20 Written and Unwritten Rules Kentucky Derby Guests Must Follow

20 Written and Unwritten Rules Kentucky Derby Guests Must Follow

The Kentucky Derby is a thrilling annual sporting event—and a lavish cause for celebration, too—but there are strict rules and proper etiquette spectators are expected to bear in mind from crafting an upscale Derby-ready outfit that can withstand unpredictable weather to leaving certain prohibited belongings at home. (Sorry, no umbrellas!)

The race, which is always held on the first Saturday of May at Churchill Downs in Louisville, Kentucky, is steeped in southern tradition, from the freely flowing bourbon to the preppy fashion—think florals, pastels, and plenty of seersucker. Although the Derby has frequently been dubbed the greatest two minutes in sports, the event is truly a day-long affair, with gates opening nearly twelve hours before the race.

Here are 20 written and unwritten rules for Derby-goers, from dressing to impress to leaving the selfie stick at home.

Attendees can only bet with cash.

Kentucky state law prohibits betting with a credit card, which means "cash is king"at the Derby. Although there are plenty of ATMs on the premises, lines can understandably get rather long as spectators line up to place their wagers, so it's best to come prepared.

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Lost tickets are not honored.

After placing bets, Derby-goers should safely stow away their tickets to collect post-race winnings. If a ticket gets lost, there's no way to cash in.

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Guests cannot go in and out of Churchill Downs as they please.

Visitors should make sure they have everything they need before entering the facility, because according to official policy, "Patrons are not permitted to leave Churchill Downs and return on the same ticket."

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Upscale attire is expected.

Although some Derby-goers opt for laid-back looks (they're likely headed for the infield, where the atmosphere is a bit more casual), the Derby's official dress code states that "upscale attire" is encouraged.

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But flip-flops aren't necessarily frowned upon.

Although spectators might be tempted to wear a sleek heel, when spending the entire day at the track it's best to consider comfort with a pair of sandals, espadrilles, or—if you need additional height for optimal viewing—a manageable wedge. Chances are, there could be mud, so Derby fashion experts—perhaps unexpectedly—encourage packing a pair of flip-flops as backup.

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Hats are essentially required.

One of the Derby's unwritten rules is that women must wear a hat. After all, it's a sign of good luck, Louisville milliner Jenny Pfanenstiel told Forbes.

Zanna Roberts Rassi, editor of the Kentucky Derby Style Guide, actually recommends starting with the hat when it comes to perfecting a Derby Day look. We've rounded up our top picks here, from fascinators to embellished sun hats.

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And they shouldn't be smushed.

If guests are traveling by plane to the Derby, experts from America's Best Racing recommend packing hats in a cardboard box to ensure the airline will classify them as cargo to be deservedly treated with care. Others suggest shipping hats to Louisville ahead of time, or even preordering headwear from a local milliner for pick-up upon arrival.

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Men have a dress code too.

Although women's hats are usually the topic of sartorial conversation at the Derby, men are encouraged to wear a topper of their choice too—whether it's a straw fedora, a vintage flat seersucker cap, or a custom ornate number. The Derby's official dress code also recommends that male attendees opt for a suit.

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Smoking is prohibited.

While lighting up cigars is a Derby tradition for everyone from spectators to elated horse owners and trainers after a big win, Churchill Downs has recently begun to crack down on smoking. It has officially been banned in indoor areas, any outdoor location where food is served, and at the Spires Terrace for fear that smoke residue will damage the historic building.

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Spectators can't bring their own cocktails.

While cocktails and Derby Day may be synonymous, guests cannot bring their own alcohol into Churchill Downs. Luckily, the mint juleps (or, if you prefer vodka over bourbon, the Oaks Lily, a.k.a. the official cocktail of the Kentucky Oaks) are free flowing once visitors enter. Just remember to imbibe responsibly. While the horses are sprinting, the day is a marathon.

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Umbrellas are not allowed.

The Derby has never been cancelled or postponed due to weather—and despite the rain-or-shine nature of the event, umbrellas are not permitted inside Churchill Downs. Instead, veteran Derby attendees suggest packing a clear, foldable rain poncho so Derby outfits are still on full display.

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But spectators can opt to sit undercover.

Nine-time Derby-goer Dana O'Neill recommends scoring a seat undercover in the grandstand. Not only are guests protected from the elements there—whether it's extreme sun or pouring rain—but they'll also have a birds-eye view of the big event.

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There are no ticket refunds.

Sadly, in the event that plans change, tickets are non-refundable. That being said, it's possible to resell tickets through the Kentucky Derby's official resale platform.

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And no re-issued tickets either.

Although all Kentucky Derby tickets are now accessible digitally to avoid hiccups, Churchill Downs has a strict policy that states they will not re-issue lost or forgotten tickets "due to the transparent size of the event." There are also no will-call booths at Churchill Downs.

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Guests can't access Wi-Fi.

While Derby-goers take plenty of photos at the event, they likely have to wait until they get home to post them on social media. Why? There's no Wi-Fi at Churchill Downs, and the facility has also noted that cell service is pretty unpredictable. All the better to live in the moment and take in the event, right?

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Professional cameras, tripods, and selfie sticks are a no-go.

Speaking of photos, tripods, selfie sticks, and professional cameras are not allowed at the Derby. Although cell phone photos are permitted, spectators are restricted from bringing cameras with detachable lenses, as well as any type of photo equipment that comes complete with a stick or pole.

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And please, no flash photography.

While spectators could probably get away with using flash when taking photos in the grandstands, they're asked (by Derby sign maker Todd Herl) not to use flash photography near the thoroughbreds and riders—for safety reasons, of course.

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Large bags are prohibited.

Like most major sporting events, the Kentucky Derby follows a strict bag policy. Though visitors might be tempted to bring a sizable bag to carry rain gear, comfortable shoes, and other essentials, purses larger than 12" x 6" x 12" are banned, along with backpacks and luggage.

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Spectators should not necessarily expect a perfect view of the track.

Over 150,000 people pack into Churchill Downs for the Derby. Although massive screens have been installed to allow the maximum amount of spectators to watch the Run for the Roses, it's important to note that some seats offer limited or obstructed views of the track.

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Signs are not permitted.

Although some people attend the Kentucky Derby to root for a specific horse, there are no banners or signs allowed in the grandstand on race day. The official policy does allow for pre-approved exceptions for passionate Derby-goers.

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