April 10, 2017
We have always dreamed of experiencing a Kentucky Derby. Every year on the first Saturday of May we are glued to the television watching the beautiful hats, the stunning thoroughbred horses, and the heart pounding Run for the Roses. I always thought that it would be race day that brought us to historic Churchill Downs, but when our travels had us in Louisville weeks before, we wondered if it could still create the magic of Derby week.
The answer is yes. When you are in Louisville, Kentucky, a must do on any itinerary is the Kentucky Derby Museum. Located at Churchill Downs, the museum showcases all aspects of the race, has multiple tours of the grounds, and a great short documentary on the race.
Here is our experience and what the museum has to offer.
Getting to the Kentucky Derby Museum
The Kentucky Derby Museum is located at Gate 1 at Churchill Downs (704 Central Avenue, Louisville, KY 40208). Check their website out for hours and to purchase tickets in advance: General Information
Parking is plentiful and when you see the statue of Barbaro, you have made it to the right place.
Our Day Exploring the Kentucky Derby Museum & Churchill Downs
The museum and accompanying tours can be a full-day event for those that have the time. Check their website for tour times so that you can plan ahead, and make reservations. Basic admission allows you to explore the museum, participate in a 30 minute history walk (these happen every half hour past the hour), and view their 18 minute video “The Greatest Race.” In addition to basic admission, there are more in depth tours to choose from, a gift shop and lunch at the cafe.
The museum experience starts at the gates, and then we’re off! There are two stories of interactive exhibits, videos, photos, race artifacts and information. It is tailored for all ages of derby fans.
Kevin’s competitive nature came out when he had his first go at being a jockey.
We learned a lot about the requirements that the jockeys have to follow on race day. The big one is their weight. The Kentucky Derby requires an exact weight of 126 lbs, including gear and saddle. Jockeys who fall short of the weight requirement must add weight to their saddle, no exceptions. It was a jockey, and his performance, that increased my passion for watching the Run for the Roses. In 2007, Calvin Borel raced with Street Sense, and showcased his signature move along the rails to victory.
There is an incredible amount of information about horses whom have raced, and I found Northern Dancer to be pretty amazing. One of the few thoroughbreds from Canada, he was inducted into both the Canadian and United States Sports Hall of Fame. AS for his legacy, he sired the most successful line of heirs that influenced the Derby for years to come.
After walking through the exhibits of hats and all the memorabilia it was time to watch “The Greatest Race.” This video is displayed on a 360° screen in a theater big enough for 50+ people. As you watch, it will have you twirling in your seat to keep up and your heart pounding. The video covers race day preparations, interviews with jockeys, trainers, and owners, along with highlights from races dating back to the 1800’s. We both got goose bumps. The result is an appreciation for what goes into this huge event, an event that has more live spectators than the Superbowl!
After the video you exit the museum for the included 30 minute history walk. The first stop is the Winner’s Silks statue which honors the previous year’s winner. In a few days time, it will be updated with the new winner!
Posted on the buildings around us was a chronological list of prior Derby winners, starting with Aristides in 1875.
As you walk along, you will see every horse that has won the Kentucky Derby, the first triple crown winner, and the first father/son triple crown winners. Our tour guide was helpful in answering questions, and dishing out information about specific winners and races. Some people asked about famous horses like Secretariat and Barbaro. If you remember, the Barbaro statue greets you as you walk in, located above his final resting place. A decisive winner of the Kentucky Derby he sadly broke his ankle at the Preakness during his try for the triple crown.
One of my favorite parts about Derby Day is the Paddock. The paddock holds the up to 18 contestants on race day, and is a popular viewing place for spectators. When the horses walk in, their lip tattoos are checked and then they are taken to the individual stalls. Even after watching this event for years, I never understood the significance of this part of Derby day. The tattoos are unique to each horse and a race official checks the tattoo against their records. The Paddock is the last place the horses will be before taking the walk to the track.
I would love to be along the gate on Derby day to watch and experience the atmosphere of the Paddock, but I really enjoyed having it empty and a moment of peace before the week began.
Then to the track! The distance between the Paddock and the race track is connected by a small tunnel underneath the stands. The horses are escorted through the tunnel, and upon entering the track, the tradition of everyone singing My Old Kentucky Home begins. The horses are then led to the starting gate.
I could never have imagined getting this close to the track. Depending on the day, you might be lucky enough to see horses training. Or, come to the track when they have their other horse races!
There is a special winners circle for the Kentucky Derby champion! Only horses that have won the Derby are allowed in this area.
We were able to get to the other winners’ circle for the rest of the lucky winners!
The last part of the tour is seeing the gardens and meeting the resident thoroughbred. Unfortunately for us it was closed due to construction and preparation for the big day and week. After this tour it would have been perfect to get a bite to eat at the cafe and then another tour, but we had to say our goodbyes.
One day we will attend the Kentucky Derby. Until then, I will start designing my hat!
Tours at the Kentucky Derby Museum
A complete list of the tours that are provided can be found here: Kentucky Derby Museum Tours
Connect with the Kentucky Derby Museum:
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