There are two ways to attend the Kentucky Derby. You can buy yourself a reserved seat in the grandstands that can cost $500, or you can opt for general admission for $40-100 depending on how far in advance you purchase tickets , which gets you access to the infield (the green in the center of the track itself) and paddock (where the horses are prepped for the races). While this may simply seem like the difference between court-side and the nosebleeds, the two sections at Churchill Downs are two vastly different worlds, and two very different parties. On the one hand you have the refined celebration of the upper crust in the stands. And on the other you have a rager to rival the most extreme spring break you can imagine on the infield. While Churchill Downs has been attempting to clean up the infield party in recent years, making it a bit dressier and irking some rowdier traditionalists, videos from the 2016 Derby show that the outlaw spirit lives on in the infield party. We talked to someone who saw this insanity first hand several years ago (and who only agreed to speak to us on the promise of anonymity—yeah, this gets cray). This is their story:
The Kentucky Derby you know from TV is not the Kentucky Derby I saw a few years ago when I attended with friends. The televised version is arguably not even the real Derby experience. Only about half of the 170,000-odd attendees end up in the stands, where the TV cameras catch glimpses of celebrities, Southern royalty and genteel racing enthusiasts decked out in pristine summer suits, and derby hats that cost hundreds of dollars. The other half burrow through the tunnel that runs beneath the track and emerge in the infield, a quarantined area right in the center of the race. If the grandstand is a congenial garden party, the infield is an absolute, beer-fueled rager.
By the time I made my way through the tunnel around 10 a.m., the Mint Juleps had been flowing for two hours—which was pretty clear from the horde of partiers that greeted me. The crowd was a mix of frat bros in Nantucket red and critter-patterned shorts, sorority girls in super short summer dresses or bikini tops, Southern tailgaters with denim overalls, beer bellies and trucker hats and older folks who looked lost. Mixed in with these fine folks were the more festive attendees, like the duo I saw in a two-person horse costume (I doubt they could have walked straight even without the costume). Sleeves were few and far between, and there was rarely a hand unoccupied by a Julep or a beer.
All space along the track itself was occupied. People routinely camp out in the early hours of the morning to stake their claim to a good view. I’m just over five feet tall, so there was pretty much zero chance I would see the race over the shoulders of the crowd, but it turns out that I was in the majority. Pretty much no one I talked to actually saw the race with their own eyes. Most people just watched the jumbotron, if they noticed a race was happening at all.
Meanwhile, the “field” was less grass and more swamp. It had poured recently and the mud was unavoidable. Combined with a heavy drape of heat, the place was disgusting. Luckily I was with a group who set up a basecamp with chairs, but short of that, expect to stand (or be prepared to mud wrestle, which isn’t uncommon).
After spending about two minutes dodging mud, bros, and flying beer (I mean that literally; I saw one girl get hit in the face with a full can), I needed a drink myself. I made my way to one of the drink stands, waited patiently in a gargantuan line, laid down too much money for a Mint Julep and was handed a plastic cup of something on ice that smelled of cleaning chemicals. No julep cup. No fresh mint to be seen. I assume the contents were grain alcohol, super sweet mint syrup and half-melted ice. Most of the crowd didn’t seem to care about the lack of quality beverages, though. They brought their own. While booze is on a long list of prohibited items to bring to the infield, that didn’t stop smugglers from whipping out cans of Natty and Bud Light from god knows where.
The highlight of the event wasn’t a horse race but rather the race of the most ambitious drinkers across the top of the port-a-potties. The port-a-potty run, I learned, is a tradition at Churchill Downs as sacred as Derby hats. The brave runners mount a toilet on the end of the row (I have no idea how they get up there) and attempt to run across the tops, all while the crowd hurls beer cans (graciously empty) and other trash at them to knock them off balance. At best, runners can hope to make it across and leap into the mud on the far side. At worst, a faceful of plastic awaits, as they tumble into the toilets and fall to the ground seven feet below.
After about nine hours, many people were passed out in the muddy grass. Something involving horses happened on the track, someone probably won a big race, but my group was more concerned with escaping, eventually making our way to the nearest Cracker Barrel.
Here’s the kicker. After all that, I went back again the next year. I drank two Bloody Marys in the morning, passed out and slept through the whole day, race and all. I may have missed the big event again, but I missed the rest of the infield too.
— As told to Nicholas Mancall-Bitel