5 Great American Horse Events for Spectators—Must Sees!

 Jump Off with Equitrekking on a Discovery of 5 Great American Horse Events 

 by Claire Caldwell


Horse racing is one of the most ancient past-times, dating back to some of the earliest civilizations of man.  The types of racing we are most familiar with today, steeple chasing (which involves hurdles) and flat racing (which requires speed and stamina over a flat track), hail to aristocratic and royal British society. There are other types of equestrian events and competitions modern spectators can enjoy, including eventing competitions, show jumping, dressage and hunter / jumper shows, many of which are held in awesome locations.

What was once referred to as the "Sport of Kings" is now accessible, in all of its majesty, to people of all shapes, sizes and backgrounds.  Whether compelled to attend by one's affinity for horses, an undeniable propensity for placing a good bet, or love for couture hats--join Equitrekking on a chase, a hunt, for the best horse competitions for spectators in America today!


Kentucky Derby

Churchill Downs Racetrack in Louisville, Kentucky

What embodies the Americana vision better than a day at the races?

Race horses fresh out of the gates, on the Churchill Downs Course at the Kentucky Derby

The Kentucky Derby had its debut in 1875; given its near 150-year history it is, appropriately, a race of traditions.  Held the first Saturday in May of each year, the charm of the Derby, and what keeps spectators coming back for more, is the variety of staple rituals. 

When you arrive at the racecourse at Churchill Downs, look first for the Twin Spires.  This architectural nuance has been a symbol of the Kentucky Derby since its construction in 1895.  Once inside the grounds, find your niche in the Infield.  For partygoers, stake out a spot at the third-turn.  For those parents who are introducing their children to the energetic, convivial atmosphere of the race, pack a picnic for the grassy knolls with a view of the first-turn.  Regardless of one’s preferred niche, everyone should treat himself to at least one Mint Julep, the traditional drink of the Derby for a century now.  The mint pizzazz of this classic Southern beverage will refresh the palate—but the Derby requests one condition: no red plastic cups!  In the off-season, find the drink’s recipe on the Derby’s official site. 

The Kentucky Derby participants as they prepare to race the Churchill Downs track

Before the races begin, listen for the official Derby song,  “My Old Kentucky Home” which gears up the crowd for a great day at the races.  Another tradition that the Derby adopted from the earliest days is the use of colorful silks.  In the 1700s, King Charles II and his court would race on the plains of England's Hempstead.  Spectators could not distinguish their preferred horse from such a far-off vantage point and thus the tradition of silks was enacted.  These colorful accoutrements made it easy for viewers to recognize their horse.  Today, there is a greater diversity of colors to account for the increased numbers of riders and horses.  Try spotting your horse in the streaking rainbow on the racetrack and cheer the team on! 

A glimpse of the colorful silks as the horse and jockey teams streak down the racetrack at the Kentucky Derby

The races finish with the presentation of a garland of red roses.  This practice hails to the late 1800s.  Originally, flowers were presented to the ladies attending the Louisville Derby Party.  In 1896, the Derby officially instituted this tradition at the races, presenting a garland to the winner of the race.  The red rose was established as the official flower of the Kentucky Derby in 1904; ever since, the winner of each race is rewarded with a garland of 400 red roses with a single rose, the ‘crown’, pointing upwards from its center. 

If the gamut of classic traditions is not motivation enough to spend a weekend at the Derby, consider the following: the prestige of this competition, and those who flock to the courses as spectators, is nearly unrivaled.  The Kentucky Derby is a Grade 1 Stakes race.  These rankings are calibrated by the Thoroughbred Owners and Breeders Association based on the stake, or entry fee the viewers must pay to enter the races.  Grade 1 indicates the highest-ranking stakes; this money is entered into the pot for the prize money.

A rear view of the horses as they race for the final prize and a chance to compete again in the subsequent Triple Crown of Thoroughbred Racing

Also note, the Kentucky Derby is the first of a three part horse racing series called the Triple Crown of Thoroughbred Racing.  For those of you who can't get enough of horse competitions, or who feel particularly confident that your horse is going to win it all, consider following-up your Derby experience by attending the Preakness Stakes and Belmont Stake.  To win the Triple Crown title, the horse must come in first place in each of the three races.  Only 11 horses have ever won this prestigious title, and none since 1978.  Count your lucky stars and place a bet on which horse you foresee being the 12th winner!

A first place winner of the Kentucky Derby

Itinerary Information

Gates open at 8am.
Tickets are available for purchase at every gate.
Consider treating your business or corporation to the races with the Corporate Hospitality Group Rates.

