Louisville has the race, but Lexington is the place where Derby dreams are born--and where Derby legacies continue long after the horses have crossed the finish line at Churchill Downs. If you’ve been to Louisville's Churchill Downs on the first Saturday in May, you know why they call the Kentucky Derby “the most exciting two minutes in sports." But you haven't really gotten the full Derby experience until you visit Lexington.
Lexington is the center of the Thoroughbred horse industry and the Horse Capital of the World. This is where the world's top racehorses are bred, born, trained, officially registered, bought and sold, retired and buried. And it's been that way since long before there even was a Kentucky Derby.
Come visit Lexington and you can visit previous Derby champions or catch a glimpse of a future winner on the world's most famous and beautiful horse farms. You can see firsthand how Thoroughbreds are bred and trained to run. You can join sheiks, millionaires and royalty at the world's most prestigious Thoroughbred auctions (you can even buy a horse if you’d like, though getting it in your carry-on for the trip home might be tough). And if you’re here in May, join us for our own Lexington Derby traditions.
Bluegrass Note: You’ve heard that it takes a village to raise a child--well, here in Kentucky, racehorses are the same way. From night watchmen to stablehands to grooms to exercise riders, the Kentucky horse industry is responsible for more than 55,000 direct and indirect jobs.
So, About the Race...
If you're planning to attend the race in Louisville, keep in mind that on Derby Day, Louisville's Churchill Downs is packed from the infield to the rafters with an eclectic mass of humanity--usually about 150,000 people. So expect long lines for any endeavor, including just getting to your seat. Actually, unless you are a box-holder or know someone who is, you probably won't have a seat: Most clubhouse and grandstand boxes are renewed from year to year, and the track receives tens of thousands of competing requests for the few that become available each year. If you want to try, sign up with Churchill Downs on their website. But don't hold your breath waiting. This is a real longshot.
For most people, their Derby Day option in Louisville is an $80-per-person general admission. This means standing-room-only near the paddock area or braving the infield. If you are planning to attend the race in Louisville, it's a good idea to check out accommodations in Lexington--you're likely to find more options, and more reasonable prices, and it’s only a little over an hour's interstate drive to Louisville.
Bluegrass Note: Although Thoroughbred horse farms are located state-wide, by far the largest concentration--not only in Kentucky, but in the world--is in Lexington and the surrounding Bluegrass counties of Bourbon, Scott, Jessamine and Woodford. The 2017 Kentucky Thoroughbred Farm Directory listed over 465 farms in those counties.
Enjoy the Derby the Bluegrass Way
As an alternative to battling the crowds at Churchill Downs on Derby Day, many locals enjoy attending races earlier in Derby week--then find a more civilized vantage point for the Run for the Roses on Saturday.
Call us biased, but we think you can’t beat the world's largest Derby party, which takes place at Lexington's famous Keeneland Race Course (4201 Versailles Road, 859-254-3412) and has become a tradition itself. The track's gorgeous setting and relaxed atmosphere is a perfect place to enjoy the race. The betting windows are open (with an expert handicapping seminar available to help you pick a winner before you lay down your bet on the big race), and official souvenir mint julep glasses are available. You can view all the races of the day on the large TV monitors indoors, or the super large-screen TVs outside. Of course, you won't see any live horses thunder past you--but then again, neither do a lot of the people at that other track on the first Saturday in May.
Spread a picnic blanket in the paddock or walking ring and enjoy barbecue or chicken from the outdoor grills. If picnicking’s not your style, reserve a table in one of the dining rooms or at the Sales Pavilion Dining Hall, where many partygoers dress their table with elaborate decorations. Keeneland is known for its cuisine--no matter what you choose from the extensive menu, you won’t leave hungry.
And yes, dressing up is encouraged--now’s the time to break out that hat. (There’s even a hat contest later in the day.) Bring the whole family and enjoy special activities for the kids and live music for everyone.
If all you need is an easy way to bet on the race, try out a unique wagering experience: drive-through wagering. Both Keeneland and the Kentucky Horse Park offer drive-through betting on Derby Day. Keeneland offers drive-through betting all day, and the Horse Park offers theirs at the front gate on both Friday and Saturday starting at 8:00 AM.
Celebrate with the Governor
No matter how late you party on Derby Eve, you'll want to get up in time for the first race--and maybe even earlier than that. The Governor of Kentucky is expecting you.
