How to Throw the Perfect Kentucky Derby Party

Pop Culture
Any Kentucky Derby party needs a terrific spread to keep everyone satisfied until race time. (Image via Sarah Funk)

Attending the Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve this year? Congratulations! You’re one of the lucky few (thousands), but for those of us not attending this year’s running at Churchill Downs — this writer included — there is still plenty at stake and many avenues to pursue.

For one, there’s hopefully a local bar or restaurant doing the Lord’s work and catering some type of Derby event. In which case, you’d better go online right now … we’ll wait … and make reservations because the venue is bound to fill up for the historic event.

If that’s not an option, or you’re in the mood to put on your party-planning hat, we’d recommend having your own Kentucky Derby party at home. It’s a ripe opportunity to cement your status as your group’s preeminent horse racing party host, not to mention have a ton of fun in the process.

“But how do I throw the perfect Kentucky Derby party?” you may be asking yourself. Excellent question. It just so happens that we have the ultimate guide to doing just that …

Establish the Mood

Make sure your guests have fun! (Penelope P. Miller/America's Best Racing)

Whether it’s an appropriately themed physical invitation or, more realistically, a properly contextualizing email, it’s crucial to set the tone of the party. Make sure guests are aware of what's on the line here. Aside from horse racing glory, the Kentucky Derby is an entry into the culture of racing and everything that comes along with it. Even a party-goer coming into the sport cold, having no history with horse racing, can latch on to the energy and enthusiasm of Derby day.

In fact, for any newbies on the invite list, you may want to share with them our Kentucky Derby Beginner’s Guide, it’s a simple run-down of what to expect leading up to the starting gate, the history and traditions behind the running, and which horses are in the mix. Send it to them ahead of time or hand out copies at the door — either way, make sure everyone at the party is on the same page.

Derby Decor

The key here is subtle and tasteful. Please don’t only buy one of those horse head masks and think you’re ready for race day. An equestrian theme isn’t easy to pull off but with some proper planning you may be able to find some plates and table pieces that acknowledge the Derby and celebrate the athletes that are competing.

As we’re in the thick of spring, also consider some floral arrangements. For those that don’t know the winner of the Kentucky Derby is traditionally draped with a blanket of red roses (the race is sometimes referred as “the run for the roses”), so some long stem roses or petals could be an easy decor win to put everyone in a Derby state of mind.

Make a Menu

No party worth attending is missing a great spread. Depending on when your party starts you may want to prepare a couple “courses” as Derby day can span several hours (television coverage usually starts around noon, with the race at about 6:15 p.m. ET). You’ll need some tasty pickins to keep everyone satisfied. Think charcuterie boards and a simple array of hors d’oeuvres, so guests can munch and mingle.

Of course, any great party is stocked with just the right amount of alcoholic offerings. And, in honor of the Kentucky Derby’s signature drink, it’s worth making an effort to supply the ingredients for a mint julep. If you’re not sure where to start, we’ve got a simple recipe that will quench your guests’ thirst and make them feel like they're at the track on race day.

Dress the Part

Nothing beats a stylish hat! (Penelope P. Miller/America's Best Racing)

Derby day is so often defined by the traditional, yet always innovative, fashion choices. Of course, it’s best left to the host to decide just how formal you want to make the occasion but to really get in the spirit, encourage attendees to dress the part. That includes jackets and bow-ties for the men, and dresses, wide-brimmed hats or feathery fascinators for the women.

Keep in mind that you’ll be at home, possibly in-doors, so dressing to the nines is by no means a mandatory requirement, but you’d be surprised, as the host, how your own attire can attract attention (in a good way) and put the party on notice for the major event the Derby truly is. Either way, have fun with it and experiment with what feels best for you and your guests.

Incorporate Gambling

It’s no secret that a big part of the Kentucky Derby is picking a horse to win — all in the hopes of making out with a nice payday. Now that gambling on horse racing online is legal in most states, betting for you and your guests may be as simple as downloading one of the many apps, setting up an account, and placing a wager. As with anything, this process may take a little time, so be sure to encourage guests to set up their wagering profiles several days in advance.

For those in attendance that are unfamiliar with horse racing or the concept of “playing the ponies,” America’s Best Racing has put together a handy gambling calculator that may be of help. In addition, if gambling apps are not in play in your respective state, consider starting a simple betting pool. Don’t underestimate the power of a little juice on the race to make the party all the more engaged.


There you have it. A simple step-by-step guide to throwing the perfect Kentucky Derby party. Derby week is right around the corner so if you haven’t started your preparations or are only now considering taking on hosting duties, you should really get started sooner rather than later.

No matter the outcome of the race (and any wagers you may make), convening for Derby day is an amazing chance to bring people together in celebration of one of sport’s biggest events. Best of luck!

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