Don't go hungry. It's a long day and you'll need something to soak up the mint juleps, lilies and beer.
If your ticket doesn't include a lunch buffet, you're on your own for food. I have to say, the food at Churchill Downs is disappointing, to say the least. We've spent most of our years on the east end of Churchill Downs so that's what I know best. You'll find stands selling chicken fingers, burgers and fries, hot dogs, Carolina BBQ, gigantic sausages and one special stand that sells a roast beef sandwich with blue cheese and a lobster roll.
I haven't tried the burgers but I can assume they aren't hand-pattied Angus beef. The hot dogs taste like they're mostly sawdust and the Carolina BBQ? Let's just say I only ate the bun. Of course, this was the year I was hungover at the Oaks so maybe if my stomach wasn't rocking and rolling, I might have liked it better. But I doubt it. It's more like shaved pork loin instead of pulled pork from a pork shoulder. The gigantic sausages were decent. Not great, but pretty tasty after you've had a few drinks and need something with a bit o' grease.
As far as I know, there is only one stand that sells what I actually find delicious at the Kentucky Derby. It's located all the way past the paddock, keep walking past the gift shop, bypass the bank, several bathrooms and go out a set of doors. It's in a covered walkway behind the first floor clubhouse. It sells a roast beef and blue cheese sandwich (it included basil in 2008 but that was the last time I saw it with basil) and a lobster roll. Buyer beware on the lobster roll- Husband claims it was imitation crab and mayonnaise. I have no idea why there's only one place that sells it but the roast beef sandwich is definitely worth the trek if you're in the bleachers or grandstand like us.
Another option is to bring your own lunch in. Churchill Downs has very strict rules about how the food can be brought in, though, and this changes year to year so be sure to check the What to Know page at KentuckyDerby.com. Last year, after the Boston Marathon bombing, they totally overhauled a lot of rules at the last minute so check before you pack up your fried chicken or club sandwiches!
A few Louisville restaurants sell box lunches just for the Derby. Once the Derby gets a little closer, I'll do my best to post links to restaurants that offer box lunches.
Tip: We always eat a big breakfast so we're not hungry for lunch till later in the afternoon. There are stands selling pretzels and popcorn, if you need a snack.