If you’re going to The Kentucky Derby for the infield experience, don’t go expecting the high class affair you see on television. That experience can be found at Millionaires Row and the Grandstands. Instead, the infield is a much more low-brow affair, though many would argue that it is the more fun experience of the the two.
After having our tickets scanned and passing through security at the gates of the legendary Churchill Downs racing venue, we entered the tunnel that would lead us to the infield. As we walked through the dark and damp tunnel, I could hear the muted roars of the grandstand crowds. We waited in nervous anticipation as we took steps to the end of the tunnel. The Kentucky Derby infield awaited us.
When we walked out of the tunnel and into the infield, I was met with sensory overload. Visually, the Kentucky Derby infield is unlike anywhere else I’ve been. It is an amazing place for people watching.
While you won’t see $3000 suits and $600 hats in the infield, it has still maintained many of the traditions of the Derby experience. For instance, many people still dress up (though generally not in designer labels) and Mint Juleps are downed in unbelievable quantities. However, with no real view of the racetrack, the fans in the infield have turned themselves into the attraction. Here is a list of things you’ll only find in the infield (and not the grandstands) at The Kentucky Derby:
- Outrageous costumes including the KFC Colonel and two people dressed up as a horse
- An impromptu slip and slide made out of tent tarps and mixed alcohols
- People in various states of undress
- Mud wrestling
- DJs and dance parties
- Plenty of bros hi-fiving and shouting ‘whoooooooo!’
Dressing the Part
Around 50% of the infield was dressed in typical derby attire. For girls this meant dresses and large floppy hats. Guys were wearing polos, button ups, ties (and bowties), and khaki or linen pants.
Knowing that it’d be warm, I opted to dress for comfort in the weather and went with something simple yet in the spirit of the event: a button up, tie, suspenders, and linen shorts.
There were plenty of guys dressed in FULL suits complete with vest and jacket. Given the heat that day, I was not envious. One derby moment I’ll never forget was seeing one of the guys in a seersucker suit physically rip the arms off of his suit jacket and shirt, leaving them on the ground of the infield and turning his outfit into the first sleeveless suit I’ve seen.
Eating and Drinking (but mostly drinking)
The infield at The Kentucky Derby is made up of a few different and distinct areas. There is a main drag where vendors set up shop and food and drinks are peddled. Turkey legs, hot dogs, burgers, pretzels, and other typical ‘event’ food was being served. Inconspicuously absent was burgoo, the beef stew I had mentioned wanting to try in my last Kentucky Derby post. In fact, I neither saw nor heard of burgoo the entire time I was in the infield which was a little disappointing.
While beer was the cheap drink of choice for most revelers, there was still significant demand for the signature drink of the event – The Mint Julep. Of course I had to partake in the concoction consisting of bourbon, mint, and simple syrup served over ice.
For $11, I received a generous pour of bourbon. Given the temperatures on Derby day, the strong Julep was a cold and refreshing relief from the heat.
I learned that the Mint Julep isn’t the derby’s only signature drink; the Oaks Lily is also another popular cocktail served at Churchill Downs. It is named after (and served at) the Kentucky Oaks – the race of fillies (female horses) held the day before the Kentucky Derby. It is made with vodka, sweet and sour mix, cranberry juice, and triple sec.
As evidenced by the trashcans overflowing with beer bottles and julep cups at 1:00 PM (3.5 hours before racetime), it was clear that the infield goers liked to drink. The Kentucky Derby’s own website says the infield “compares only to Bourbon Street in New Orleans during Mardi Gras…an experience of acceptable excess and is forgivably risqué—a place where you overeat, overspend and over flirt.”
But the derby isn’t only for those who are intent on blacking out. In fact, most of this chaos is confined to an area known as the third turn (it is on the inside of the third turn the horses make on their lap of the racetrack). Much of the rest of the infield is actually quite tame with people sprawled out on blankets, watching the races on the video monitors, or just chatting with friends.
Winning and Losing Money
Despite the prevalence of online sports gambling, the wagering at Churchill Downs is still handled the old fashioned way – through a wagering window. In the infield, the windows line the track along the homestretch and the crowds were lining up for them throughout the event.
