Horses, roses, big hats and bourbon—all represent one of America’s long-standing traditions, the Kentucky Derby. On the first Saturday in May each year (this year, it’s May 7), 20 horses compete in front of a crowd of 155,000 people at Churchill Downs in Louisville, Kentucky. One of the most prestigious horse races in the world and often called “The Most Exciting Two Minutes in Sports,” the Kentucky Derby is the first race within the Triple Crown, where it is followed by the Preakness Stakes race (May 21) and the Belmont Stakes race (June 11). All three of these events provide great excuses for throwing a party—and you don’t have to make a trip to Kentucky to experience the festivities. Hosting a watch party for one of these races, complete with themed food, cocktails, decorations and games right in your home, is both easy to put together and tons of fun.
Themed Appetizers, Classic Cocktails
Think finger foods and Southern charm. A platter of deviled eggs topped with bacon crumbles is quick to make and easy for guests to grab. Chunks of fresh watermelon are cool, refreshing, and a perfect Southern snack. For a Derby Day classic, bake frozen biscuits and fill with slices of country ham. Set out a variety of flavored butter and mustard blends for guests to dress their biscuits. Add in some seafood options with an herbed shrimp dip, made with chopped shrimp, sour cream, mayonnaise, scallions and a mix of spices—or perhaps some mini crab cakes. Be sure to finish things off with dessert; try your luck at some cute horseshoe-shaped sugar cookies or a big, gooey chocolate-bourbon pecan pie—the quintessential Southern dessert. (See recipe, below.)
Wet everyone’s whistle with some simple but tasty drinks. Combine Firefly Sweet Tea Vodka with lemonade for an instantly delicious cocktail or whip up a large pitcher of sangria. Set out pitchers of lemonade and sweet tea individually for some non-alcoholic options. Mint juleps, the traditional drink of choice at the Kentucky Derby since 1938, are of course a must. Did you know this refreshing cocktail actually originated in Virginia and was popularized in Kentucky? Up this classic’s game by spiking it with a homemade jalapeño simple syrup. To make this, combine a cup of water, a cup of sugar and one jalapeño cut lengthwise over high heat and bring to a boil. Remove from heat, steep for 20 minutes, then strain and discard the jalapeño.
Dress Code and Derby Decor
The Kentucky Derby is a chance for every woman to express her inner Southern Belle with cool and colorful sundresses and of course the big statement piece: the Derby hat. This can be simple or grand, adorned with flowers or feathers—just make sure to have one perched atop your head. Let guests know how formal or informal they should dress. A sit-down meal, for example, would be a little more formal than a backyard party. And men can get just as dressed up as the ladies. Polos and button-downs in pretty pastels paired with plaid or striped pants is a great look for fellas wanting to get decked out. Since Derby headgear is not as popular for men as it is for women, their look can be pulled together with an eye-catching tie or bow tie.
Since the Kentucky Derby’s nickname is the “Run for the Roses,” use roses as your go-to decoration. Rose and boxwood topiaries make great centerpieces or tabletop decorations. Fill traditional silver julep cups with red roses for a more small-scale arrangement. Trophy cups can also be used as centerpieces and filled with red roses. Let loose rose petals spill over and scatter them around the table and elsewhere. Hang sparkly gold streamers that will instantly pop when placed near those vibrant red roses. Use brightly colored tablecloths and napkins to tie in the colorful uniforms associated with the jockeys and horses. Hang blue winner’s ribbons along the tables or walls, or use them as place cards with each guest’s name written in the center of the ribbon. Set out mason jars with cute straws for guests to grab and fill with their beverages of choice.
Games and Activities
The actual race only takes two minutes, so be sure to plan a few games and activities for before and after the main event to keep your guests entertained. Since the ladies will already be asked to wear hats, encourage creativity by offering a prize for best hat. Have guests vote once everyone arrives and award the winner with a homemade pie or bottle of bourbon. Other contests can include “Most Creative Hat” or “Best Dressed.” Before the race starts, write each horse’s name on a piece of paper and place in a hat. Let each guest draw a name out of the hat to cheer for. Give the winning lady a pretty scarf as a prize and the winning fella a cute tie or bow tie. Cash prizes are always a hit, too! If you and your guests are in to betting, create a sheet with a list of the horses’ names and boxes for guests to write in their names. Tell them they can choose however many boxes they want at $2 (or whatever amount you want) per square. Those who bet on the winning horse get to split the pot. Play the song “My Old Kentucky Home” and help guests learn the words and sing along. Set up a game of horseshoes outside that both adults and children can play at their leisure. Create a “Pin the Tail on the Champion” game that would be great for kids as well.
Follow these guidelines and you and your guests will feel like you’re truly a part of one of America’s most beloved traditions. Before your guests leave your party, see them off with a Derby party favor. Mini bottles of Maker’s Mark whisky for the men look adorable and are distilled just south of Louisville. For the ladies, leave them with small potted plants of mint so they can go home and make their own juleps. And they’re off!
Chocolate-Bourbon Pecan Pie
Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Sprinkle 1 ½ cups chopped, toasted pecans and 1 cup semisweet chocolate morsels evenly onto the bottom of a refrigerated, pre-made pie crust. In a large saucepan, stir together 1 cup corn syrup, ½ cup granulated sugar, ½ cup brown sugar and ¼ cup of bourbon and bring to a boil. Cook for 3 minutes, then remove from heat. Whisk together 4 eggs, ¼ cup melted butter, 2 teaspoons cornmeal, 2 teaspoons vanilla extract and a pinch of salt. Combine with hot corn syrup mixture, whisking constantly, and pour into prepared pie crust. Bake for 50-60 minutes or until crust is golden brown and filling is puffed. Cool for about an hour before serving.
Adapted from Southern Living