Tailgating at the Kentucky Three-Day Event

The Defender Kentucky Three-Day Event holds an annual theme competition and plenty of fun for all.


The Defender Kentucky Three-Day Event is one of the biggest equestrian events in the U.S. Whether you’ve been many times or are planning your first trip, be sure to check out the tailgating options. Begun in earnest in 2012, the option for tailgating during the cross-country phase of America’s first and longest-running five-star event has exploded in popularity during the last decade, according to Kentucky Three-Day Event host Equestrian Events Inc. The day includes a hotly contested decorating contest, multiple food choices on course, and the option to rent a pre-packaged tailgate spot that includes a tent, table and chairs.

William Fox-Pitt competing in cross-country
Great Britain’s William Fox-Pitt, a three-time winner of the five-star event in Kentucky, rides past the tailgaters during a particularly rainy year. Photo by Ian Thornton

How to Tailgate

If you have a group of horse-loving friends who might be interested in tailgating, be sure to check out the prices beforehand—they can cause a bit of sticker shock. Additionally, tickets and packages aren’t refundable, so be sure your group confirms before purchasing.

Prices start at $375 for “standard” tailgate spots to $575 for “platinum” spots (early bird pricing is $50 less). If you purchase a tailgating spot with tent, table and chairs, it will run you $675. It’s important to note that these prices include only two general admission tickets; the rest of your party will need to buy tickets separately, or you can bump up in price and buy more tickets with the package.

Tailgating at the Kentucky Three-Day Event
Sarah (in pink plaid shirt and cowboy hat) at her Wild Wild West tailgate, displaying signage from her winning tailgating themes in 2012 and 2013 at the Kentucky Three-Day Event. Photo courtesy Sarah Coleman

As with most events, buying early is key, not only to get the discounted early-bird pricing, but also so you get the best crack at getting your location of choice. Study the map carefully—you’ll want to ensure an unobstructed view of as many jumps as possible!

Tailgating Checklist

Take it from a tailgater with a decade of experience: There are some important tips you’ll want to know before you press purchase.

Don’t rent an RV. Passenger vehicles are the only ones allowed on course. No buses, RVs or trucks with trailers allowed.

Leave the collegiate and branded tents at home. Tents must be plain, with no logos or words; they also can’t be bigger than 10×10. Banners and flags are also not permitted.

You’re in it for the long haul. Vehicles must remain on course for the entirety of the day. This means being in place by 9 a.m. (gates open at 7 a.m.) and remaining on course until the last horse crosses the finish line—typically around 4 p.m., but it can be later depending on possible weather delays.

Bring tons of food. Tailgating is a long day—you’ll need more than just lunch. Think breakfast, second lunch, and all sorts of snacks (themed snacks are encouraged). Concessions are available, but lines are long and they can be pricey. It’s important to note that gas grills are the only kind permitted in tailgate areas.

A spread of food and drink
Bring lots of food—bonus points if it matches your theme! Photo courtesy Sarah Coleman

Dress for the weather. Spring in Kentucky is volatile. You might be sweating in 80 degrees or frozen in the 40s. No matter the weather, no generators are permitted, so dress accordingly. This includes raincoats, rain boots, blankets, sunblock and hats—possibly all in the same day!

Plan a Theme

Tailgaters are encouraged to decorate their spot according to a theme. Though it’s easy to get comfortable under your tent, it’s worthwhile to walk around, not only to see other jumps, but also to check out all the themed tailgates—some of them are extraordinary.

The winners of the decorating contest receive a free tailgate spot to the following year’s event in the spot of their choice. That’s a big savings, so don’t hold back, and have fun!

From the Author

I am lucky enough to live just five minutes from the Kentucky Horse Park. Being so close, it’s easy to load the truck to the gills. We often look like the Beverly Hillbillies on our way in with the assortment of things we drag over! We have about 30 or 40 people who will use our space as “home base,” so we haul in grills, tons of food, coolers and décor.

We’ve won the tailgate theme decorating competition at least three times (maybe four?). One of my favorite themes was Mini Rolex in 2012 (the sponsor before Land Rover, and now Defender). That was the first year for the theme decorating competition, which we won with our dressage ring, cross-country fence and a stadium jump—complete with bouncy horses for visitors to “ride.”

Our next theme was Under the Big Top (I think we won that year). We had lions (dogs) and lion tamers, strong men, fortune tellers, elephants, and acrobats. After that, we had a Kentucky Derby theme; a Wild Wild West theme (complete with bar—we won that year); the Insane Asylum (my favorite—we won that year too). We have also done Mardi Gras and Road to Rio for the Olympics.

Horse Illustrated’s editor in chief Holly Caccamise tailgating at the Kentucky Three-Day Event
Horse Illustrated’s editor in chief Holly Caccamise visiting Sarah’s Kentucky Derby “Run for the Roses” themed tailgate.

We get very into the themes—food and drink are themed in addition to the decorations—we even bring in extra stuff for people who stop in without costumes.

This article about tailgating at the Kentucky Three-Day Event appeared in the April 2023 issue of
Horse Illustrated magazine. Click here to subscribe!


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