There’s no doubt that last year’s Derby — which was pushed back to September due to COVID — was the most unusual Derby yet. This year, the Bluegrass State’s signature event returns on Saturday, May 1, to its regular schedule, albeit with lots of new rules and restrictions. Here’s everything you need to know if you’re planning to attend America’s Greatest Race this year.

Jockeys racing at Kentucky Derby

From what to wear, bring, eat and drink, here is your guide to the 2021 Kentucky Derby. Image: Facebook

Your Ultimate Guide to the 2021 Kentucky Derby

WHAT TO EXPECT

Tickets and access will be limited for both seated and infield attendees, so be sure to carefully review all pertinent admission information on kentuckyderby.com before purchasing your tickets. In addition to welcoming 50% fewer guests than usual in 2021, certain areas of Churchill Downs will be partitioned off and open only to certain ticketholders.

RELATED: Kentucky Derby Trivia: Fascinating Secrets & Little-Known Facts

WHAT TO BRING

If you’re a regular attendee of events at Churchill Downs, keep in mind that The Derby Week bag policy, which goes into effect on Saturday, April 24, is more stringent than before. Each guest is permitted to bring in only one bag, which can be no larger than 12-by-6-by-12-inch in size. Prohibited items include:

  • Alcoholic beverages
  • Backpacks, duffel bags, and luggage
  • Balloons and other inflatables
  • Banners and signs (unless preapproved)
  • Cameras with detachable lenses (or those that are equipped with a lens that is 6 inches or larger)
  • Canopies
  • Tents
  • Cans
  • Glass bottles or containers
  • Chairs
  • Confetti
  • Coolers
  • Drones or any other remote-controlled aircraft
  • Fireworks, noisemakers, air horns, laser lights/pointers, mace, and pepper spray
  • Grills
  • Hoverboards, skateboards, and scooters
  • Illegal substances
  • Portable speakers/sound systems and personal music players (unless headphones are used)
  • Pets, aside from trained service animals
  • Poles or sticks of any size
  • Projectile items, including balls and Frisbees
  • Seat cushions that are larger than 15-by-15 inches that contain metal arms and/or backs, zippers, pockets, or flaps
  • Selfie sticks
  • Thermoses
  • Tripods
  • Umbrellas (of any size)
  • Weapons, including guns, knives, and cigar cutters
  • Any other items deemed dangerous or inappropriate

Food and beverages are also prohibited, with the exception of boxed lunches or food items in clear, plastic bags or containers that do not exceed the maximum bag size. It’s important to reiterate that guests may bring in one bag only — a purse plus a food bag, for example, is prohibited. Attendees may also bring in up to two bottles of water that are sealed, clear, and unopened.

Baby bags and diaper bags are allowed if accompanied by a child but are subject to search. The same goes for strollers.

WHAT TO WEAR

Pandemic rules mean face coverings are a Derby requirement, but that won’t stop all the fabulous fashion that surrounds this beloved event. In fact, local businesses like Formé Millinery Co. and The Mill by Kenzie offer matching hat and face mask sets; and guys can visit The Mysterious Rack to coordinate their masks and bow ties.

As for the rest of Derby fashion, word on the street is that statement pants, big sleeves, bold leather, and — no surprise here — lots of florals are what’s trending this year. Just keep in mind that different sections of Churchill Downs have specific dress codes. Guests seated in the Finish Line Suites, for example, should be dressed in business casual — think slacks, pantsuits, and dresses — and shorts, T-shirts, jeans, and athletic wear are prohibited. Other sections suggest “smart casual” or “track casual.” Full dress code details can be found at churchilldowns.com.

Matching hat and face mask from Formé Millinery Co.

Matching hat and face mask set from Formé Millinery Co. | Image: Facebook

Matching Derby hat and face mask from The Mill by Kenzie

Matching hat and face mask set from The Mill by Kenzie | Image: Facebook

Matching bow tie and face mask from The Mysterious Rack for the 2021 Kentucky Derby

Matching mask and bow tie set from The Mysterious Rack | Image: Facebook

To find out all about the latest and greatest 2021 Derby fashion trends, watch The Derby Festival Spring Fashion Show, which will be broadcast on WHAS-11 News at 9 a.m. EST on Wednesday, April 14, and noon EST on Saturday, April 17.

For a sneak peek, check out the show’s official hat designers, The Hat Girls. Run by two native Louisvillians, The Hat Girls offers both ready-made and custom headwear that will perfect any Derby outfit, from fun fascinators to couture millinery pieces.

RELATED: How to Shop Your Closet for the Kentucky Derby

Custom hat from The Hat Girls

Custom Derby headwear from The Hat Girls | Image: Facebook

WHAT TO EAT & DRINK

With the first race starting at 11 a.m. and the “most exciting two minutes in sports” wrapping up after 7 p.m., Derby is an all-day affair. If you’re planning to pack your own meals, why not stick to Kentucky classics? Benedictine — the cucumber and cream cheese spread served up as finger sandwiches — is a Louisville original, and you can whip it up with this recipe. And of course, no day at the races would be complete without the quintessential Derby drink, a mint julep. Just be sure to drink it before you get to the gate, as no outside alcohol is allowed.

Not interested in prepping your own Derby meal? Wiltshire Pantry is developing a cocktail-party type package in honor of the races. With enough to serve eight, it’s a great take-home option for a pre-party before heading to the track. They will also be offering boxed lunches in clear containers that meet Churchill Downs’ requirements. Call (502) 581-8560 for more information.

Kentucky Derby meal from Wiltshire Pantry

Grab a Derby meal from Wiltshire Pantry. Image: Facebook

For build-your-own Derby boxed lunches, contact Noosh Nosh by Wednesday, April 28. Choose from a club, caprese, or Italian sandwich — or pick different meat, bread, and cheese as you see fit. Every box includes pasta salad or homemade chips, as well as a brownie or cookie. All condiments, utensils, and napkins are included with each $18 box, so you won’t have to worry about packing a fork or searching for one after you arrive. Drinks can be added to any order, but keep in mind that only water in clear bottles will be allowed through the gates.

And don’t forget dessert! Sweet Surrender Dessert Café’s annual Derby treat boxes are full of appropriately themed tasty goodies and can be preordered online. Each box is $26 and includes one 4-inch trifecta pie (chocolate/pecan/bourbon), two bourbon balls, two mint julep truffles, two bourbon-salted chocolate chip cookies, two salted caramel French macarons, and two mini chocolate cupcakes.

Treat box from Sweet Surrender Dessert Cafe

The Derby treat box from Sweet Surrender Dessert Cafe is filled with confectionery goodness! Image: Emily Ciner

HOW TO BET

If you’re betting for the fun of it, feel free to proceed by picking horses based on their names or their jockey’s silk colors. But if you’re in it to win it, review our betting guide to ensure you’re ready to go on Derby day, either in person or online.

MORE DERBY READING

Check out the below Kentucky Derby articles from our archives:

See you at the races! 

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