How I Threw a Kentucky Derby Party


What? Me? A Kentucky Derby Party?

One day my husband had a harebrained idea, picked up I’m sure from some of his Internet browsing. “Let’s throw a Kentucky Derby party,” he said.

This was a crazy idea on several fronts. For one, we did know that the Kentucky Derby was a horse race – but we didn’t watch it. For another, we weren’t big party-throwers. We had never been to – or been invited to – a Kentucky Derby Party. And we lived in the southwest, far from Kentucky.

I did a little Internet sleuthing and found that more Kentucky Derby parties took place outside of Kentucky than in the state itself, so I couldn’t protest on that front.

He was persistent and kept at me until I agreed to put one together. “I’ll help,” he said. Well, his checkbook “helped,” but as you can guess, the party planning fell to yours truly.

A Kentucky Derby party is held – when else – on the day of the Kentucky Derby, which historically falls on the first Saturday in May.

This conversation took place in about February, so I had three months to plan. Does it really take three months to plan a Kentucky Derby party? It took me that long because I was starting from scratch. I had to get my mind in the right place, first, which to me meant learning some history about the race and the culture that had grown up around it.

You wouldn’t try to put on a St. Patrick’s Day party without knowing the significance of “green” and corned beef and cabbage, would you? Well, a fashion/food culture has grown up around the Kentucky Derby and a party has to give a nod to that culture.

A Little History

The horse race that every year produces the most exciting two minutes in sports almost fizzled out in its early history. Founded in 1875 as the Louisville Jockey Club Course, it fell victim to mismanagement and scandal in the late 1800s and early 1900s.

It would have faded into oblivion as a tiny blip in horse racing history if it hadn’t been for Col. Matt J. Winn, who took over the track 1902. Thanks to his vision and promoting ability, the Derby became the best-known race in North America, attracting the top three-year-olds from all over the country.

It has now run for almost 140 years. Since 1932, the dirt-tracked race has been run on the first Saturday in May.

At first inspired by the Epsom Derby in England, the Kentucky Derby has become not only the centerpiece of thoroughbred racing in Kentucky, but a major social event as well. Its name was changed in 1896 to Churchill Downs. Also in 1896, the distance of the course was changed from 1.5 miles to its current 1.25 miles.

The race is the first jewel in the Triple Crown of thoroughbred racing, along with the Preakness in mid-May and the Belmont in early June. A week’s worth of festivities accompany the event, which attracts well over 100,000 spectators and is watched by millions more on TV.

Casual or Formal

Before I could even start planning, I had to decide if I wanted a casual or formal party. Some party planners bring out their best silver service and fancy china pieces.

I’m not the formal type, so picking “casual” was a no-brainer for me. My husband and I decided to go with red-checkered tablecloths, Derby-themed paper plates and cups, and serve a catered barbecued-beef meal. Since the first of May should be good weather, we would try to hold the party on our outside back patio, which would comfortably hold about six card table-sized tables.

We purchased a couple of silver-looking mint julep cups to add to the authenticity. Buying them for each participant would have been costprohibitive, but having one for the host and hostess seemed a reasonable nod to the “mint julep” tradition.


We settled on a guest list of about 25 people. Most of our friends had not been to a Kentucky Derby party, so the invitation had to sound, not only inviting, but also informative. We had to get people into the spirit of the race and the party. Although there are many places where you can order Derby invitations, I created my own version that could be emailed or folded and mailed to our friends.

Who says you have to live in Kentucky to celebrate
the most exciting two minutes in sports?
Kentucky Derby Party!!
Please join us for food and fun – and mint juleps!
Post Time: Saturday, May 3
Trainers: Marcy and Carl Madigan
Track: 2345 Poplar St.
Silks: Dress for the Kentucky Derby! Ladies win a prize for the most
creative hat.
Bring a couple of bucks to bet on the race’s outcome.
R.S.V.P. by May 2nd

Derby Fashion


You can imagine to what extent the ladies go to have just the right Kentucky Derby hat. Or maybe you can’t. Ladies who attend the race make a statement by the hat they wear to the race. If you watch the audience of a Derby race, it is punctuated by ladies in colorful, stylish usually broad-brimmed hats. So, hats would figure largely in our party.

