Start Planning For 2013 Kentucky Derby Now
With one of the strongest fields and most exciting finishes in Kentucky Derby history, the 138th “Run For the Roses,” set an all time attendance record at Louisville’s Churchill Downs, with over 165,000 there in person to see I’ll Have Another take the crown.
As I noted yesterday, the crowd was a mix of veterans who come every year and wouldn’t miss the race for anything and first timers – most of whom now join the ranks of the regulars and will return, having been converted by what is arguably the best sporting event to attend live in this country.
The Kentucky Derby, coupled with the Kentucky Oaks held the day before, is two full days of fun, excitement, history in the making, tradition, fancy dress, hats, drinks, food and simply offers an atmosphere and experience without compare. I loved everything about the Derby weekend, and discussed the many reasons why it is a true must-do, Bucket List event yesterday. Today I’ll talk about how to do it right.
On the one hand there is no rush, but on the other it is certainly not too early to start planning for next year, as official packages are alrerady on sale and many regulars are already booked for the first Friday and Saturday in May, 2013, and the very best seats go fast, especially those in the A-list Turf Club. This year, Derby Experiences, the official provider of travel packages to the event, once again sold out completely, though there was some availability right up until the week before. Based on the record attendance, we can expect the sellout to occur even earlier for 2013.
Derby Experiences is a joint venture between Churchill Downs and highly regarded sporting event travel company QuintEvents (QuintEvents is also the NFL’s official provider for the NFL Experience packages to the Super Bowl, Pro Bowl, regular season London game and Draft, as well as the official provider for the NBA All-Star age and other major events).
“Everything sold out, every ticket, every hospitality slot, every parking spot,” said QuintEvents principal Ken Kurek. So if you want the best selection of options, get started now.
Basically getting to the Derby works like this: Churchill Downs sells some tickets a la carte, for seats only. However the best seats are reserved for packages, seat license owners, horse owners, and season ticket holders. If you can afford a package, it is a much, much better way to make your experience wonderful than just buying a seat (you can also simply buy a general admission infield ticket for $40 in advance or $50 on Derby day, they don’t sell out, but I am talking about doing the Derby in style here – the infield has no shade, no indoors and lots of port-o-potties). Every package includes both a ticketed seat and access to one of the track’s private hospitality venues, which range from ultra-swank with waiter served food and open bar to utilitarian with cash bar and food for sale, but all offer a private respite from the tumultuous general admission feel of the main racetrack, a place where you can go in between races and sit down, eat or drink without long lines, place bets without long lines, and generally relax. This is important because it tends to be quite hot at Derby time and you generally won’t want to sit out trackside for 5-9 hours. Believe me, once you experience access to a hospitality venue, you will be glad you bought a package. All packages also include special fast access VIP entrance at the major track entrances.
Besides the hospitality, seats and VIP access, packages can be purchased with or without lodging, which usually also includes ground transportation between the hotel and track, either scheduled buses or semi-private hourly shuttles to the track with on-demand returns. The Galt House is the official hotel of the Derby, and Derby Experiences has a large room allotment there. The advantages of the Galt are that it contains the Derby Experiences office, is home to a couple of the major post Kentucky Oaks balls, hosts lobby happy hours, and offers a range of trackside shuttle options. For more meager budgets, Derby Experience offers several less expensive outlying chain hotels beyond the city center. You can also by the ticket and hospitality packages without any lodging.
Other optional package add-ons include tickets to the night-time events, such as Taste of the Derby, the Julep Ball and the Winners Party, held at the track in the Kentucky Derby Museum immediately after the race. Another very worthwhile investment is a semi-private paddock tour, which you can do on either Oaks or Derby Day and see the horses up close, while learning how they are prepared before each race.
Most important is the specific seat and hospitality combination within the track. In some cases these are combined, as for the highest tier options, the Turf Club and Millionaires Row, which have reserved tables which are the ticketed seats within the hospitality. While the Turf Club is generally positioned as the most A-list, where top celebrities watch the race from, the major drawback is that patrons watch through windows. I think a better bet is Millionaire’s Row, which has the same table seating, but a large balcony with an excellent view where you can go out and watch the race from. Both offer extensive food service and private betting windows all day long.
Generally the seats are better the higher you go, and thus the 6th floor Millionaire’s Row is superior to the 4th floor Millionaire’s Row, but both are better than the reserved clubhouse seats from the first to third floor (six is as high as you can go), which in turn are better than the grandstand. Also, the closer to the finish line the better, and the Clubhouse, not the grandstand, is along the home stretch.
I personally think the best combination of value, quality and experience is to get a good clubhouse seat on the second or third level as close to the finish line as possible, coupled with hospitality in the Secretariat Lounge. This is a large private lounge very centrally located on the second floor within the clubhouse, so you can watch races in the traditional fashion, from good open air box seats, then come in as often as you want between races for an air conditioned venue with open bar, free flowing food, live music, large screen and private betting terminals. While not as flashy as the highest tier options, this actually gives more of a race day experience and you cover more ground and see more of Churchill Downs – without ever having to wait on any of the long lines that can form for everything from food to bets. Below this, there are less elaborate hospitality tents and rooms, which can be coupled with less pricey clubhouse and grandstand seating. For instance, a package combining the least expensive uncovered grandstand seats with a Hampton Inn on the outskirts of town and a smaller hospitality suite with cash bar and cash food service runs about $1650 per person with 3-nights lodging. But I think the Derby is an experience worth doing right, and would heartily suggest at a minimum splurging for the Secretariat lounge and second or third floor clubhouse seats. As an example, the price for a 4-day/3-night package with lodging at the Galt House, high-quality second or third box seats in the clubhouse, and hospitality in the Secretariat Lounge, plus assorted extra bells and whistles, is about $4700 per person. The same package with seats and hospitality in the Turf Club is $6500 per person. Remember, all these packages also include the entire Kentucky Oaks Day, so in every case you get two full days of racing and hospitality, and with the better packages food and drink, for this price, in the same seats and same lounges, so come Derby Day, you know exactly where everything is.
Or look at it this way – the difference between a high-end package including all lodging, first-rate hospitality and excellent seats for the weekend and the cheapest package is the same or less as the difference between a coach and first class seat on a typical domestic flight. If you are the kind of person who would ever consider buying a premium airline seat, it does not make sense to not go first class with a Derby package. If seeing the Derby in the most convenient, luxurious, and turnkey fashion is your goal, with eager staffers always available to answer questions and make itinerary changes on the fly, then book a complete package through Churchill Downs’ official provider, complete with lodging and ground transportation, and all you have to do is get yourself to Louisville and have fun. This is surprisingly easy, since in addition to the city’s airport, both Cincinnati and Indianapolis are less than an hour and a quarter away.
I cannot emphasize enough how much fun the Oaks and Derby is, and why this absolutely should be on your short list of life experiences if you have not been.
By Larry Olmsted, Contributor