Before the final race started, the PA announced that over $11 million dollars had been placed on the race at Churchill Downs alone, or a little over $73 per person in attendance. We placed some modest bets but were well below the $73 average. Clearly there were some big spenders at the track that day.
Before my derby experience, I thought betting on horses meant choosing the winner. While that is one way to bet, I learned a whole slew of other ways to wager money at the track. Here are some of the main betting options:
- Win – betting on the horse that crosses the finish line first
- Place – betting on the horse to finish in the top two
- Show – betting on the horse to finish in the top three
- Exacta – picking the first two finishers in order
- Trifecta – picking the first three finishers in order
- Pick Six – picking the winners of six different horse races
These other scenarios can yield lesser or greater payouts based on the odds assigned and offer a popular alternative to betting on just the winner.
The betting process was fairly simple for a couple of gambling novices. After waiting our turn in line, we told the bookie which race number we wanted to bet on (FYI – there are races all throughout the day, the actual Kentucky Derby was the 11th race of the day), what kind of bet we wanted to place, which horse(es) we wanted to bet on, and how much we wanted to bet. After handing over the cash, we were given our betting slips to redeem if we won.
I placed an exacta bet that Gemologist and Bodemeister would finish one and two and a win bet on Bodemeister. With bets placed, it was time to settle in and find a spot to watch the race.
At this point I should mention that almost nobody goes to the infield of the Kentucky Derby to actually watch the race. Why? Because it’s damn near impossible. Many people in the infield go the entire day without so much as even seeing a horse. There are a couple of vantage points where fractions of the track can be seen, but they are few and far between. There are small video screens at turns two and four broadcasting the action, but given their size and distance, they are only visible from certain portions of the infield. This is perhaps the best view of the track from the infield and it was packed with people come racetime.
If you actually want to watch the race, you’re much better doing so from your television at home. Because of this, many of the revelers are more than content to pay no attention whatsoever to the race and continue partying.
Since it was my first Kentucky Derby, I had a goal of actually seeing a horse. We staked out our spots at the fourth turn about a half hour before the main event began. From there, we had an obstructed view of the starting gate and the final turn the horses would be making before entering the home stretch. We waited in anticipation as the excitement built.
After what seemed like hours under the hot Kentucky sun, we heard the horn player blow his familiar tune signifying the impending start of the race. The starting gun cracked, the gates swung open and the horses tore onto the track. A blur of brown streaked across my field of vision and before I knew it, the horses were gone, stampeding around the track. From here all I could do was watch the feed on the video monitor. Bodemeister jumped out to an impressive early lead. You can catch the video footage of the actual race here:
As the horses rounded the third turn we heard the roar of the crowd crashing towards us like a wave around the track. As the horses came through the fourth and final turn, they quickly flashed through our segmented field of vision once again before charging on through the finish line.
My eyes darted back to the video monitor. With only a short distance left to go, Bodemeister lost his steam and I’ll Have Another charged from the middle of the pack to claim the 138th running of the Kentucky Derby. But from the infield, we were unable to make out the numbers of the winning horse on the small video screen. We knew Bodemeister had come in second, but we had NO idea who had just won the very race we were attending.
I was holding betting tickets not knowing if I’d won any money or not. My solution? I had to ask my friends back home who were watching on TV. Needless to say, they got a good laugh out of my situation.
Upon learning that Gemologist hadn’t won, we followed the stream of people towards the exits.
The Kentucky Derby was incredible – it is an amazing spectacle of sport, but more so a spectacle of American culture. It’s not just Kentucky culture and the traditions of the derby, but also the local flavor and traditions brought by attendees from all over the country. I met derby goers from Texas, Indiana, Iowa, Colorado, California, and Wisconsin. Each brought their own unique way of celebrating to the infield at Churchill Downs.
And what was even more incredible was how many Derby veterans were in attendance. Many people come back to this event year after year after year, and it’s not difficult to see why. I have yet to experience anything like it – the culture, the tradition, the bizarre spectacle, and yes, the horse race. I’m already counting down the days until the next derby.