An Autistic Horseplayer’s Guide to Attending the Races

We are in the middle of the Kentucky Derby prep race season, and that means stakes season! It’s exciting and full of fun to see these hopefuls race and qualify for the Derby this May. Soon, Keeneland will open and next month, Churchill Downs will open as well.

It also means a crapton of sensory challenges to deal. It can get very tiresome and if I do not prepare myself properly, I will be worn out too soon and will be miserable. Here is how I prep for attending racetracks.

Visit the racetrack website and look at the area and location maps. I want to know where there would be restrooms, whether there are benches to sit or a place to retreat if the senses work overtime. As an example, here is the Accessibility Guide for the Preakness Stakes. I would then figure out what ticket I would like to pay for that day’s events. Maybe I can afford a grandstand seat or maybe I can get a more quiet and comfortable place if I reserve a spot in a dining room. I like visiting Keeneland as they have various places that suit me. I expect to pay more for what I want: a seat at a table inside a climate controlled room with access to a restroom and quiet ambiance. Some racetracks are quite fancy, like Keeneland. Other racetracks can be informal, like Kentucky Downs during their very short meet.

Set a budget on your outing and choose your seating. A regular race day will be affordable, but you won’t get to see top notch horses run. However, you get to have a better chance on scoring the seat you want. For example, I can dine at Churchill Downs’ Millionaire’s Row for 39.00 if I visit on a regular race day (I checked Friday 11 May, the week after the Oaks.) It will come with a buffet and a chair in a nice room. If I want to attend a stakes day, it will be higher. Now, if you decide to attend a Triple Crown race like the Preakness, congrats on your attendance, and I assume that you that you paid dearly for it and are excited to attend. I recommend contacting an official concierge and ticket package service to assist you on logistics. Oh, and set aside extra for transportation from the racetrack if you opt for a taxi or Uber. If I get to attend the Kentucky Derby, I would see if I can get a seat at the Derby party inside the Kentucky Derby Museum and would walk around the general admission areas.

Pick your desired day, whether it is a stakes or regular race day. I usually aim for stakes days outside the Triple Crown season because I am willing to tolerate the crowds to see the 3 year old hopefuls compete. I was lucky to see Irap compete at Keeneland before he had his fatal injury later in 2017. I would avoid attending the Kentucky Derby as the seats that I wanted are way too high for my budget and the infield WILL be hellish for anyone with sensory challenges (and it’s crappy enough for the neurotypical attendee who could only can enjoy so much booze and debauchery). And I have heard of people being injured by the Belmont Stakes crowds when California Chrome lost the bid. Much better to attend a Derby Party in the neighborhood. Or you can attend the post Crown stakes races and see the star horses mature and do well. If you don’t mind, you can attend a weekday race and avoid the heavy crowds and paying a premium. In fact, if you are visiting a race track outside your area, pay a visit on a minor stakes day or on the day before your main day and do a recon as you test out your personal threshold. I have the best experiences at Keeneland and other smaller racetracks like Indiana Grand or Turfway.

I dress for both comfort and style. I would call the racetrack on the dress code restrictions. Some dining rooms prohibit denim wear. Part of the fun of attending the racetrack is dressing up nice. You can get away with sweatpants and a t-shirt if you do general admission. But I want to attend to a nice event, so I dress accordingly.

There are adaptive clothing available for all of us. However, I do wear plus-size mainstream clothes and there are choices for me to wear when I want to dress up. I have very good results with Karen Kane dresses as they are loose and does not scratch. Another clothing band that’s good is Chico’s as they have their Traveler’s Collection. They do carry elastic pants that look stylish. Shoes should not look too athletic, rather think like work shoes. Since my feet are flat, I wear simple black shoes with arch supports as I do walk around the track. You have permission from me to buy granny shoes. You will thank me later at the end of the day when you walk out and you see the poor ladies look wilted and they carry their high-heel shoes whilst walking out barefoot.

You will need reliable transportation, especially after a Triple Crown race. If you opt for public transportation on Derby Day, go to the TARC website for altered schedules and maps.

Pack your bag with your essentials, plus these things: Earplugs for blocking out crowd noise, sunglasses and hat for shade and sensory control. In case you decide to attend a stakes day and you want to impress with your heels, please pack a pair of flip flops. And do not forget to take your Daily Racing Form or the Brisnet past performance sheets and pen.

Attend a workout for a quieter experience. Many racetracks allow free admission to watch the horses workout in the early morning. For an additional charge, you can have breakfast at a snack bar or a buffet line.

On Churchill Downs property, there is the Kentucky Derby Museum. I am happy to say that the Museum is designated as an autism-friendly place by the local autism organisation. A heads up: Bring your earplugs for the Greatest Race movie. Ask the volunteers or employees if you need accommodations. (BTW, I am a Museum volunteer. I am more than happy to assist you. Catch me on Sundays or Mondays.)

I think this is the first guide for Autistic fans of horse racing, so this will change as I attend more events.