Kentucky Derby vs. Indy 500: which race is best?

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By DAVID MOSS

In May, travelers in search of Americana, booze and racing have two iconic options: the Kentucky Derby (May 3) and the Indianapolis 500 (May 25). If you're overwhelmed by trying to pick one to attend, we've matched these two classic American races head-to-head in a contest for your time and money. And they're off!

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Lap 1: Attire

Walking into the Kentucky Derby can feel like you're the first responder at a J. Crew factory explosion. You'll see more pastel here than you would watching the Easter bunny teach third grade art class. Couple that with hats big enough to cast shade on an entire zip code, and you're ready to watch some thoroughbreds.

At the Indy 500, on the other hand, it's as much about the articles of clothing that are missing as the ones that are there. You'll witness jeans cut off more abruptly than The Soprano's finale. And for every display of denim discontinuance you enjoy, there will be three others that you'll instantly regret seeing. Some thighs are better left unexposed.

Current Standings: Derby takes the lead.

Related: Louisville insiders share Kentucky Derby tips
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Kentucky Derby vs. Indy 500: which race is best?

Ladies -- buy your hat before you get to Louisville. Prices will go way up around Derby time. You can order one from places like Hat-A-Tude and Galvinized Headwear. Don't want to travel with your hat? Have it shipped to your hotel instead!

Photo: AP/Charlie Riedel

Learn how to say "Louisville" properly. (It's Loo-a-vul, not Looeyville.)

Photo: Shutterstock

Check out the TARC (Louisville's public transit system) or what sort of transportation your hotel offers to the Derby, because parking and traffic are a nightmare.

Photo: pasa47/Flickr

Drink lots of mint juleps? Not really -- locals won't be ordering them. They're pricey and might not even be made with bourbon. Instead, try a real bourbon-based cocktail at bars like Proof on Main. If you DO want a commemorative Derby mint julep glass, buy one at CVS.

Photo: Shutterstock

Learn how to do a "hat head duck" so when you hug women you don't commit the major faux pas of messing up their headwear.

Photo: AFP via Getty Images

Bring flip flops if you're planning on wearing heels. Churchill Downs is all concrete and your feet will hurt. (Women even sell them in the restrooms.)

Photo: Shutterstock

Never agree to meet someone in the paddock or in the infield -- you will never find them.

Photo: Jamie Squire via Getty Images

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Lap 2: Event grounds

Churchill Downs in Louisville, Kentucky and Indianapolis, Indiana's Indianapolis Motor Speedway are equally renowned in their respective sports. The IMS is more than 100 years old and its trademark, ever-evolving "pagoda" structure is a nine-story monument to spectating speed. Impressive as this feature is, though, it's hard to deny the charm of Churchill Downs. With its iconic spires, bright green grass and expertly manicured course, the biggest star on the track at the Derby is the track itself (which isn't meant as a reference to the size of the jockeys).

Current Standings: Derby leaving the 500 in its dust.

Lap 3: Booze

Alcohol plays almost as big a role in attending these events as the ticket. And whether or not you're a fan of the mint julep, it's hard to ignore the fact that the Derby has its own signature drink.

But what the Indy 500 lacks in cocktail exclusivity, it makes up for in customization. That's because anybody attending the 500 can bring in his or her own 18'' by 14'' cooler with whatever devious concoctions they please. As you're sure to be reminded by the many signs on display in Indy, that kind of freedom is what America is all about.

Current Standings: The 500 working its way back.

Lap 4: Duration

Saying the Kentucky Derby is over in a flash is an insult to the word flash. Unless you're a glutton for anticlimax, the several hour, 200 lap, 500 mile Indy is the clear winner here.

Current Standings: It's getting interesting...

Lap 5: Infield

Yes, we already went over the event grounds, but getting out of the bleachers and watching a race from its swirling epicenter is a horse of a different paint job. At Churchill's infield you're in for a bustling banquet of bourbon and betting.

But while gambling may be an entertaining x-factor, the Indy 500 takes infields to another level. More of a small town than an infield, the center of the IMS track is so massive most of the action is concentrated around one corner (the infamous Turn 3), and even then there is enough room for a sprawling tailgate, a long stretch of viewing mounds, and a huge party section called The Snakepit, which is complete with bouncy slide, mechanical bull, EDM concert stage, and zipline. Yes, a zipline. This is the infield of dreams.

Current Standings: The 500 jumps in front!

