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The Run for the Roses. The Most Exciting Two Minutes in Sports. Ah, the Kentucky Derby. This exhilarating horse race is held the first Saturday in May every year, and this year marks the 144th running. This year’s race is Saturday, May 5th, and as always, will be held at Churchill Downs in Louisville, Kentucky. The Derby has a long history and rich traditions, and hosting the perfect Derby Party is one of the most fun gatherings you can imagine!
I grew up not far from Louisville, so I was quite familiar with the whole culture surrounding the Derby. I was surprised to learn that many people aren’t acquainted with it, so my husband and I decided to change all that. We host an annual party, and I’m going to share step by step how we do it so that you can have a fabulous celebration of your own!
Start by sending out invitations. Some people prefer paper invitations and others prefer to use online invitations. Paperless Post ( http://www.paperlesspost.com ) is an online stationery company with absolutely gorgeous invitations for all kinds of gatherings. You can custom design your invitation, right down to the lining of the envelope to the stamp! We use them for our Derby party. Our guests always comment on how much fun it is to open an online invitation that comes in an envelope. On our invitation, we put the date and time, and also include some information for folks unfamiliar with Derby traditions. We encourage them to wear “Derby finery,” and to arrive on time, in order to give them time to place their bet on their favorite horse. And we never fail to mention that everything begins with mint juleps on the lawn!
A Kentucky Derby Party is best held outside under the shade of big, beautiful trees. We are fortunate to have a backyard built for parties. It is large, with enormous shade trees dripping with Spanish Moss. The weather is usually still very nice in early May, and we’ve always had glorious weather for our parties. Even if your backyard isn’t very large, you can still create a special setting for your guests on your patio or deck. Just invite as many people as you can comfortably accommodate in your space. If you do decide to host your party outside, just have a contingency plan for moving everything indoors if it decides to rain.
You want to create a wonderful experience for your guests, so as you are putting everything together, think about appealing to all of the senses. Sight. Smell. Sounds. How does everything make your guests FEEL? We put out a long buffet table that we decorate with all of the beverages, and we add flowers in the color theme of the Derby, which changes each year. Music is playing. Beverages include wine, beer, mint juleps, and an iced tea punch. I’ll share all of my recipes with you a bit later, so keep reading! We put the wine in silver ice buckets, and have ice buckets full of crushed ice for the julep cups and iced tea punch. For the beer, we have a vintage wheelbarrow that we fill with ice and put all of the beer on ice, and we attach a bottle opener to the handle of the wheelbarrow so everyone can easily open their drink.
(My daughter took this picture of our table and I think it looks like something out of a magazine!) 🙂
We carry the horse theme over to our beverages. We like to serve this 14 Hands wine.
We also set up long tables and chairs with tablecloths for the guests to use when we serve dinner after the race. Prior to dinner, we have bowls of nuts and light snacks on each table so that guests can help themselves.
A few years ago, my husband had the wonderful idea to take old wrought iron light fixtures and hang them in our trees. We put candles in them, and light them as the sun begins to set to add magical lighting above the tables where guests will be dining after the race. Our neighbors down the street also host a party, and they string tiny lights in their trees, and it looks beautiful.
We put lawn chairs in small groupings under the trees so that guests can sit and enjoy a drink as everyone is arriving. We also set up a table where everyone can place their bet on their favorite horse.
On the serving table, we put our silver ice buckets, glassware, plates, and napkins. We use real glass wine glasses, silver julep cups, and then plastic cups for the punch. We use paper plates and napkins, but use real flatware, as we hate plastic forks and knives that break when trying to cut food. You can purchase the plates and napkins from Amazon or party supply stores. There is a different color scheme every year.
We also put fun plastic jockey helmets on the tables for the men to wear.
Hopefully, all the ladies in attendance are wearing festive Derby hats. The first time we had our party, some of the guests contacted me asking me what they should wear. I sent them some pictures of people attending the Derby, so they could get an idea of how to dress for the party.