  • Trackside Village: groups of 150-175; two-story, glass-enclosed seating with upstairs patio and panoramic view of the track; includes catering package and parking passes.                                                                                                           
  • Infield Turf Suites: groups of 50 for single suites, groups of 100 for double suites; luxury rooms located next to the turf courses with a view of the Twin Spires and thousands of undulating fans below; includes catering package and parking passes.
  • First Turn Suites: groups of 80 for single suites, groups of 150 for double suites; several stories of luxury suites with a view of the final stretch of the course towards the Finish Line; roof-top observation station; climate controlled and equipped with entertainment systems to keep viewers updated on the odds of each race; includes catering package and parking passes

*Submit requests for Corporate Hospitality packages online


The Kentucky Derby recommends staying at the Galt House Hotel, official hotel of the Churchill Down.
Contact: (502) 589.5200

For other lodging recommendations visit Louisville, Kentucky's visitor's page.

*NOTE: Photographs accredited to the official site of the Kentucky Derby.


Rolex Kentucky Three Day Event 

 Kentucky Horse Park in Lexington, Kentucky

Embark upon a once in a lifetime experience at the Rolex Kentucky Three Day Event.

Part of the Rolex Three Cross Country Course.

Occurring in 2012 from April 26-29, the Rolex Three Day is part of the CCI**** (Concours Complet International Four Star).  Comprised of three events (Cross Country, Jumping and Dressage) the Rolex helps competitors prepare for the Olympic Games and World Championships, offering prize money between $150,000 and $350,000 for the winners. 

A rider takes on the Rolex Cross Country Course.

The Rolex Kentucky Three Day Event has an international vibe.  General admissions tickets, for example, will provide one access to the park grounds, Kentucky Horse Park and the International Trade Fair within the Three-Day complex. 

The city of Lexington also offers a variety of activities and sites to explore in one’s free time.  There are several renowned locations in town where one can kick back and grab a brew.  Alltech’s Lexington Brewing Company offers an hour-long tour of the brew hall, bottling center and a pub for sampling Kentucky Ale with free entry.  If hard alcohol is more to one’s liking, consider visiting the Barrel House Distilling Co., which is also free to enter and offers a 45-minute tour that takes viewer’s to the tasting room where they may sample Devil John Moonshine, Pure Blue Vodka and the distiller’s bourbon.  Then again, if one prefers to have his/her drinks outside, the Talon Winery and Vineyards is a charming pastoral option for passing an afternoon.  Visit the 300 acres of Bluegrass farmland or take an hour-long tour of the processing area, Kentucky oak-barrels and bottling system, finishing the visit off with a tasting session in a farmhouse dating from the 18th century. 

Equestrian-oriented activities, better suited for family visitors, also abound in the region.  In the Kentucky Horse Park grounds, home also to the Rolex Three-Day Event, one will find the American Saddlebred Museum, which showcases the breed of horse native to the state.  Pay to take a 45-minute tour where one may view trophies, photographs, and 2,400 volumes of genealogical records.  The Thoroughbred Center offers interactive, hands-on fun.  At the cost of an entrance fee, participate in a 90-minute tour of training facilities, home to more than 1,000 horses.  Perfect fun for kids, they will explore the typical working day of a thoroughbred horse and the trainers.  If one has several hours to spare, schedule a private guided van tour of Lexington’s most exquisite and well-known private farms.  A nice treat at the end of a long day can be picked up at Old Kentucky Chocolates, a candy producer in Bluegrass renowned for its Bourbon Chocolates and Bourbon Cherries.  Don’t forget to call ahead at (859) 278.4444.     

A horse leaps a hay hurdle

Itinerary Information

General Admissions tickets include parking and admissions to grounds but do not include Rolex Stadium Reserved Seating (NOTE: there is no free or open seating).

*To reserve group package deals for six or more spectators, contact tickets@rk3de.org

At the time of publication of this article, Rolex Stadium Reserved Seating included entrance into stands to watch Dressage and Stadium Jumping competitions. Tailgating Tickets were available for the Saturday event. Parking and Dressage, and Jumping Commentary, unless included in the admissions tickets, cost extra.

Find a range of hotels in Lexington that accommodate economic and luxury budgets alike, on its visitor's site.

Virginia Gold Cup 

Great Meadow in The Plains, Virginia

For equestrian lovers in their 20s or 30s seeking a lifetime love, or perhaps just a spring fling, look no further than the Virginia Gold Cup. 

The Virginia Gold Cup 82nd anniversary pagoda.