A big public Derby celebration in Kentucky's capital, Frankfort (27 miles west of Lexington via I-64), has been a Kentucky tradition since the 1930s. The Old Capitol is typically the focus of activity, and downtown restaurants offer breakfast specials to keep you full and fueled up for a full day of celebrating. A free concert on the stage directly in front of the Old State Capitol features bands from across the Commonwealth, and Kentucky artists exhibit and sell their work. The event usually runs from around 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. Call the Franklin County Tourism and Convention Commission at 502-875-8687 for more information.
Spot a Slew of Past Winners
Derby Day isn't the only time to see a Derby winner in Lexington. Just as Hollywood has its "homes of the stars," the Bluegrass is home to plenty of champions, living out their retirement in style. Most of the living Kentucky Derby winners are stabled at the beautiful farms surrounding Lexington.
Policies on viewing celebrity horses vary from farm to farm. Some farms are open only to breeders, while others are open to general visitors by appointment. Be sure to call first, or make arrangements through a local tour company or www.visithorsecountry.com.
Here's where you'll find a few former Derby winners in the Bluegrass:
- Silver Charm (1997) lives at Old Friends at Dream Chase Farm near Georgetown (502-863-1775);
- Go for Gin (1994) and Funny Cide (2003) live at the Kentucky Horse Park;
- Triple Crown Winner Justify (2018), Triple Crown Winner American Pharoah (2015) and Fusaichi Pegasus (2000) stand at Ashford Stud near Versailles;
- Street Sense (2007) stands at stud at Jonabell, home of the Darley stallions in America. Animal Kingdom (2011) and Nyquist (2016) are also at Jonabell;
- Super Saver (2010) is at WinStar Farm.
Check out our Map to the Stars to find all the big names at farms around town.
Bluegrass Note: Lexington is home to the official registry of all Thoroughbred horses: The American Stud Book, kept by The Jockey Club. One of the most high-profile aspects of the registry is the naming process. Name applications go through comprehensive screening processes to make sure they meet Jockey Club rules. With over 450,000 names active in the Club's database--and another 100,000 champion names permanently retired--coming up with an acceptable name of 18 letters or less can be a real challenge. The Jockey Club processes about 150 name selections each day--about 36,000 a year--and has an interactive on-line registration system.
See Where it All Starts
Even if they aren't currently the home of a former champion, Bluegrass horse farms are a sight worth seeing, both for their beauty and their history, and because this is where future stars are born.
The red and white buildings of Calumet Farm, for example, are as essential a part of Derby history as the twin spires of Churchill Downs. From Whirlaway in 1941 to Strike the Gold in 1991, Calumet bred a record nine Kentucky Derby winners (and owned a record eight). Even if you only drive by it along Versailles Road, you'll get a sense of the ingredients of a quintessential Bluegrass horse farm: lush pastures, lovely barns, and miles of plank fencing. Calumet's famous trophy collection can be viewed at the Kentucky Horse Park's International Museum of the Horse.
Derby time is at the height of the January-to-July foaling season. Three years down the road, one of the frisky youngsters you see in the fields throughout Central Kentucky’s fields could be standing in the winner's circle at Churchill Downs. From Aristides in 1875 to Always Dreaming in 2017, about 80 percent of Derby winners are bred in Kentucky.
Want to get closer to current and future champions? Contact VisitLEX or Horse Country about guided and do-it-yourself tours of horse farms.
Bluegrass Note: Horses and horse racing have always been important in Lexington (in 1789 there were more horses here than people). The area's central role in the Thoroughbred industry began during the Civil War, when horse breeders in Maryland, the Carolinas and Virginia moved their horses "west" for safety. They discovered that their horses thrived in the Bluegrass, thanks to limestone in the soil and the water, the gently rolling terrain and the favorable weather conditions. By the 1930s, the Lexington Herald-Leader had a standing offer to give subscribers free papers on any day that no horse bred within a 50-mile radius of Lexington won a race at a major track--an event that no one can remember ever happening.
Spend a Day at the Park
Explore a variety of Derby-related exhibits at the Kentucky Horse Park--the world’s first park devoted to the horse. This 1,200-acre farm complex is devoted to all breeds of horses, and attracts over 900,000 visitors each year.
