It's not too late to claim a spot at the country's most colorful two-minute sporting event
Whether you're a fan of old-time cocktails, big-time hats, or fast-time horses, the Run for the Roses, this year on May 7, promises thrills. Louisville hotel rooms have been booked for months, and grandstand tickets are sold out. But don't let that stop you.
Get in the gate
As many as 150,000 people usually turn out, yet Churchill Downs seats only 54,000 for the Derby. How? There's an unlimited supply of $40 walk-up general-admission tickets that grant access to the paddock and infield. The Derby, the 10th of the day's 12 races, starts around 6 p.m., and the gates open at 8 a.m. You'll want to get there early (some come as early as 3 a.m., but 7:30 a.m. should be fine). Head for the 40-acre infield. The best seats are near the turns, where you can feel the horses' speed; drop your blanket as close to the fence as possible. Bring folding chairs and blankets--permitted only through Gate 3--to hold on to your spot. (Leave the coolers and umbrellas behind. They're not allowed.) The first and second turns attract a mellow crowd, while the hard-core partyers congregate at turn three. Scoring a last-minute grandstand ticket, if you can get one, will cost at least $300. (Tickets' face values range from $60 to $700.) Scalping is illegal in Kentucky, so you'll have to go through an online ticket broker such as gotickets.com.
Secure a room
Start by calling around to Louisville hotels: Cancellations aren't unheard of. Next, try the tourist board, which may know of options you haven't considered. Finally, expand your search to Lexington, an hour-long drive east on Interstate 64; the Radisson Plaza Hotel, downtown, has 367 rooms, so it may have availability. Blue Grass Tours runs shuttles for $55 per person, but for that price, you might as well rent a car.
Drink in style
No race day is complete without a mint julep: bourbon, sugar, muddled mint, water, and crushed ice ($7.50). More than 80,000 will be poured at Churchill Downs over Derby weekend. Have at least one, if not for the bourbon, then for the souvenir--a collins glass imprinted with the names of previous Derby winners.
Dress the part
Much of the fun here is watching--and joining--the parade of women in overstated hats. Look for a big, floppy brim loaded with feathers or ribbons. Pick one up last-minute at Kentucky Museum of Art and Craft. Most are by local milliners, and prices start around $120.