The salutation heard near-constantly on and around the Churchill Downs grounds made it clear that the annual running of the thoroughbreds is nothing short of a local holiday in Louisville. And upon my first visit to the city for the grand event, it wasn’t difficult to see why.
For the first time ever, BMW North America got in on the action as the inaugural official luxury automotive partner for the famed races. I had the honor of attending the Louisville tradition as a guest of the brand, and needless to say it was a weekend filled with luxury, a healthy dose of whiskey, lilies, roses, and loads of heart-pumping excitement.
Like any big event, before the race itself came days of events and experiences dedicated to the tradition. We kicked things off at the Taste of the Derby, a culinary event gathering chefs and restauranteurs from all over the nation to give samples of their finest dishes and craft drinks. Of course, we can’t forget the luxury vehicle giant’s signature macaron experience, which paired immaculately with the free-flowing champagne.
Next, there was an early-morning trek to Stitzel-Weller Distillery, to tour the grounds and learn the rich history of Kentucky bourbon (and bootlegging). Sipping on bourbons ranging from Blade & Bow to I.W. Harper before 12pm was a momentous head start to the day before heading to Kentucky Oaks, the “race before the race” that many unfamiliar with the Derby don’t quite know about.
Taking place on the Friday before the Derby, The Kentucky Oaks sees the 1 1/8 mile racing of 3-year-old fillies (young female horses). The race is run with survivors of breast and ovarian cancers in mind, even featuring a parade of the brave women who’ve come out on the other side of that fight. As such, an unofficial pink theme is attached to the event, with many opting for huge pink hats and fascinators topping their equally pink-hued outfits.
Louisville legend says the horses bring the rains the first weekend of each May, and that was beyond true for Oaks Friday. Racegoers in their silk and satin finest happily became drenched in the torrential downpour, as the show and the race must go on. I took a rainy trek of my own to the bugler’s box, to get a unique view of the kickoff of the races. There, I had the opportunity to meet Steve Buttleman, the official bugler of the Churchill downs without whom not a single hoof would hit the track. Donning his signature bright pink jacket for the Oaks, he revealed that contrary to popular belief, his job is a year-round responsibility – one he’s been happily taking on for over 25 years. In between races and special appearances? He makes custom bracelets for his young granddaughter.
After plenty of food even more mint juleps enjoyed on the box level and thankfully a restful night’s sleep to reset (and re-press my hair), it was time for the main event. BMW was kind enough to gift me a hat from Christine A. Moore millinery that matched my chosen outfit, an emerald green Hanifa jumpsuit, more perfectly than I could have requested.
It was clear that this was the biggest day of the year, and likely the most fashion-forward as celebrities filed in for the festivities. Stars like Country music heavy hitter Brittney Spencer, onsite to sing the national anthem, rappers Drake and Jack Harlow, onsite to shoot the video for their aptly-named track “Churchill Downs,” and New Edition who were stopping by before shutting down a post-race stage alongside Janet Jackson, strutted the grounds and greeted fans in their finest smart casual attire.
“This is my favorite thing because it’s where fashion meets sports,” Star Jones told us on her way into races. This year’s return to form was bigger than ever, with 14 races run instead of the typical 12. It lends to reason that BMW chose to get involved with the event in such a major way this year, tapping in with sports fans, fashion lovers, and overall luxury enthusiasts at the place where they all converge. We even got a sneak peek at the all-new BMW 7 Series, including the first-ever, fully electric BMW i7. Of course, they made it even sexier with a custom matte black finish and specialized rims.
“The Kentucky Derby is an iconic luxury event that shares many of BMW’s brand values, including performance, memorable experiences and the finest hospitality,” said Broderick McKinney, regional vice president, Central Region, BMW of North America. “This event is a unique opportunity to showcase the new BMW 7 Series and X7 in front of a global audience, while also connecting directly with BMW customers and fans in the region in a very authentic way.”
The display definitely made racegoers want to climb inside and drive in luxury around the Downs, as one thing it seems few bargained for was the sheer size of the grounds – and the subsequent amount of footwork required to cover them. From snack and cigar stands to bars and activations, before even factoring in those obligatory photo ops and of course bet-placing and race watching, it’s a lot for even the most fortitudinous of feet to handle. Looking around, I observed many a Derby Day dress punctuated by Louboutins or Giuseppes measuring at 105mm or higher, traipsing across the mostly concrete and cobbled terrain. As for myself…I barely made it longer than four hours in my Neous double strap mules. Thankfully the Churchill Downs gift shop had branded flip flops in stock for just such an occasion.
After placing (and dismally losing) my first-ever bet on race 10, I was whisked away to Room 20, a private speakeasy located on the top floor of Churchill Downs. Tucked behind a hidden corner and requiring an escort with a key card to permit entry, the luxe bar has an early 19th-century prohibition-era glam feel, complete with smartly-appointed mixologists crafting cocktails at a steady pace, chandeliers, plush rugs, and lush leather seating. A quick history lesson – the original secret hideaway was originally an enclave that only welcomed VIP guests of the president of the Churchill Downs – and two (very strong) French 75’s later, it was time for the big race.
Back at our seats, the out-of-nowhere underdog win for #21 Rich Strike that has been the topic of conversation for days after the race left the crowd in utter silence. Fitting, since it seems very few took the opportunity to get in on the 80-1 odds on the last-minute add-on horse.
At this point, there was nothing to do but finish our cocktails and get our final photo ops under the twin spires while enjoying the last two races. And of course, find a local barbecue spot to hit up before making our exit from the Bluegrass State.
I certainly can’t wait to take on the luxury and excitement of the Kentucky Derby again next year – this time properly armed with a stylish flat shoe, a rain-ready hair plan, and valuable horse-betting experience.