The Kentucky Derby is one of the most difficult events in sports to get a reserved seat for. You have to apply nearly a year in advance and still you will not likely get a seat where you can see much of the big race, especially with most of the best seats now held by seat license owners. General admission is $40 this year on Derby day and $25 on Oaks day and that only gets you in the infield or paddock area, but they will sell an unlimited number of these so you can get into Churchill Downs.
There is always a long line-up of people waiting at the gate to get in and race for the prime general admission spots. These include anywhere along the fence in the infield but most especially along the fence around the paddock. That is your best spot to actually see the horses and then watch the race on the big screen TV over the paddock. If you are in the infield you will be mostly surrounded by rather rowdy drunks (although there is supposed to be a section of the infield over on the clubhouse turn that is a bit more civilized). According to the people I know who went in the infield, it wasn't worth it and to try and stay in the paddock area instead. Since the addtion of enclosed suites in the infield along the stretch where the bleachers used to be as well as corporate tents, there is no view of the stretch for infield general admission patrons. Best you can hope for is a brief view on the turns or the backstretch now, or just watch on a TV monitor.
There will be tickets for sale outside the gates on Derby day, but be very careful if you try to buy tickets that way. Scalping (i.e. selling for more than face value) is illegal in Kentucky and they do have undercover cops watching for it. If you are busted trying to buy (or sell) tickets for more than face value and are caught, they will not only confiscate the tickets but your money too! Don't be afraid to buy tickets outside the gate, just don't pay more than the price printed on the ticket. The only worry you have at that point is forgeries, which do happen so be careful.
If you really want a reserved seat, there are tons of them available via ticket brokers but be prepared to pay up to 10 times or more of the face value. Before I paid those high prices, I would try the various online forums, classifieds, and Ebay auctions to get one at a more reasonable price. Note that Ebay has strict rules about the selling of tickets in areas where scalping is illegal like in Kentucky. In the main stands, the most affordable seats with a decent view would be sections 221-222 of the grandstand, but again they are rather flat so you want to be down towards the front. Sections 321-322 are good as well since they would let you see the backstretch over all the junk in the infield but forget about getting them for any price approaching reasonable. Unless you only want to say you were there and are willing to watch the race on a TV monitor, stay away from the Marquee Village as it is behind the grandstand and has no view of the track at all.
Churchill Downs Seating Diagram
Starting in 2002, the rules for entry and what you can bring in changed drastically. In the past you saw hundreds of people bringing in coolers full of food and soft drinks, but that is no longer allowed. Read the new rules carefully as there are many changes and there is always the chance they will restrict more items. Be prepared to have any bags searched.
- Gates open at 8am
- All patrons will be searched with a magnetic wand at all track entrance gates
- All vehicles (buses, limousines and vendor vehicles) that enter the track will have security sweeps before entering
- Vehicles parked in all Churchill Downs lots will be subject to search
- Dress code is "smart casual" suggested, but only enforced for clubhouse seats. You are lucky if some infield patrons will even wear clothes!
- Items that patrons may carry in to Churchill Downs on Oaks and Derby days are:
- Food items in clear plastic bags (maximum size 18"x 18" - no trash bags)
- "Box" lunches if packaged in clear plastic bags (maximum size 18"x 18" - no trash bags)
- Cellular telephones, cameras, and camcorders (patrons required to turn electronic items on before entry is allowed)
- Purses and baby bags (all subject to search)
- Chairs (Gate 3 only)
- Blankets (Gates 1 & 3 for infield use only)
- Tarpaulins (Gates 1 & 3 for infield use only)
- Items that are banned from the track on Derby and Oaks Days include:
- Weapons of any kind (includes all knives and scissors)
- Bottles and cans of any kind (includes all beverage and lotion containers - glass, plastic or metal) You will have to buy drinks and sunscreen at the track.
- Backpacks, luggage and duffel bags
- Strollers and wagons
If you would like to request reserved seating for the Kentucky Oaks or Kentucky Derby, you can apply online here. For 2009, there are a few seats available to buy online from Churchill Downs as well, and they may offer you better seats if you do.
In the past, you had to apply in writing after September 1st of the year before and basically beg for seats. For a look at what happened to those requests, check here. Now with seat licenses sold to pay for the grandstand rennovations, most of the best seats are already spoken for so this practice is dying out and the lady who used to be in charge of it left Churchill Downs in 2008. Online requests and last minute sales seem to be the way they are going for the seats that remain available now.
Good luck with your trip to the Kentucky Derby! It looks to be a grand day of racing once again. Here are some more links to help you get ready:
Triple Crown quick links:
- Kentucky Derby 101 - an introduction to all things Derby from history to handicapping to attending
- Kentucky Derby Contenders - with photos and profiles
- 2009 Triple Crown Nominees - the full list sorted by name, sire, trainer, or owner
- Experimental Free Handicap - ranks the top 2-year-olds of 2002 and determines who can be a dual qualifier
- Triple Crown Trail prep race schedule with results updated weekly
- Injury Report - who is off the trail due to injury
- Louisville Courier Journal coverage - one of your best news sources for the Derby
- Blood Horse Triple Crown Mania
- DRF Derby Special
- Thoroughbred Times Triple Crown special
- Derby News from Churchill Downs
- Triple Crown Trivia Quiz - test your knowledge of the Derby, Preakness, and Belmont and compete with others.
- Triple Crown Index - the master list with even more info
Photos © Cindy Pierson Dulay. Seating chart courtesy of Churchill Downs.