How to Throw the Perfect Kentucky Derby Party

Events / Travel
At-home parties for the Kentucky Derby will be popular in 2021 due to possible restrictions on attendance. (Eclipse Sportswire)

The Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve will most likely face some restrictions this year as far as fan attendance at Churchill Downs due to the ongoing pandemic. That means that this year offers you the chance to get really creative with your May 1 Kentucky Derby viewing party, whether it’s held over Zoom or with a socially-distanced get together in the backyard. Need a little inspiration? We’re here to help!

The Decorations

OK, this definitely depends on how you’re holding your party. If it’s going to be over Zoom, we got you! Check out our downloadable Kentucky Derby Zoom backgrounds here and you’re good to go. Hosting a socially-distanced in-person party? Here are some ideas for decor:

These racehorse-and-rose banners are super cute!

Speaking of banners, I may just hang this racehorse version up in my apartment year ’round. It’ll compliment my perennial Christmas lights.

Mini clip-on hats are hilarious and they’re a steal at $9.99 for a six-pack.

Rose garlands! These are lush-looking.

The official julep glass from the Kentucky Derby is a great collector’s item and the perfect vehicle for your julep.

Everyone loves photobooth props. That’s science. Just make sure you have some hand sanitizer nearby to keep everyone safe!

Actually, just get a ton of hand sanitizer. Can’t hurt.

Need more inspiration? Check out the Kentucky Derby’s online store, which has a little bit of everything!

The Menu

Churchill Downs has a really wonderful guide to making their Kentucky Derby menu at home, including recipes from Queer Eye’s Antoni Porowski. I’m definitely going to try the grilled peach and tomato salad as well as the watermelon and haloumi bites; however, if you’re looking for more traditional Kentucky dishes, here are some of my favorites that are perfect for a party:

Mini hot brown tarts from Spicy Southern Kitchen

Add a Pinch’s pimento cheese

Taste of Home’s Benedictine dip (don’t sleep on this – it’s really, really good)

Hush puppies from The Spruce Eats

Deviled eggs with country ham from Food & Wine

Martha Stewart’s vegan cucumber tea sandwiches

McCormick’s bourbon balls

Half-Baked Harvest’s Derby Pie cookie bars

Strawberry merengue roses dipped in chocolate from Taste of Home 

The Cocktails

The mint julep is probably the most famous signature cocktail in all of sports, if not the world. Here’s the Kentucky Derby’s official recipe, but there are a million variations out there. If juleps aren’t really your thing (no judgement here; I don’t touch ’em) maybe you’d prefer an Oaks Lily, the official drink of the Derby’s sister race, the Longines Kentucky Oaks.

If you’re not a big drinker or if you want something special for the kids, try this virgin mint julep from Salt and Baker, or a mint lemonade like this one from A Sweet Pea Chef.

The Outfits

Again, this can depend on whether you’re going to an in-person event or hanging out with your friends on Zoom. Either way, you do you: if you want to dress to the nines and wear a big hat, yay! If you’re a T-shirt and jeans person: nice! I myself have not put on pants with a zipper since March 2020 and see no reason to start now, so my fashion plan is a sort of Kentucky Derby mullet for any and all FaceTime hangs for Derby: racetrack style on top, jammies on the bottom. Like this, which I’m literally wearing as I type:

The author at work. (Penelope P. Miller/America's Best Racing)

Important things to know: Christine A. Moore is the official milliner of the Kentucky Derby, and her hats, fascinators, and fedoras are honestly some of the best in the world. Might I suggest the ABR Collection? It offers a selection of hats for men and women at an affordable price point, and they’re great for a day at the races and so much more.

Looking for the right ladies’ outfit? Whether you choose sleek monochrome or bold florals, the common wisdom is to start with your hat and build your ensemble from there. If you need a little inspiration, check out our fashion slideshow from the 2019 Kentucky Derby and go from there! 

For the gentlemen out there, bow ties are a tradition for the Kentucky Derby, but you can rock a traditional tie, too. Bright colors are the norm when it comes to men’s attire.


Want to play the race? We do, too! The first thing to do is to get to know the horses running for the roses which you can do with our slideshow of the Derby contenders (coming in April). Plus, you can check back here throughout the days leading up to the Derby, because we are going to have a lot of gambling guides for the run for the roses!

Next, it’s time to sign up for an online betting account if you don’t already have one. Don’t worry, it’s easy and perfectly legal! No shady offshore sites or VPN shenanigans necessary as long as you live in one of the states where it’s legal. The official betting site of the Kentucky Derby is Twin Spires, but you can search around and see which one feels right for you; this is a pretty comprehensive list of available platforms, so do some smart shopping and see who’s offering the biggest sign-up bonuses. We also have this handy guide for online betting dos and don’ts that will help you get started.

If you’re ready to move on to some of the more advanced bets out there – think exactas (picking the winner and second-place finisher), trifectas (picking the first three finishers), or multi-race wagers, our Gambling Calculator presented by 1st Bet is a must-use tool since it will help you budget your bets for the day.

Final Thoughts

Whether you’re throwing a Derby party, attending one, or having a virtual hang, there’s only one real requirement: have some fun. Don’t get too hung up on formalities or feel pressure to bet more than you want: Kentucky Derby day is all about letting go and enjoying a little decadence, which is something I think we all could use in 2021.


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