The Run For The Roses

January 5, 2024 / Lifestyle

The Kentucky Derby has been called the most exciting two minutes in sports. It is the oldest continuously held major sporting event in the United States and has taken place every year at Churchill Downs since 1875. Over the years the Kentucky derby has transformed beyond a simple horse race into a comprehensive cultural celebration that draws thousands to Louisville. The weekend brims with luxurious galas, haute cuisines, and incomparable fashions. The run for the roses has not only literary significance, but is also rooted in deep, southern tradition.

Churchill downs is known for the unique energy that surrounds it, especially on Derby day . “The experience of watching your horse give everything for two minutes is unparalleled,” says Tonya Abeln, VP of communications for Churchill Downs, “In other sports the end is predictable, but with the derby–everyone is cheering at the exact same time. It’s special, and everyone just feels like they’re winning.”

According to Abeln, the derby can look completely different for everyone, but the desire to be part of the pageantry and unexpected occurrences is a universal derby connection. There are the spectators that want to see and be seen while others want the highest level of privacy, while still being an onlooker. The mansion is an area within Churchill that draws an elite clientele and the highest level of ticket holders who typically value discretion. “You have a personal concierge, and your favorite drink is ready for you upon arrival. There are Dior make-up artist in the bathroom for anyone who may need it,” Abeln says, “There’s a commonality of networking and commerce that happens”.

The collective experience of prepping your fashion statements for race day is yet another tried and true tradition. Churchill Downs hosts its own fashion show annually during the derby weekend. Experts like Lisa Shaub, who has been recognized by Vogue and Elle magazines for her expertise in custom hats is often enlisted by select customers. With past clients like Beyonce and Taylor Swift, Shaub values the innovative process with her buyers. “I want my ladies to feel a vision,” Shaub adds, “I help them reach their dream vision and go through an experience. I completely hand make what we talk about and hand dye the colors.”


The Kentucky derby is infamous for elements of luxury while simultaneously remaining traditional. The renounced mint julep can be found everywhere, while the exclusive $1,000 and $2,5000 mint juleps created by Woodford Reserve are extremely limited. Chris Morris, Master Distiller of Woodford Reserve recalls, “We wanted to create something that has relativity and is worthy of the Kentucky derby. When we first started this, we flew in ice from the arctic circle, mint from Morocco, and sugar from the Caribbean—and of course our Woodford reserve.” What many may not know is that Morris and his team decided early on that the Derby’s specialty drink would benefit a variety of charitable organizations. For the 148th Kentucky Derby this year, they will sell only 148 drinks. Known as the Woodford Reserve Experience, you even receive a certificate while sipping your drink in a private space complete with a photographer.

While much enthusiasm surrounds derby day, the locals and past guests know that a considerable portion of the luxe experience centers around soirees, chic hotels and hidden gems scattered throughout. On the night before the derby, sisters and co-creators Tammy York Day and Tonya York host the black tie optional Unbridled Event. It is a gala known for glamour, bourbon, cocktails, southern-inspired food and musical performances. The scene is set at the legendary Galt house and is attended by A-list celebrities complete with a red carpet and a dance party that notoriously lasts for hours. Tonya adds, “You’ll leave the Unbridled gala with new friendships and memories you’ll look back on for years to come.”


Another favorite of past guests is the infamous 21c Museum hotel. 21c is known for its star power during the Kentucky derby and the array of events that take place on the property over the weekend. Celebrity chef Bobby Flay has made his derby breakfast at 21c in years past. Founders of 21c Steve Wilson and Laura Lee Brown are known throughout their community as horse people, Kentucky people, contemporary art collectors and, of course, for their southern hospitality. “Steve and Lara Lee wanted to contribute to the urban revitalization of Louisville, so 21c is a museum first–and a hotel second”, says one team member. “The museum itself is open 24 hours a day seven days a week so it’s accessible to anyone at any time.”

Steve and Lara Lee are also founders of one of the most notorious thoroughbred farms in Kentucky: Hermitage Farm. “I like to think of us as a charm school”, says Director Barbara O’ Connor, “The colts are just learning to be pleasant horses while they are with us for a year and a half. We think of ourselves as their nursery.” Hermitage farm is on 687 acres and is committed to sustaining farming practices complete with a state-of-the-art greenhouse where they grow their own foods. O’Connor adds “The table is at the farm–so we are quite literally farm to table.” Hermitage is available for private parties, bourbon tastings and accommodations.

It was an honor researching what a luxurious experience the Kentucky Derby fully entailed as it is something that is so engrained in history. I observed that Kentuckians, first and foremost, are masters of southern charm, setting the tone upfront to welcome you. What could possibly be more luxurious than an entire town where the locals have a particular tact in making visitors feel welcome, where the conversation flows cheeringly, an amazing hotel and one-of-kind events and experiences?

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