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Kentucky Derby Etiquette: 7 Rules You’ll Want to Follow and Why

The Kentucky Derby is one of the most famous horse races in the world, held annually in Louisville, Kentucky, and almost always on the first Saturday in May. While it’s known for it’s colourful attire, exciting races and southern hospitality, there are some general guidelines and race etiquette to keep in mind when attending:

1 – Always respect your neighbors and show good sportsmanship! Horse racing is a social event, and it’s important to be mindful of others around you and their enjoyment of the event as well. The one item to ensure you leave at home? An umbrella, which is banned (as to not block views of others during races) at Churchill Downs, the official horse racing complex of The Kentucky Derby.

2 – Dress appropriately: As always, when in doubt overdress. There is in fact, a dress code that is taken rather seriously at Churchill Downs, and the formality of it depends on where in Churchill Downs you are watching the races. The three dress codes are “track casual” which is informal, then “smart casual” which is a bit more elegant and the most formal dress code at the Kentucky Derby is “business casual”. Hats and fascinators are highly encouraged. The more festive, fanciful and over the top the hat, the better! Bright colors, elegant hats and a sundress, or a jacket and a tie are standard dress at most tracks during the derby– or a bow tie for extra credit! Shoes- Flat shoes, block or wedge heels are suggested as there are many different surface area types at Churchill Downs and you want to avoid sinking a heel in grassy or pebbled turf. Follow the official Churchill Downs dress code here.

3 – Arrive on time: Make sure you arrive at the race track with plenty of time to spare, you’ll  want to find the best possible spot to watch the race or get to your seat. Oftentimes, late arrivals are seen as disruptive and mean missing the beginning of the race!

4 – The common greeting phrase to know “Happy Derby” which is a popular phrase used to greet people on the big day! Knowing other terminology such as what a “furlong” is (an eighth of a mile, or 220 yards) and how long the race is (a quarter long or 10 furlongs) will also help you socialise with ease.

5 – Observe the track’s rules: Each race track may have specific rules and regulations that spectators must follow; but it’s customary to most races that you do not bringing in outside food or drink, and refrain from smoking in restricted areas. While the mint juleps are the famous cocktail served at The Kentucky Derby, drinking too much is one sure way to get removed from the event.

6 – Always respect the horses: Horse racing is an intense sport for both the jockeys and the horses, and an be quite dangerous to partake. It’s important to remain respectful to the animals and not startle or upset them, this includes not interfering with the horses or jockeys and refraining from loud or disruptive behavior. They’ve been training all year for this one! The horses in The Kentucky Derby are all 3 years old and have never run this distance before, so the pressure is on.

7 – Leave large handbags and bags at home. In fact, it’s a rule at the Kentucky Derby that you can not bring in bag of any kind larger than 12 inches in any direction.

Follow these Kentucky Derby etiquette guidelines and even if your horse doesn’t win, you’ll still be winning in our book.

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