time to visit the state. It’s a good idea to combine some Kentucky sight-seeing with race-going too.
  • However long you visit for, plan your trip well in advance. Accommodation and flights get snapped up quickly around the time of the Derby.

Book as far ahead as you can to get more options and better prices. Note that hotels rise in price the closer they are to the venue.

If hotels are fully booked or out of your budget, consider alternatives like vacation rentals or bed and breakfasts.

  • Louisville International Airport (SDF) is the closest major airport to Churchill Downs. From there, you can take a shuttle or taxi to reach the venue.

Louisville offers public buses and trolleys for getting around the city during your stay.

  • If you’re within driving distance, driving to the Derby could be a good option – but beware that heavy traffic is always expected around the event and parking can be a serious headache.
  • Purchase Derby tickets before you travel from authorized sellers to ensure you can actually get into to the event. Tickets sell out quickly, don’t wait until the last minute or travel only to find you can’t get in.

Be aware that the priciest Derby tickets are in the ‘Millionaire’s Row’ where celebrities come to watch the race.

The best value tickets meanwhile are in the first-floor grandstand. You can’t see the entire track from here though.

There are higher section that are pricier, and areas that have more protection from the weather.

The cheapest tickets are in an area called the Infield known for a non-stop party atmosphere. There are no seats or protection from the weather though.

Don’t forget…

However long you visit for, keep in mind the Derby’s traditional dress code, which usually means flamboyant hats and stylish attire. Plan your outfits to embrace the spirit of the event – and so you don’t feel out of place.

Men will often be dressed in suits and straw hats. The ladies may be in fine dresses and elaborate hats to complete the atmosphere of period charm.

You’ll even find that the official drink of the Derby, the Mint Julep, is a salute to the past – and a rather enjoyable one too.