Vineyard Vines is a wonderful clothing company that sells preppy clothing and promotes the good life, with the slogan “Every Day Should Feel This Good.” Every year, they have a line of clothing and accessories specifically for the Derby. You will definitely be able to find something spectacular to wear for your party. They are a bit pricey, so sometimes I wait until after the Derby and buy my outfit for next year’s party when everything goes on sale.
Helping Your Guests Choose Their Horse
It is fun for your guests to pick their winning horse. Prior to the race, I go on to www.kentuckyderby.com, which is the official site for the race. They post all of the horses that are running, and the odds. I usually wait until just a few hours before the race to do this, because sometimes horses are pulled from the race for various reasons. So a few hours before the race, I pull up the odds and print them out for our guests. They can then take a look and decide which horse they want. Some people have very complicated systems for placing bets, but we just make it really simple. We have these cute Win, Place & Show Tickets where guests can write down their choice for Win, Place, or Show.
They can bet any amount they want on any horse, or they can bet on multiple horses. After all the bets are placed, we all watch the race together on TV (it only lasts about two minutes) and then divide up the winnings accordingly. For instance, if four people chose the winning horse and there was a total of $100 of bets placed on the winner, each of the four people wins $25. We do the same for second and third place.
We also don’t want to leave the person out whose horse comes in last, so we always award a Dirty Horseshoe from Churchill Downs which is an actual horseshoe previously worn by a horse running at Churchill Downs. They are inexpensive and fun, and the same guest has won this prize the past two years at our party. He said he is going for a full set. 🙂 No one wins a huge amount of money at our party, but it’s just a fun way to engage guests in all of the excitement of the race.
There are lots of great foods you can serve at your party. Ham and biscuits, barbeque, fried chicken, just about anything you’d like. We have a phenomenal barbeque restaurant down the road from us, so we always serve food from there so we don’t have to cook. About a week before our party, we place our order since we usually have a large number of guests. We pick it up early in the afternoon the day of our party and keep it warm in the oven. We serve brisket, ribs, and grilled chicken. They also make a fantastic potato salad, so we always get a large order of that. I don’t have time to bake biscuits on race day, so we always have plenty of King’s Hawaiian Original Sweet Rolls on hand. They are pillowy soft, and go great with barbeque. The only things I make from scratch are a few of the desserts. I always make Derby Pie and Banana Pudding, and also serve Tate’s Bake Shop Chocolate Chip Cookies, which are the thinnest, crispiest, most delicious chocolate chip cookies. I find them at my local grocery store but you can also order them online.
After the race, we encourage our guests to have another mint julep while we get everything ready for dinner. Then guests help themselves and sit around eating and visiting. They stay as long as they want, and it is often late in the evening before they leave. It is just a wonderful, gracious way to spend a day. If you have never hosted a Kentucky Derby party, I would encourage you to try it! It is more fun than you can imagine, and guests look forward to it every year. We always take plenty of pictures during the party, and in the week following the party, I go back to http://www.paperlesspost.com and create an online photo album for each guest. We include pictures of the decorations, any individual pictures we took of them, and then a picture of the whole group. We thank them for coming and tell them we look forward to seeing them next year.
So there you have it! That’s all you need to host the perfect Kentucky Derby Party at your home. Below you will find a checklist of things to do and all of the recipes.
- Create and send invitations
- Purchase decorations (plates, napkins, cups, mint julep cups, jockey hats, race cards)
- Order food (or prepare from scratch if you are ambitious!)
- Make simple syrup for mint juleps (recipe below)
- Make desserts
- Print out odds sheet for guests to choose their winning horse
- Set up tables and chairs, decorate the tables
- Chill drinks and make mint juleps
- Tie some balloons to your mailbox to let your guests know where the party is!
- Change into your Derby finery
- Welcome your guests an have a fabulous day!
- 1 1/2 parts Maker’s Mark Bourbon (or your favorite bourbon. Preferably from Kentucky, and it must be GOOD bourbon. This is not the time to skimp on cheap prison hooch. This drink is bourbon, sugar, and water, so use the good stuff.)