Near the park entrance, there's a life-size statue of 1973 Triple Crown winner Secretariat (right across from a statue of the other horse known as "Big Red," Man o' War, the greatest Thoroughbred who didn’t run in the Derby). Secretariat's Kentucky Derby trophy is on display at the Horse Park museum, along with memorabilia from Seattle Slew and other winners.
The grave of jockey Isaac Murphy at the park is a reminder of the important role African-Americans played in the early days of the race. Fourteen of the 15 riders in the first Derby were African-American, and African-American jockeys won 15 of the race's first 28 runnings. Murphy, who lived in Lexington, was the winning Derby rider in 1884, 1890 and 1891. No other rider in history has even come close to matching his record of winning 44 percent of the races in which he rode.
Bluegrass Note: The Maxwell H. Gluck Equine Research Center, on the University of Kentucky campus in Lexington, is one of the leading equine research facilities in the world. Tours for researchers and others with serious interest in equine science can be arranged. (859-218-1089)
Get a Taste of Derby Traditions
Even candy comes in a Derby flavor in the Bluegrass. You can take home some old-fashioned bourbon balls, chocolate Thoroughbreds and Kentucky Derby mints from Old Kentucky Chocolates at 450 Southland Drive in Lexington. (859-278-4444)
Another Derby-related treat is served in local restaurants and sold in specialty food stores: Derby Pie™. Yes, you can trademark a pie. Kern’s Kitchen of Louisville invented the pie decades ago, and their recipe is still secret (though we can confidently say that pie crust and nuts are involved). Only those serving the real thing are allowed to use the name "Derby Pie" on menus. So when you see desserts with names like "Famous Horserace Pie" or "Bluegrass Pie" on restaurant menus, it means they're serving their own version of this Bluegrass classic.
Another Derby taste you may want to try while you're in Kentucky is the mint julep. "The very dream of drinks," as 19th century Lexington lawyer and literary stylist J. Soule Smith called it, is a mixture of shaved ice, Kentucky bourbon, sugar, water and fresh mint.
The mint julep has been a Derby tradition for years, but despite Smith's contention that one "who has not tasted one has lived in vain," some modern day drinkers consider the mint julep better talked about than enjoyed.
If you want to try one in your own kitchen, be warned: despite its minimal ingredients, a proper julep takes time and patience to make. Here's a recipe from a famous Bluegrass hostess Anita Madden:
First, make a mint syrup. Bruise (crush with the hands) a "whole handful" of mint leaves and combine them with 1/3 cup sugar and 1 cup water. Boil for five minutes, then strain. You should end up with about 2 tablespoons of mint syrup. Pour the mint syrup into your glass (preferably a sterling silver julep cup), Add 1 1/2 to 2 ounces of bourbon and mix. Now fill the cup with crushed ice. Rub fresh mint around the rim of the cup and garnish with fresh mint dipped in powdered sugar.
The drink requires fresh mint, so Kentuckians drink this specialty primarily in the spring and summer. Kentucky distillers Buffalo Trace and Makers Mark bottle ready-to-drink mint julep beverages, available at local liquor stores.
If you’d prefer to leave the mixing to someone else, you can find mint juleps offered at many Lexington restaurants and bars at Derby time. Try Dudley's on Short, 259 W. Short Street, or Merrick Inn, 1074 Merrick Drive, both favorite hangouts of the horsey set.
Bluegrass Note: Derby goers often agonize over what to wear, but leading stables around the world look to Lexington's Silks Unlimited to create their jockey silks. Each stable's jacket and cap features its unique and registered combination of design and colors. Not actually silk, these one-size-fits-all outfits are available in nylon, a nylon-satin blend, and the latest wrinkle in Derby fashion: aerodynamic fits and fabrics.
Bring Home a Unique Souvenir
In the Bluegrass, there are entire shops devoted to horse-related items. Name it, and you can find it with a horse on it. Gift shops at the Kentucky Horse Park and Keeneland offer everything from decor and accessories to clothing, or you can stop in at the Lexington Visitor Center at 215 West Main for something featuring our own famous blue Big Lex.
Each year, Churchill Downs issues an official Kentucky Derby glass. At the track these are sold with the mint julep, the traditional pre-Derby cocktail. You'll find the current year's glass and other "official" souvenirs in Lexington gift shops around Derby time.
Derby glasses from past years, by the way, are quite collectible, as are silver and silver plate mint julep cups. Check out local antique malls and shops for these and other mementos from Derbies past.