Related: Indy 500 in photos
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Kentucky Derby vs. Indy 500: which race is best?
INDIANAPOLIS, IN - MAY 25: Ryan Hunter-Reay driver of the #28 Andretti Autosport Dallara Honda leads the field out of the pits during the 98th running of the Indianapolis 500 mile race at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway on May 25, 2014 in Indianapolis, Indiana. (Photo by Robert Laberge/Getty Images)
INDIANAPOLIS, IN - MAY 25: Ryan Hunter-Reay driver of the #28 Andretti Autosport Dallara Honda leads Helio Castroneves of Brazil driver of the #3 Team Penske Dallara Chevrolet during the 98th running of the Indianapolis 500 mile race at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway on May 25, 2014 in Indianapolis, Indiana. (Photo by Robert Laberge/Getty Images)
INDIANAPOLIS, IN - MAY 25: Ryan Hunter-Reay, driver of the #28 Andretti Autosport DHL Honda, races Helio Castro-Neves, driver of the #3 Penzoil Ultra Platinum Penske, during the final laps of the 98th running of the Indianapolis 500 Mile Race at Indianapolis Motorspeedway on May 25, 2014 in Indianapolis, Indiana. Hunter-Reay went on to win the race. (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)
INDIANAPOLIS, IN - MAY 25: Ryan Hunter-Reay, driver of the #28 Andretti Autosport DHL Honda, passes the pagoda during the 98th running of the Indianapolis 500 Mile Race at Indianapolis Motorspeedway on May 25, 2014 in Indianapolis, Indiana. (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)
INDIANAPOLIS, IN - MAY 25: Ryan Hunter-Reay, driver of the #28 Andretti Autosport DHL Honda, drosses the finish line ahead of Helio Castro-Neves, driver of the #3 Penzoil Ultra Platinum Penske, to win the 98th running of the Indianapolis 500 Mile Race at Indianapolis Motorspeedway on May 25, 2014 in Indianapolis, Indiana. (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)
INDIANAPOLIS - MAY 25: Ryan Hunter-Reay driver of the #28 DHL Andretti Autosport Chevrolet Dallara celebrates winning the 98th running of the Indianapolis 500 Mile Race on May 25, 2014 at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in Indianapolis, Indiana. (Photo by Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images)
INDIANAPOLIS, IN - MAY 25: Ryan Hunter-Reay driver of the #28 Andretti Autosport Dallara Honda celebrates with his wife Beccy and his son Ryden after winning the 98th running of the Indianapolis 500 mile race at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway on May 25, 2014 in Indianapolis, Indiana. (Photo by Robert Laberge/Getty Images)
INDIANAPOLIS, IN - MAY 25: Ryan Hunter-Reay, driver of the #28 DHL Andretti Autosport Honda Dallara, celebrates in Victory Lane with milk after winning the 98th running of the Indianapolis 500 at Indianapolis Motorspeedway on May 25, 2014 in Indianapolis, Indiana. (Photo by Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images)
INDIANAPOLIS, IN - MAY 25: Ryan Hunter-Reay driver of the #28 Andretti Autosport Dallara Honda celebrates by kissing the bricks at the start finish line after winning the 98th running of the Indianapolis 500 mile race at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway on May 25, 2014 in Indianapolis, Indiana. (Photo by Robert Laberge/Getty Images)
INDIANAPOLIS, IN - MAY 25: Ryan Hunter-Reay, driver of the #28 DHL Andretti Autosport Honda Dallara, celebrates after winning the 98th running of the Indianapolis 500 Mile Race at Indianapolis Motorspeedway on May 25, 2014 in Indianapolis, Indiana. (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)
INDIANAPOLIS, IN - MAY 25: Ryan Hunter-Reay, driver of the #28 DHL Andretti Autosport Honda Dallara, celebrates with hid son Ryden after winning the 98th running of the Indianapolis 500 Mile Race at Indianapolis Motorspeedway on May 25, 2014 in Indianapolis, Indiana. (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)
INDIANAPOLIS, IN - MAY 25: Ryan Hunter-Reay, driver of the #28 DHL Andretti Autosport Honda Dallara, celebrates with his son Ryden and wife Beccy after winning the 98th running of the Indianapolis 500 at Indianapolis Motorspeedway on May 25, 2014 in Indianapolis, Indiana. (Photo by Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images)
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Lap 6: Local nightlife

Missing out on the parties these races bring to town would be a mistake on par with hitting the gas five seconds after hearing "Gentlemen start your...". While many tourists in Louisville flock to the flashy Fourth Street Live!, the pub-packed Bardstown Road offers a more down-to-earth alternative.

Indianapolis's Massachusetts Avenue offers its own line of lively watering holes, but Bardstown takes this lap thanks to its abundance of great outdoor patios. This is spring after all, and fresh air has always been bourbon's best mixer.

Current Standings: Derby regains the lead.

Lap 7: Value

General admission to the Derby will run you $50 (premium tickets can be close to 20 times that), but know that refreshments inside are priced like they were imported from Morocco and not the Early Times distillery down the highway.

You can always hope to get lucky enough with your winnings to cover it, but for bang-to-buck ratio the 500 is the real safe bet. General admission is $40 and food and drink is cheap, so you can spend your money on refilling your cooler several times throughout the day.

Standings: The 500 pulls within inches of the Derby.

Lap 8: Bathroom facilities

Disgusting. In both venues. Keep the seal intact as long as you can.

Standings: Pit stop ties it up...it's a dead heat!

Final lap: Race vehicle

It's the enduring clash of man vs. nature. Technology vs. muscle. A fast car vs. a horse. With all due respect to the majestic galloping steeds of the Derby, the moment you feel the thunder of an Indy car rocketing past you at full speed, you'll realize it would be smarter to #*$@ with Wu Tang Clan than one of these missile-mobiles.

Winner: Indianapolis 500 by a nose!

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