How to Throw an Epic Kentucky Derby Party
I grew up near Louisville, Kentucky, in Southern Indiana (on the “sunny side,” we like to say), where the first Saturday in May is the biggest party day of the year. When I was a kid, my parents always threw a Kentucky Derby party at our house. In high school and college, I went to the race with friends—picnicking and partying in the infield all day, waiting for a 2 minute race—but when I moved to New York after graduating, I began hosting my own party. It started out with a handful of guests—only 15 could fit in my tiny apartment. But now that I’m in a house with a family of my own, it’s grown to a massive gathering of friends old and new—as I write this, my evite for next Saturday has 77 RSVPs.
Over the last 20+ years, I’ve kept notes how to make my Kentucky Derby party better year after year—from the dress code (Derby hats encouraged but not required) to the food and drinks (yes, of course I serve Mint Juleps). These are my best Kentucky Derby party ideas for throwing a legendary party of your own.
Insist on Derby Attire
It's just not the Derby unless folks show up in dapper attire—I always note it on the invitation. The first few years no one bothered to get decked out, but now the peer pressure has long-time guests wearing seersucker suits, spring dresses, and giant flowered hats! I find the hats hard to wear as a hostess because I can't see around me! I've started wearing a fascinator—you can even get them at Target now!
Host It Outside if You Can
In many parts of the country, by the first Saturday in May it’s finally (although often just barely) warm enough to have a garden party. Derby food feels picnicky in a way that goes well. The grownups sip their mint juleps and the kids run amok in the backyard. Everyone’s happy. We only move inside to crowd around the TV and watch the 2 minutes of the race itself. I bring out the speakers and play the Bluegrass channel on Spotify to create the right vibe.
Set Arrival Time for 2 Hours Before the Race
The race usually starts between 6 and 7 p.m. (this year it’s at 6:46 p.m.) so my start time for my Kentucky Derby party is 4 p.m. After years of planning, I've found that it’s better to watch the race after you have a few drinks, food, and cheer in you. It also lets excitement build for the race and gives people time to argue over their horse selections.
Place Your Bets
A Derby party isn’t a Derby party without money exchanged. At my family's Derby parties growing up, my father used to act as a bookie and take bets, then pay back the odds after the race. But boy that takes a lot of work (and math skills). I much prefer that folks draw horses out of a hat. I just go online and print out info on all the horses. Don’t do this until the morning of the party—often horses drop out or “scratch” and then you have to reprint. Plus, you want to have the most up-to-date odds written next to each horse’s name and number. (It also helps if you can print them out in color so they know the color their jockey and horse will be wearing.) As people arrive, I take $20 per family in exchange for a horse (there are usually 15 or so horses; so depending on your party size, you may want to do this per person). Our rule is that you get who you get and don’t get upset—although you can certainly trade your horse with anyone else at the party. During the race everyone goes crazy cheering for their horse. Third place gets their money back, second place gets $60, and first place takes the rest of the pot—which sometimes can be as much as $300! (Psst: The hosts should not draw a horse. It’s embarrassing when you win—it happened to me one year! Instead, I place my family’s bets online as if we were at Churchill Downs.)
Go Traditional With the Food
When I used to host less than 20 people, I made Kentucky Hot Browns, delicious traditional open-faced sandwiches, and served coleslaw on the side. That became too much work to manage as my party grew. Now I make a double-batch of Kentucky Burgoo with a side of collard greens, biscuits, and pate (OK; so the pate is not traditional Derby fare but I don’t like throwing away the extra chicken livers I don’t use in the burgoo!). I also cheat and buy Pillsbury biscuits (shh! everyone thinks they're homemade) and serve with strawberry butter (butter with jam mixed in).
But Really It's All About the Mint Julep
Mint Juleps are about the simplest drink in the world to make: Bourbon + simple syrup mixed together, served from a giant beverage dispenser. To make it authentic, serve over crushed ice. For years I just went to my local grocery store and asked them to scoop up some fresh from their ice machine in the back. But now my local grocery doesn’t use crushed ice in their displays, so I make my own with a snow-cone machine. Don’t forget the cocktail straws and sprigs of mint. The idea is your nose hits the mint as you sip.
Don't Skimp on the Derby Pie
I keep four Derby Pies in a warm oven, ready to be served after the race. It’s the perfect consolation for all the race-horse losers—and a great way to let guests know the party is winding down without actually saying it. Luckily, Derby Pie is also super easy to make: It’s essentially a giant chocolate chip cookie pie with pecans in it. My family has our own secret recipe—that’s one thing I just won’t share!