Rules for the Roses: A Derby Survival Guide

Rules for the Roses: A Derby Survival Guide
Photo: Mark Mahan
By Derek Brown (Twitter: @NJDerek)
 
If every package you've ever ordered from UPS has spent more time in Louisville than you have, you should feel extremely guilty. You're a racing fan, my friend! And every racing fan, whether they realize it or not, is hurtling down the road of inevitability that lands you squarely beneath the Twin Spires (or at least in the vicinity thereof) for the grand adventure that is the Kentucky Derby Presented for Yum! Brands (gr. I). It's time to face the music and dance.
 
It is more than important to know the etiquette and traditions that will make the Derby experience a social (and financial) success—it is vital. To aid in your endeavors, I have compiled this handy lifeline. Follow all recommendations to the letter...or disregard at your own peril.
 
Pronunciation of the Location of Derby Madness
First. No matter what the airline ticket agent says, it's pronounced "LOO-eh-vulle." Get it through your head. "Lou-EE-ville" and "Lou-IS-ville" are not places that exist anywhere. 
 
Training Guide to Derby-Viewing Endurance
The Kentucky Derby is the most exciting two minutes in sports, but you should prepare to see no more than 1.4 seconds of the actual race. If you hope to even see that much, you'll want to begin training weeks in advance. 
 
Your goal should be to stand on tiptoes and peer over the heads of people by working both calf muscles in shoes that are about two sizes too small and haven't been worn since prom.  
 
For the fellas, seersucker doesn't move like denim, so wear your full Derby outfit during training. This is key to developing the correct muscle groups.  
 
Proper training should also hone your organizational skills. Choose an outfit that has a lot of pockets. You're going to be carrying 25 small, identical slips of paper at any given time and three of them could be worth a lot of money.
 
Arriving at Churchill Downs
Shortcuts to the racetrack are available through local residents' yards, and are clearly marked with empty big box store pretzel jugs. Think of them like Derby tollbooths; the rule is 'Paper only.' You're a crew of (presumably) well-dressed people (hopefully) carrying wads of cash, cash you've saved avoiding high-priced local lots by parking in Siberia and walking from there. Pay for shortcuts when walking in. The time saved is well worth the $5 expenditure.
 
Wardrobe Consultation, Hats
Hats are a big deal at the Kentucky Derby. Many women spend years engineering massive contraptions designed to be seen from space that would strain Terry Crews' neck muscles. Since you're going to need to travel with said hat, and only three hat boxes fit on each flight in and out of Louisville, making the most of hat space is paramount. 
 
Ladies, if you're buying a hat just for the Derby, credible choices begin on page four of google image search results. You don't want any association with the page one through three crowds. For the DIY hat gal, we gentlemen recommend you try to work the following into your design: Wi-Fi hot spot, rain-sensing poncho deployment and retraction mechanism, fuel cell-powered jet pack, snack dispenser and periscope.
Hats
Photo: Anne M. Eberhardt
 
For men, standard "one hat per group" rules apply and you should assume that role is filled. It's far better to be No-Hat Guy than Other Hat Guy.
 
Congratulations, You Have Arrived
Once you arrive at Churchill Downs, you'll notice your tickets have seat numbers. Those have no correlation to where you will actually sit. How much you paid for these tickets will determine if you actually get a glimpse of a Derby contender or even see those 1.4 seconds of the race. Your group can create a fun Derby game by picking an equal-sized group and betting who will sit closest to the finish line for the race after the Derby. Yes, there are races after the Derby. Nobody mentions that ahead of time.
 
"So Hey, Man, Who Do You Like in the Derby?" (Celebrity Edition)
If you've watched 11 consecutive seconds of any Derby telecast, it's true that celebrities are everywhere. I would never advocate walking up to Joey Fatone and asking him for an opinion on anything that could impact your taxes, but at the Derby it's completely okay. Whether it's Eric Roberts, Iman, Kid Rock, or that bearded guy from one of those professional sports teams, you get one compliment followed by one question limited to who they like in the Derby.  When making your fantasy list of celebrities you're going to try and run into, focus only on the tall ones. In the Derby's 139-year history there has never been a single confirmed Phil Collins sighting.
Kim Kardashian
Photo: Russell Johnson
 
While above six feet is the celebrity zone, below four feet is the jockey sighting zone. Thankfully racing is one sport where the fans respectfully do not emulate the uniforms of the participants, and you'll be amazed how the jockeys and their festive silks stand out among the Derby's sea of humanity.
 
