How to Plan a Kentucky Derby Party

Here's everything you need to watch the horses from race day dress code to the perfect mint julep recipe.

dinner table with greenery
Photo: Johnny Miller

The Kentucky Derby is more than just a race, it's a long-standing American tradition—and the ultimate reason for a party. Traditionally, the annual Kentucky Derby is scheduled for the first Saturday in May at the iconic racetrack Churchill Downs in Louisville. The event pits 20 horses against one another as they race to earn one of the top five spots in the run. This year, due to the novel coronavirus pandemic, the Derby has been rescheduled for Saturday, September 5. On the bright side, this meant you had extra time to plan your own viewing party.

Didn't start brainstorming early? That's okay, too. Here, we tapped event-planning experts to help you plan your own Kentucky Derby party including recipes, décor, dress code, and invitations for the big race.

Send out themed invitations.

"Whether it's a virtual or an in-person event, the invitation is the first impression that your guests will see of your party, and it's the perfect opportunity to make a statement," says Erika Segal, senior content strategist at Zazzle. One fun idea is to incorporate the gorgeous accessories associated with the Kentucky Derby into your invitations. "Choose an invitation design that showcases a variety of hats in bold colors and designs, inspiring your guests for their own outfit," she further suggests.

You could also incorporate the Derby's quintessential drink—the mint julep. "Invitations that feature this nostalgic beverage will automatically put your guests in the mood for your celebration. Remember, the race is only a few minutes, but the beverages will be flowing throughout the day!" adds Segal.

Red roses are also synonymous with the Derby. "Presented as a garland for the winner as well as being the official flower for the event, these recognizable blooms are a great idea for a Derby-themed party."

Decorate and dress up for Derby Day.

When it comes to the décor, pay homage to the time-honored traditions the Derby is known for. Christine Moore, featured milliner of the Kentucky Derby 146, suggests an elegant garden setting. "Since the Derby is known as the 'Run for the Roses,' flowers can play a prominent role in the planning," explains Moore. Decorate with floral arrangements, a gilded wreath, and napkin-folded place settings.

Encourage your guests to arrive in their best: Sun dresses and a broad-brimmed straw hat for the ladies; seersucker suits, a straw fedora or a boater, and a donned bow tie for the gentlemen. "Historically, women and men would never attend an outdoor party or horse race without a hat," says Moore. "Essential for the sun and elements as well as a little fashion competition to see who is wearing what has always been part of the sport!" Guests can vote on who is "The Best Dressed" based on the women's hats or men's bowties.

This will get everyone into the spirit. "Have the words ready for 'My Old Kentucky Home' and get everyone to sing along," says Moore. "Start the party with a toast and another one when the winner crosses the finish line!"

Shake up fresh cocktails, including the mint julep.

There's no Kentucky Derby party without a mint julep in hand. As the hostess, provide some history to guests upon serving. A mint julep has been a "spirited morning picker-upper" for years, according to Elizabeth McCall, assistant master distiller at Woodford Reserve. "The mint julep was also medicinal. Farmers would rise early with aching muscles and the mint julep was the perfect cure. The bourbon soothes your muscles, the sugar softens the ethanol, and mint freshens your breath," explains McCall. "Like farmers, horse trainers start their days early, and, over time, the mint julep became a staple in the thoroughbred industry, popping up at regional race tracks. This is where the refreshing and delicious concoction transitioned from a morning drink to a 'sipping' cocktail."

This inspired the Woodford Reserve Spire, a drink which, McCall says, was introduced in 2018 when Woodford Reserve became the presenting sponsor of the Kentucky Derby. It's made with lemonade, cranberry juice, and their self-titled bourbon. "It's the familiar warm weather flavors of lemonade and cranberry juice that so wonderfully complement the Woodford Reserve Bourbon that makes this drink so approachable and enjoyable."

Serve a Southern-inspired menu.

When it comes to any party, the cuisine should speak to your theme or occasion. When planning a Kentucky Derby party, keep in mind Southern flavors that speak to the region. "Beyond being on the grounds at Churchill Downs, at-home Derby parties also continue to grow in popularity," says David Danielson, executive chef of Churchill Downs. "When I put together menus for at-home Derby parties, we also want to make sure there is a good variety of food here as well, but we work to craft a menu that can be largely done ahead of time and finished with ease."

For your menu, consider chicken wings—both grilled and glazed—as well as barbecue dry-rubbed wings, bourbon pan sauce, deviled eggs with country ham. As for dessert? Serve everyone mixed berry hand pies. "We look to create dishes that you can assemble ahead of time," adds Danielson. "When you're having a party, you don't want to be working. You want dishes that you can heat and serve and enjoy your party!

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