You can, of course, buy your own hat, but coming up with my own creation appealed to me. I had a few summer straw hats in my closet, so I headed off to Walmart and bought a shopping bag full of fabric roses, a couple of feathers and some colorful beads for decoration and fastened them strategically around my straw hat. A brooch from my jewelry box pinned to the front made a pretty classy hat.

I wore a long black jersey dress paired with a lacy red blouse, but who noticed? The hat was center stage.


While browsing in an antique shop one day, my husband found a white summer seersucker suit. That, topped off with a panama hat, made the perfect host outfit.

Food and drink

Over the years, foods have emerged that are traditionally served at a Derby party. Not surprisingly, most are passed down from southern cooks. I thought about making a stew called Kentucky burgoo as my main dish. It would be easy to serve and not difficult to make.

But my husband made the choice for me. He loved the barbecue prepared by a restaurant in El Paso, so we ordered fixings from there – barbecued beef and pork, rancher’s style beans, cole slaw, mashed potatoes.


I saved my meal preparation for making dessert. I knew everybody would be familiar with pecan pie, so I made a couple of them. But, again with a nod to Derby tradition, I also made “an official Derby pie.” If you want to dispense with pie making, you can order an official Derby Pie®. Here’s the recipe I used:

Derby pie


2 eggs
1 cup sugar
1/2 cup melted butter
4 teaspoons bourbon
1/4 cup cornstarch
1 cup pecans (you can chop them if you like, for a smoother texture.)
6 ounces semisweet chocolate chips

In a large mixing bowl, beat the eggs and add the sugar. Mix in melted butter and bourbon. Stir until you have a gritty paste. Stir in cornstarch, then the pecans and chocolate chips.

Pour mixture into a nine-inch piecrust and bake for 45 minutes at 350 degrees.

Let cool for about an hour. The pie should be served warm with a dollop of whipped cream on top. (It can also be refrigerated overnight and reheated before serving.)

Bourbon balls

I made bourbon balls to give out to the guests who won the trivia contest and the hat contest.

I put a dozen of them in a small bag for prizes and a half dozen in bags for guests to take home as a treat. Here’s the recipe I used:

Bourbon balls


1 cup fine vanilla wafer crumbs
1 cup finely chopped pecans
1 cup confectioners’ sugar
2 tablespoons unsweetened cocoa powder
1/4 cup bourbon
1 tablespoons plus 1 1/2 teaspoons light corn syrup
confectioners’ sugar, sifted


Thoroughly combine 1 crushed vanilla wafer crumbs, chopped pecans, 1 cup confectioners’ sugar, and the cocoa. In a separate bowl, blend the bourbon and corn syrup. Stir this bourbon mixture into the dry mixture; blend well.

Cover and chill for at least a few hours. Sift about 1/2 to 1 cup of confectioners’ sugar on a cookie sheet. Shape small bits of the dough into balls and roll them in the confectioners’. Store in refrigerator in tightly covered containers.

Make these a few days in advance for best flavor, and roll in confectioners’ sugar again before serving, if desired. These can also be frozen for longer storage.

Makes about 3 dozen bourbon balls.


Mint juleps were drinks we had read about and heard about, but it wasn’t a drink we’d ever had or ever made. They were de rigueur, however, for a Kentucky Derby party.

The easiest way we found to make them was to order mint syrup and go from there. Mint was already growing in my southwest garden, so we had plenty of the herbs. Be sure to plan the best way to have plenty of crushed ice. We couldn’t depend on enough from the refrigerator icemaker so used a blender capable of making good crushed ice.