Taking place at the height of Printemps, on May 7, this horse competition has been called the “world’s largest tailgate” and boasts an atmosphere of joviality and fun-seeking which serves as excellent mingling grounds for young professionals.  Most recently, the crowds of spectators have numbered upwards of 50,000, all eager to attend one of the most talked-about sporting events in the D.C. metropolitan area. 

Though it is a party event in its own right, the Virginia Gold Cup is also a popular steeplechase race and a celebration of hunt country tradition.  The competition was officially founded in 1922, but the Great Meadow course was inaugurated some 60 odd years later, in 1985.  The high timber fences that horse and rider must jump during the Gold Cup competition are notably higher than the course used prior to Great Meadow.  They were raised to the height typically used at the Virginia races in the 1930s and demand a highly trained horse which can both maintain longer distance and complete higher jumps. 

Horses bound over the high timber fences of the Virginia Gold Cup

The Gold Cup is kicked off with an opening performance by the St. Andrew’s Society Color Guard.  Spectators can view Jack Russell Terrier races, as well as a Black Horse Cavalry demonstration.  Ornate hats are a classic accessory associated with most horse competitions, but at the Virginia Gold they are a must.  Dress up in the finest (or funniest) hat from your closet and you may run the chance of winning the annual hat competition, which awards prizes to the most outlandish and most stylish hats in the crowd.

The Virginia Gold Cup is also among the oldest steeplechase races in the United States.

Itinerary Information

Spectators have a variety of ticket options from which to choose. Individuals may want to bring their own chair and blanket for their viewing pleasure.

Other ticket options include the Members Hill Hospitality Tent admissions, or the Members Hill Reserved Spaces.  The former area is typically frequented by leaders in business and politics, corporate sponsors of the event as well as little-league local celebrities.  The latter option is in fact rather limited; those who have purchased the reserved seats in years passed are offered the option of renewing their admission.  The remaining seats, if Gold Cup veterans decline to continue their membership, are sold on a first-pay, first-serve basis.  There are five categories of reserved seating ranging in size and the number of guests admitted at full capacity.

Finally, one can opt to purchase a Railside Party Tent ticket which offers close up views of the horses racing past.  Children 12 years old and younger may enter here free of charge as long as they are accompanied by an adult.

Horses and jockeys neck and neck on the plains of the Great Meadow course

There are a number of inns and other lodging in the surrounding towns (Warrenton, Middleburg, Washington, etc.).  Please visit the Great Meadow website to find accommodations and information on booking.


Hampton Classic 

Bridgehampton, NY

What better dream vacation exists than one of horses and sunset strolls on the Hampton beaches? 

The logo of the Hampton Classic

Boasting some of the United States’ leading jumper and hunter competitions, the Hampton Classic takes place on 65 acres of show grounds from August 26-September 2 in 2012.  The Hampton Classic was founded over 100 years ago in 1900, though it was discontinued three times in the past century, during both World Wars and in the mid-1960s.  

The Hampton Classic is a Grand Prix show jumping horse show in Bridgehampton, New York.

Prize money can reach $500,000; yet, equestrians aren’t the only ones to walk away with a cash reward.  All proceeds from the show are donated to the South Hampton Hospital.

A representation of the various nationalities who participante in the annual Hampton Classic 

While the Hampton Classic is a glamorous event for city singles to attend as a cap to their summer fun, it is also a wonderful family venue.  Many families attend, bringing their dogs and exploring the  the surrounding areas.  

For kids, Fairview Farm, open for September and October (just in time for the Classic), has an the 8-acre corn maze on the property.  Parents seeking a adult fun may go wine tasting at the Channing Daughters Winery.

Itinerary Information

The room and board available in surrounding area only serves to enhance the magical experience of the Hampton Classic.  View the Hampton Classic's official site for an exhaustive list of hotel options.  To immerse yourself in a unique, scenic Hampton experience consider the following accommodations.                     