- Fresh mint
- 2 Tablespoons of simple syrup
- Splash of distilled water
- 1 cup granulated sugar
- 1 cup distilled water
- Mint for garnish
A few days before your party, make a large batch of simple syrup. I would probably quadruple the amount above (1 cup sugar, 1 cup water) to make a 4 times larger batch (so 4 cups sugar and 4 cups water). To make the simple syrup, combine the sugar and water in a saucepan. Heat to dissolve the sugar, stirring constantly so that the sugar does not burn. When the sugar is dissolved, remove from heat and allow to cool. Store in a container in the refrigerator until ready to use.
Muddle some mint in the bottom of your pitcher. This means to crush it so that it releases its flavor. Pour in a cup of the simple syrup, then add the bourbon and the splash of distilled water. Fill a mint julep cup with crushed ice, and pour the drink into the cup. Garnish with a sprig of mint.
See that nice “sweat” on the silver cup? You want that. That’s why you use the special cups. It is a beautiful presentation.
Iced Tea Punch
This punch has made an appearance at nearly every baby shower and Sip-N-See I’ve ever been to. It is delicious.
- 8 regular tea bags (or 2 family size)
- 3 cups boiling water
- 1 cup of sugar
- 1-6 ounce can of frozen limeade
- 32-ounce club soda
Steep the tea in boiling water for 5 minutes. Add the sugar and limeade. Chill. Just before serving, add the club soda. We serve this in a pitcher so guests can help themselves.
One of my girlfriends gave me this recipe probably 25 years ago. It is her mother’s, and I think the thing that makes it so good is that you use vanilla pudding, with the bananas providing the banana flavor. For some reason, men LOVE this stuff. 🙂
- 1-6 ounce vanilla instant pudding
- 1-8 ounce Cool Whip
- 1 can sweetened condensed milk
- 7-8 fresh bananas, sliced
- Vanilla Wafers
Make the vanilla pudding according to directions on the box. Add the Cool Whip and condensed milk. Line the bottom and sides of a 13×9 pan with Vanilla Wafers. Add a layer of pudding, then a layer of sliced bananas. Repeat the layering, ending with the pudding. Sprinkle crumbled Vanilla Wafers on top. Refrigerate until ready to serve.
I make these in a large rectangular pan, then cut them into bite-sized bars. It makes them easier for guests to serve themselves. This recipe makes 2 dozen bars.
- 3 cups graham cracker crumbs (you can buy these ready to use in the grocery store. No need to spend time crushing graham crackers)
- 1/2 cup of butter, melted
- 1/3 cup of sugar
- 1 large egg white, lightly beaten
- 1 cup of firmly packed light brown sugar
- 1/2 cup of light corn syrup
- 1/2 cup of dark corn syrup
- 1/4 cup of butter, melted
- 3 large eggs
- 1 1/2 teaspoons of vanilla extract
- 1/4 teaspoon of salt
- 2 cups of chopped pecans
- 1 (12 -ounce) bag of mini semisweet chocolate chips
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.
Line a 13×9 inch baking pan with heavy-duty aluminum foil. Spray foil with nonstick baking spray with flour.
In a medium bowl, combine graham cracker crumbs, melted butter, sugar, and egg white, stirring until well combined. Press the crumb mixture into the bottom of the prepared pan. Bake for 10 minutes; let cool completely.
In a large bowl, combine brown sugar and corn syrups. Add melted butter, eggs, vanilla, and salt, whisking until well combined. Stir in pecans and chocolate morsels; spoon mixture over prepared crust. Bake for 35 to 40 minutes or until the middle is set. When it has cooled, slice into bars or wedges. You can also drizzle the tops of each piece with melted chocolate if you’re the kind of gal who likes to gild the lily. 🙂
I’d love to hear from you if you have plans to host a Kentucky Derby Party, or you already do and have your own tips to share. Please feel free to leave a comment below.
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