Kentucky Derby, parties: fast horses, bourbon and fabulous hats

Got a little “Run for the Roses” on your mind?

If you’re an adventurous traveler and don’t mind going with the flow, there’s still time to make the seven-hour trek to Louisville for the 141st running of the Kentucky Derby on Saturday.

If you go, prepare to see fabulous hats and taste the best the River City has to offer, including some of the finest bourbons around. Then there’s the Derby, the coveted Triple Crown’s first leg held each year at the storied Churchill Downs, with its twin spires and lush landscaping.

Tickets for the race are still available. A $60 ticket will get you into the infield, a grassy area in the center of the track that becomes a sea of humanity on Derby day. Hotel rooms are still available if you’re willing to pay more and stay outside of the city.

Need more reasons to make the trip? The Derby and related festivities make for a week’s worth of parties with famous athletes, celebrities, millionaires and regular folks. During Derby weekend, the city’s bars stay open until 6 a.m.

Perched on the Ohio River, the city of Louisville (population 600,000) has some great sights. Must-see places include the Louisville Slugger Museum and factory and the Muhammad Ali Center, a museum dedicated to the life, career and politics of the boxing great. The Kentucky Derby Museum is closed Friday and Saturday for private parties but is open other days this week as well as the Sunday after the Derby.

The Belle of Louisville, the nation’s oldest operating steamboat, is another popular tourism draw. The Chow Wagon, on the city’s waterfront, features rides for kids, food, vendors and entertainment and is one of over 70 events sponsored by the Kentucky Derby Festival.

The Kentucky Oaks — a race for 3-year-old fillies at Churchill Downs on Derby eve — has become a huge draw and is the preferred event for locals because it’s cheaper and less crowded.

As for the party and gala circuit, be prepared to plunk down some serious cash. Most Derby galas benefit local charities, said Peggy Riley, a Louisville native and director of Southeast sales for the Louisville Convention & Visitors Bureau.

The Hermitage Grand Gala is one of the newest additions to the party circuit. Former NBA player and fast-food restaurant owner Junior Bridgeman and his wife, Doris, are co-hosting the Friday gala, which benefits schools, the Louisville Autism Center and other organizations. You can purchase a winner’s circle ticket for a mere $1,200. Ne-Yo and Darius Rucker are set to perform.

Need a hat for the Derby? The city’s department stores and craft stores will cater to your every need. “I have heard stories of limos pulling in front of (stores) on the day of the Derby,” said Susan Dallas, senior communications manager for the Louisville Convention & Visitors Bureau.

Dallas offers these tips for Derby neophytes: No umbrellas (they aren’t allowed at Churchill Downs), wear comfortable shoes, and take cabs, shuttles and public transportation to get around.

“It’s pretty crowded but it’s a fun time to be in town,” she said. “Everybody’s in a party mood.”

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