Here’s the recipe we used for each mint julep:


1/4 cup fresh mint leaves
2 ½ tsp. mint julep syrup (purchased or prepared)
crushed ice
1 ½ oz. bourbon


For each Mint Julep:

Add crushed ice to Julep tumbler or glass. Add 1 1/2 ounces of bourbon. Add 2 1/2 teaspoons syrup, or to taste. Stir lightly. Garnish with fresh mint leaf and serve with a straw. We bought the mint julep syrup from Party Kits and Equestrian Gifts catalog .

We also ordered polished aluminum mint julep cups from this catalog.

If you’d rather make the mint julep syrup, heat 2 cups water. Whisk in 2 cups sugar and heat until sugar is dissolved. Remove from heat. Add 6 to 8 springs of fresh mint and let the mixture steep for 20 to 30 minutes. We also served wine and iced tea but to make it simple, made the mint julep the only mixed cocktail at the party.


You have to remember these guests were as ignorant as we were about which horse was running, which jockey was favored, etc. So to level the playing field, we put the names of all the horses in a hat. Guests paid $2.00 to draw the name of a horse from the hat. The one who drew the winning horse won the pot.

Trivia game

I planned a trivia game to get guests into the mood of the race.

Trivia game

I made the game multiple choice so it was fairly easy. I passed out papers to each of the guests. The winner received a prize of a bag of a dozen bourbon balls.

1. The Kentucky Derby was founded in: a. 1868 b. 1875 c. 1901 d. 1925

2. Horses that race in the Derby are: a. 3-year-olds b. 2-yearolds c. 4-year-olds d. 5-year-olds

3. Horses are: a. quarter horses b. saddlebreds c. thoroughbreds d. Tennessee Walkers

4. The race course is this long: a. 1.5 miles b. 1.25 miles c. 1.75 miles d. 2 miles.

5. The first race was won by: a. Sir Barton b. Aristides c. Citation d. Whirlaway

6. The fastest time has been set by: a. Secretariat b. Citation c. Mine That Bird d. Seattle Slew

7. The Belmont, third race in the Triple Crown, is held: a. 4th of July b. last week of June c. early June d. late July

8. How many horses have won the Triple Crown? a. 4 b. 8 c. 9 d. 11

9. The winning-est jockey is: a. Eddie Acaro b. Bill Shoemaker c. Angel Cordero d. Bill Hartack

10. The winning-est trainer is: a. D Wayne Lukas b. Ben Jones c. Dick Thompson d. David Cotey

Answers: 1-b; 2-a; 3-c; 4-b; 5-b; 6-a; 7-c; 8-d; 9-a; 10-b

Day of the Party

The invited guests had gotten into the spirit of the party. Most women came with an array of hats, ranging from whimsical to elegant. One male guest wore his own derby hat along with a red-suspenders costume.

The party started about 2 hours before the race. So we had time for visiting, playing a trivia game, and eating before the race.

As everyone mingled, I explained the betting and collected each bettor’s $2 as the name of a horse was drawn from a bowl.

I served brunch and guests gathered on the patio (thankfully wind-free!) and ate their barbecued meal.

I passed out the trivia game and presented the winner with a bag of one dozen bourbon balls.

I presented a prize of a gift bag of 1 dozen bourbon balls to the lady with the best hat, and then presented bags of 6 bourbon balls to the rest of the guests as a favor to take home. I accompanied each presentation with an off-the-cuff announcement (for the lady with the smallest hat, for the lady who wore no hat, for the lady who wore a red hat, etc.)

By then, it was time for the race to begin so we gathered in front of the TV inside (TV channel was set up ahead of time) and watched the exciting race. Everyone was rooting and cheering for the horse whose name they had drawn. The person who had drawn the winning horse went home with the cash.

We gathered again outside on the patio, where I served our dessert – and mingled some more while we discussed the outcome of the race like Kentucky Derby pros.

From our viewpoint and from comments of the guests, it was a party to remember!




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