If you don’t follow horse racing, but you’re asked to pick a winner of, say, the Kentucky Derby, chances are that you have some sort of strategy in mind. My method, for example, is to choose the horse’s name that speaks to me.
On a recent visit to Lexington where I met with “Betologist” Greg Burke at the famed Keeneland track, I learned I wasn’t alone in this approach. In fact, by the time the trip was over, I knew I was inspired to throw a Derby party back home in Maine. So, I reconnected with the folks I’d met while visiting Kentucky and got some advice on how to host a memorable Derby party.
In our technology-driven world, it’s easy to invite guests with a quick text message. But, adding the touch of a physical invitation sets the tone for a special occasion. Even if you want to stick to spreading the news digitally, use an easy design app like Canva to create a Derby-inspired graphic that lets guests know to dress the part. You can also convey the details of having a cash betting pool and anything else you need party-goers to bring.
So many comfort foods come to mind when it comes to Southern cuisine, but Keeneland’s executive chef Marc Therrien suggests organizing a biscuit bar to satisfy the cravings of allll your guests.
“Biscuit bars are one great way to allow guests to craft their own dish that can also add color and interest to your [table],” says Therrien. “The biscuit will take center stage here, allowing you to go traditional or mix it up with herb or fruit-infused batters. Some of our favorite biscuit toppings include country ham, pimento cheese, jellies of [various] flavors, and picked vegetables.”
Chef Newman Miller at Star Hill Provisions says some of the hits he serves up have included Benedictine sandwiches, sausage balls, and beer cheese with crudités for dipping.
I didn’t need anyone’s advice on dessert, because I’ll be making Derby Pie, which I found out can sometimes go by other names like a Chocolate Torte. But essentially, the Southern tradition consists of pecan pie with chocolate chips in a pie shell with a pastry crust. Miller whips up his version using bourbon-soaked black walnuts.
What stood out to me most during my trip was the hospitality of everyone I encountered. And it wasn’t just the flowing Mint Juleps (a classic Kentucky Derby beverage) that made me feel welcome.
I learned just how important the natural “limestone-filtered” water in Kentucky is, both to the horses and the Bourbon. Makers Mark crafts Bourbon from a water source on site, ensuring each batch tastes the same. “Hard, calcium-rich water is abundant in central Kentucky,” explained Maker’s Mark bourbon associate Austin Hazelwood. “This water already contains yeast-specific nutrients and is naturally iron free. These two factors contribute greatly to the production of our whisky.”
This year, the distillery is teaming up with United By Blue to remove 75,000 pounds of trash from the world’s waterways. Mint Julep lovers can help the cause by using the hashtag #CocktailsForCleanups when they post a photo of their beverage on social media. In turn, $1 is donated to this initiative.
The classic Mint Julep is made with mint leaf, bourbon, simple syrup, and crushed ice, which requires a straw. Consider ditching all single-use plastic at your Derby party.
No Derby Party is complete without a touch of equestrian flair. To help with the aesthetics, I talked to 10th generation Kentuckian, Jon Carloftis, who is known for his intuitive eye when it comes to landscaping and gardening. After visiting his historic home in Lexington, I learned his knack for design was just as keen indoors.
Carloftis recommends buying small chrome wastebaskets (available at Target) and filling them with roses since the race is dubbed “Run for the Roses.” He also said if you can’t get your hands on a real silver Julep cup, a local party store usually has metal ones for about $5 each. Stirrup napkin rings and horse shoe coasters add a nice touch, too.
If you’re serving a variety of bourbons or Juleps, leave little notepads around for guests to give feedback on what they’re sipping. Carlofits also suggests making batches of Juleps the night before. He boils fresh mint in water and puts the pitchers out sans alcohol. He also provides several bourbon options for sampling, that way, guests can add their preference to the Julep mix.
Want to build camaraderie and bring another element of Kentucky to your party? “Print out the words to ‘My Old Kentucky Home’ and give to everyone so they can be a Kentuckian when it’s sung before the race,” suggests Carloftis.
I mentioned how I usually pick horses by their name. After my mini instruction at Keeneland, Burke went through all of the factors that play into a person’s selection. It could be something as simple as your favorite number or the color the jockey is wearing. But if you really want to get into it, the betting card will have information on it like whether the horse was Kentucky raised, who the trainer is, who their bloodline is (has Grandma horse won a Kentucky Derby previously?). And of course, if you want to go by the house odds, those numbers are printed on the card as well.
Printing these score cards for your guests is a fun party detail, while having them throw $5 in for the pool can have someone going home with a little pocket money. Win-win!
No matter how fashionable you are in day-to-day life, this cultural event is the time to go over the top. Therrien suggests having a contest for the best hat, with the option of breaking it down into categories with multiple winners, especially if you’re hosting a large crowd.
"Your hat is the statement piece at the races. Many people go to the races to see the horses and bet, but others go to [admire] the hats. When choosing the perfect hat, consider your physique," explains Jenny Pfanenstiel, official milliner of the Kentucky Derby Museum and author of the book, The Making of a Milliner. "If you are on the shorter side, go with a fascinator with some height, or a smaller brim. If you are tall, a large brim is complementary, or a fascinator that is not too tall."
The most important factor when choosing your hat or fascinator? Comfort. "You will be wearing your hat for many hours, so you want it to fit you properly," she added.
Since there will be little ones at my party, I will have out arts and craft supplies so they can make their own hats. Most dollar stores sell hats that would be perfect for adding feathers, beads, glitter, and all of the bedazzled features kiddos love.
If nothing else, remember the key ingredient for a successful Derby Day party is the charming hospitality that is Kentucky.