  • Bowen’s By the Bays in Hampton Bays: rooms and private cottages available on the 3.5 acres of land; pool, tennis courts and playground open to guests; nearby beach access and 14 miles to the horse-show. Tel. (631) 728.1158
  • Wainscott Inn in Sagaponack: a 30 room inn with both studios and cottages available for rental; location on 7 wooded acres; rooms equipped with cable, A/C and wireless; a heated pool and tennis courts accessible by guests; only 3.5 miles to the Hampton Classic. Tel. (631) 537.0878                                    
  • The Atlantic in Southampton: a hotel sponsor of the Classic; less than 10 miles from the show and equipped with pool and tennis court access, wireless, and local beach passes.
    Tel. (631) 283.6100
  • The Bentley in Southampton: a hotel sponsor of the Classic; less that 10 miles from the show; suites for rental, each including a bedroom, kitchenette and living room; amenities include pool, tennis and basketball court access, wireless and local beach passes. Tel. (631) 283.6100
  • Le Petit Chateaux in Southampton: a waterfront cottage with views of sunrise and sunset; access to swimming, kayaking and fishing locales; available from August through Labor Day.
    Contact: jprojectss@aol.com
    (631) 259.2459

Horse Shows by the Bay in Michigan 

Flintfields Horse Park in Traverse City, Michigan

Seeking a summer vacation out of the stifling heat?  Pack up the family van for a week’s stay (or five) in Traverse City, Michigan to attend the Horse Shows by the Bay annual festival.


Photo accredited to Elk Rapids Travel Blog

Horse Shows by the Bay is a five week event beginning June 30th and concluding July 31st.  The first week is devoted to dressage competitions, also known as “horse ballet.”  Horses and riders will be performing (quite literally) for several days, culminating in the $5,000 FEI Musical Freestyle, at which the best teams will put on an individual show choreographed to music. 

Practice for the weekend shows at the Flintfields Horse Park, which include an exhibition of "horse ballet"--a spectacle choreographed to music

Photo accredited to Brooks Vanderbush

The remaining four weeks, beginning July 6th, are devoted to hunter and jumper competitions.  A note to young aspiring riders: there are both jumper and hunter series in which children can participate and a jumper series for juniors as well.  If the kids tend more towards the spectator side, or are simply too young to be a part of the competition, don’t miss the Molon Excavating Inc’s Kids’ Day, held on the first Saturday of the festival from 10am to 2pm. 

Itinerary Information

Horse Shows by the Bay is open to the public on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays from 8am to 5pm.

General Admissions includes an on-site parking permit, access to all of the five competition arenas and vendors and concessions areas.  The cost is $10 per person daily with two exceptions: Saturday all children enter free of charge; on Kids’ Day admissions is free for all who attend.

Perks of the area also include RV and camping grounds as well as a host of casinos.  If one is seeking an authentic nature escape, consider staying at one of the following:

  • Honcho Rest Campground in Tricolor: an RV park located 8 miles north of the festival.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                       (231) 264.8548
  • Travers Bay RV Resort in Tricolor: a luxury RV resort 1 mile west of the show ground.
    (231) 938.5800

If a trip to Horse Shows by the Bay in Michigan is intended as an adults’ week-long escape, a chance to let one’s hair down so to speak, the below listed resort hotels may be more suitable:

  • Turtle Cree Casino & Hotel in Grand Champion: as is self-explanatory in the name, this would give one an ample opportunity to try his or her hand at a round of blackjack while away from the horse rink. Tel. (800) 922.2946
  • Grand Traverse Resort in Champion: this resort feature four golf courses and a spa service offering the icing on the cake of a luxury summer getaway. Tel. (800) 748.0303                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                       

How to Pick from these Five Great Horse Events and Competitions for Spectators

No matter what one's preferred game-atmosphere may be, amongst these Top-Five American horse events, there is certainly an attraction to fit everyone and anyone's fancy. Here's a guide to figure out what's best for you.

  • High-society vibe: Consider the Kentucky Derby or the Virginia Gold Cup. 
  • Nature-lovers: Reserve tickets and an RV campsite for Michigan's Horse Shows by the Bay. 
  • Vacation Seekers: Stick with the Hampton Classic, where you can spend your hours away from the Classic on the beautiful beaches of the northeast coast. 
  • City & Culture: If your idea of a perfect retreat is a city with a myriad of other attractions, attend the Kentucky Rolex Three-Day Event and explore Lexington and its cultural heritage when you're not cheering on your favorite equestrian. 

Just don't forget--no matter what you choose or where you go always bring a hat in tow!



Author Bio: Claire Caldwell is a freelance journalist, pursuing a Bachelor's Degree in English Literature and French language at American University in Washington, DC. She is an avid world traveler, having lived in the United States as well as Europe she has also spent time in the Caribbean and Northern Africa. While living in Paris, France, Claire blogged about the differences between linguistic and cultural traditions between America and France as well as about hot-spots and tips for traveling to the City of Lights. She has also worked for the women's travel site, Pink Pangea, blogging about safe ways for women to travel the world independently.  She is currently pursuing creative ventures while finishing her degrees.