Tips for Throwing the Perfect Kentucky Derby Party

Events / Travel
A Kentucky Derby viewing party is the perfect way to enjoy the race if you can't make it to the track. (Penelope P. Miller/America's Best Racing)

The 160,000 fans who fill Churchill Downs on the first Saturday in May can attest that the Kentucky Derby is one of the biggest parties of the year. With gambling, fashion, mint juleps, and plenty of socializing, the Derby is much more than just a horse race. But even if you can’t make the trip to Louisville, Ky., you can still get in on the fun by hosting your very own Kentucky Derby watch party. Read on for some ideas for throwing the perfect bash.

Once you have a guest list and send invitations out, the main pillars of planning any party are décor, food, drinks, and entertainment. No party is complete without these four things, and a Kentucky Derby party is no exception.

Décor is the first box to check off, and it requires the most advance preparation. Whether you choose to scour eBay, your local party store or a big box store, make sure you plan ahead. Many decorations and accent pieces can also be found on store websites, but shipping time could be a concern.

Roses are a must for Derby party décor, and anything racing-related will work great. You can find Kentucky Derby tablecloths and napkins at party stores, plus plenty of horse racing trinkets and jockey silks-themed decorations. Try a bouquet of roses in a faux trophy or a few stems in a julep cup, a jockey silks pennant garland or a racehorse statuette. If it has to do with horse racing, you really can’t go wrong.

Christina Moore photo

When it comes to food, finger foods are usually easier to make and always easier to consume, plus you don’t have to worry about silverware! There are plenty of Kentucky- or southern-themed foods to have at your party — from mini Derby pies to bite-sized hot browns or bourbon balls, guests are sure to love your themed fare. If you want a full spread, try brie delight with some fruit, bourbon-marinated pork tenderloin, and black-eyed pea salad. Bread pudding makes a great dessert —get the recipe here.

Figuring out what drinks to serve just might be the easiest part of you Derby party planning, because there is one drink that is synonymous with the race: the mint julep. The official Kentucky Derby mint julep recipe calls for Old Forester bourbon, but any Kentucky bourbon will do. Here's a great video recipe for a Buffalo Trace mint julep. For guests who don’t drink, have some non-alcoholic mint juleps on hand, which interestingly uses lemon juice in place of bourbon. Southern sweet tea is another great non-alcoholic option to keep handy, while there are a variety of other bourbon drinks you can make, too. For an authentic touch, serve them in Derby glasses. You can order this year’s design in advance, or you can find vintage versions on eBay or in thrift stores.

Actually, I was wrong about the drink decision being the easiest part to plan. The entertainment is the most effortless: the Kentucky Derby! Make sure you have a TV (or two) tuned in to the race coverage on NBC and pay attention to the time so everyone can watch the race. To add even more fun to the day, have everyone put a few bucks in a pool and pick a horse or two before the race. The winner can take all, or you can split the prize among first-, second-, and third-place finishers. If it’s nice out you can keep everyone busy beforehand with lawn games like croquet or bocce ball.

No matter what your party looks like, the most important part is to have a great time and enjoy the most exciting two minutes in sports!

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