How to Throw a Kentucky Derby Party Like a Local


How to Throw a Kentucky Derby Party Like a Local

I’m from Louisville, Kentucky, home to the famous Kentucky Derby. Every May the city comes alive with Derby festivities. It is an exciting moment in our year, one we look forward to for the preceding eleven months. This may seem like a joke but it truly is a holiday in every sense and part of our heritage. Kids are out of school on the Friday before the Derby because so many locals participate in the festivities or visit the track for the Kentucky Oaks where fillies race for the lilies. I have grade school memories of coloring sheets with jockey silks and horses and a bonus question on a test that asked for the name of the previous years’ Derby winner.

The Kentucky Derby may only be two minutes in sports on the first Saturday in May but for Louivillians it is two weeks of events designed to include the entire community and beyond. There are the races: the Balloon Race, Steamboat Race, Run for the Rose’, and Bedlam Races (people decorate and race beds!). There is one of the largest fireworks shows in the world called Thunder Over Louisville, the Pegasus Parade, and the Derby Princesses (yes, I once attempted to be a princess but didn’t quite make the final cut…I’m not bitter though…okay, I was robbed!).

But, on Saturday May 7, many locals will forgo the crowds at the track and instead host or attend parties. You can do it too and I’ll give you some insider knowledge on how to host a party like a local that kids and adults can both enjoy.

Food & Drink

Let’s start with the most important detail…the drinks. The drink of the Kentucky Derby is the Mint Julep. You can make this and can find the official recipe here or you can do what a lot of the locals do, make Bourbon Slush! Kentucky is known for our bourbon. My favorite is Old Forester but there are so many great Kentucky Bourbons to choose from. Bourbon Slush is a crowd pleaser and after you try it, you may find yourself craving it on those hot Texas nights (I’m drooling just writing this and may need to find a non-alcoholic version to get through this Derby season while pregnant!). It is pretty easy to make Bourbon Slush and even your not-so-bourbon-loving guests will likely enjoy this summery cocktail. Find the recipe here.

Then there is the all-important party food. Benedictine Sandwiches were born in Kentucky and make a festive, cool snack for your Kentucky-themed party. Benedictine is a cucumber spread, typically served on thin white bread with the crusts cut off. It is very green so it is even exciting for adventurous kids. It isn’t too hard to make your own. Try this recipe for Kentucky Benedictine Sandwiches.

“Derby Pie” is trademarked and only one company, Kern’s Kitchen, can officially make it but you can order yours online here. Or, you can make something similar like a Chocolate-Bourbon Pecan Pie. To me, this is a must-have at any Derby Party and something I really look forward to digging into. Find a recipe here.

Fashion & Decorations

The Kentucky Derby is where all the spring fashion emerges. Women’s hats are works of art and another element of what makes the Derby so fantastic. When you turn on the television and view Churchill Down on Derby Day, you will watch a sea of colorful and unique hats on every woman in attendance. Hatmakers in Louisville do pretty well this time of year. Both men (yes, men!) and women don their pastels for the occasion. Instruct your guests to brush off their fancy hats, sear sucker suits, bow ties and spring dresses for the party. After all, who doesn’t love to dress up for a party?


Red roses make a classic decoration for any Derby party since the horse race for a beautiful blanket of roses. Place a simple vase of roses in the middle of the table and if you like, invite guests to take one home as a favor at the end of the party. With all the other horse-related activities, I think it is fine to keep the decorations simple for your party.


Of course you will want to watch the Derby. NBC will start airing coverage on May 7th at 3pm CST and it will run until 6:30 pm CST. It can also be streamed live through The Kentucky Derby Post Time is 5:34 pm CST. Remember that this is only a two minute race so be sure to get set up early.

Have a day of races using stick horses or just pull out the broomsticks. Design a track in your yard and have guests sign up each hour or half hour to race along with the horses. The Derby may be the main event, but races go on all day. This is a fun activity for the kids too. Get some small giveaways as prizes for the winners but have your camera ready for those photo finishes!

Set up a table where kids can design their own Derby hats from newspaper. This is another typical grade school activity in Louisville. Provide some craft materials, glue, and markers so each kid can make their hat unique. Paper roses are a terrific accessory on Derby day. Here is a tutorial but really you don’t have to follow any rules and it is sometimes better to just let kids get really creative.

Want to make it simple? Print off some Derby Silks Coloring Pages and set out some examples of the colorful jockey-wear, then let the kids color away. As a child, I really loved getting creative with my own version of the silks. You can google for coloring pages or print off this one from the Kentucky Tourism Board.

Betting is an essential component of every Derby party but it doesn’t have to be expensive or complicated. I’ve been to many parties where each guest who put $1 or $2 in a bucket gets to draw a horses name out of a hat. Alternatively, make a list of the horses on a sheet of paper and allow guests to write their name beside their favorite one (only one person per horse). Whoever picks the winning horse, wins all the money in the bucket! Find a list of expected Derby horses here but be sure to check in the week leading up to the Derby for post positions. It is fun to discuss what went into the decision – a favorite name, the horse with the best odds, or the one the handicapper chose. No matter which horse you choose, your guests will love the excitement of cheering on their horse and you never know when a longshot will come from behind and win the cherished blanket of roses.

Derby Horse

I hope this gets you in the Kentucky spirit of the Derby! Go baby go!

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