How to Not Appear Like a Rookie, also, Picking the Winner of the Derby
Learn the names of at least a few Derby horses while in transit. If it's your first time attending the Derby, you don't want to mess around trying to learn the names by reading past performances. The ease of staring at those falls somewhere between The Matrix and a 3D print of a Dolphin in space. You'll hear some bettors that have eschewed traditional past performances referred to as "sheets players," but that term is the exact opposite of what you think it means.
 
Everyone has what they call a "system" for betting the races. System is code for "confused." Some bettors construct Beautiful Mind-type collages of horse names connected by yarn in their apartments. Others simply stare off into the distance and mumble words like "bias," "dead rail" and "conveyor belt."  When it comes to the Derby, these are get-poor-slow schemes that won't help you at all.  
 
One extremely effective handicapping method requires familiarizing yourself with other groups of people around you. Complete strangers will yell their bets aloud to nobody in particular prior to each race. Watch who celebrates the most after the horses cross the wire, and bet what that person does in subsequent races until a better celebrator can be identified. 
 
"The Curse of Apollo" will be referenced by at least 20 people describing a horse that is running in the Derby but did not run at age two. Abstain from any and all Rocky references should Apollo be mentioned. There will be a time for your Ivan Drago impersonation, just not today.
 
How to Place a Wager 101
The self-service betting machines are for pros. While not visible, there is a clock to complete your transaction in 25 seconds. That pressure is not for everybody, so think of the line with the friendly teller as your friend. But not to worry, all the betting lines move at exactly the same speed. That's noted clearly in the program and it's perfectly acceptable to ask a stranger to show you where. And about that teller: it's his first day. You don't necessarily have to know your bets before the Derby, but practice saying potential wagers loudly and clearly. Low talkers should limit themselves to single show bets. 
Betting Window
Photo: Anne M. Eberhardt
 
Alcohol, Because You'll Need It
Mint juleps are the official drink of the Kentucky Derby and there is a good reason why they aren't consumed at any other event. The history of mint juleps stems from a recipe which was originally concocted as a dare and stuck. It's a strong drink that tastes the way you might imagine kissing a halitosis-conscious Stevie Nicks would be like. Occasionally you'll see someone attempt to elevate their standing by drinking out of a chalice. That's completely unnecessary. Should an investigation find that they brought their own chalice, that person should be banished from the group immediately.
Mint Julep
Photo: Anne M. Eberhardt
 
The more mint juleps you consume, the more Derby glasses you get to carry. Yes, they're made of real glass. I cannot overstate how important it is that you neither drop nor fracture those glasses. They are collectors' items. Besides, no great Derby story ends with "and that's how I severed all the tendons in my hand."
 
Weep No More My Lady
"The sun shines bright on my old Kentucky home." That's the only part of the song you need to know. The rest of the lyrics are basically about a guy trying to cheer his wife up because he took a new job out of state without telling her and they have to move. But just because you're not singing isn't an excuse to mess around during the song. Only Jerry O'Connell can get away with stuff like that, and you're not Jerry O'Connell. Just take a few moments to revel in 150,000 people looped up on mint juleps singing anything in perfect harmony.
 
Leave Before the Derby or Stay to Bet the Last
Keep in mind that the City of LOO-eh-vulle will have 99.9 percent of the streets around Churchill Downs shut down after the race with help from the National Guard, Secret Service, and K-9 Police, and left-hand turns within a 10-mile radius of the track are largely prohibited. This will send all drivers in futile pursuit of a traffic-jammed route to the interstate, so your best bet is either to leave before the Derby (not recommended since this is the race you came to see), or stay to see the last race.  
 
When you finally do emerge from Churchill Downs, you'll notice every car on the streets is for hire, but not in the traditional matching color/vehicle sense experienced in most cities. Don't be put off by the idea of getting in a car with a paper Taxi sign taped to the windshield. If "taxi" is spelled correctly you're going to be just fine. Think of it like Uber, but with the fun wrinkle of riding back to your hotel with a 50-pound bulldog mix in your lap.
 
Another Shot to Get it Right... Next Year
These rules may seem complex, and you're going to have questions I'm not qualified to answer. But don't be afraid to make mistakes. You'll be just fine. And one advantage you have over the horses is that you can go to the Derby every year, while they only get one shot to get it right. 

Most Popular Stories