The Kentucky Derby is a perfect excuse to throw a fabulous party, and there's nothing I love better than a great theme.
There really isn’t an event quite like the Kentucky Derby. It is so many things wrapped up into a single afternoon—a party of bettor’s delight; a day of Mint Juleps, bourbon, Southern cuisine; and a fashion show—all surrounding the most thrilling horse-racing (well, two minutes of horse-racing anyway!). And while we may not be in Louisville, that doesn’t mean we can’t host a party as if we are.
Since the theme is set, here are some simple tips to throw your own Derby party—from “must-haves” like food and drinks, to hosting protocols, decor, and more. Now, let’s get started because we don’t have a lot of time. The 2021 Kentucky Derby is scheduled for Saturday, May 1.
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Who to invite? I have personally learned over the years that the most memorable parties include an eclectic group. Of course, you invite your crew. However, according to Jon Carloftis, a 10th generation Kentuckian (and one of the most creative Derby party hosts), “You’ve got to invite nice, interesting people of all ages and from all walks of life …You want people who know how to get — and keep — a party going.” That's sage advice to keep in mind while making your guest list!
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The invitations should reflect the type of Derby party you’re throwing. I am old-school and prefer to mail a personalized invitation; however, with time ticking, an evite is okay, too. The invitation should be informative as to the start time and encourage festive Derby attire.
Now that we’ve gotten those hurdles out of the way, it’s time to plan the party!
I like to incorporate roses and boxwood into the décor since the Derby is also referred to as "The Run for the Roses." This doesn’t mean it has to be all red roses, unless that is the route you want to take, which is fantastic, too. Tasteful equestrian décor is a must; however, pick and choose your pieces, and keep it to a minimum. Also, this is the time to bring out the family’s silver platters, punch bowl, and crystal dishes to display your finger foods and drinks. I even use my childhood velvet riding helmet as part of my decor—maybe you have one of those sentimental pieces to include, too!
Courtesy of The Salonniere
Here are a few little tips: If you don’t have silver serving dishes, visit a thrift store such as The Goodwill or DAV. There are almost always silver-plated serving dishes that cost just a few dollars.
Cloth napkins are a must for parties. I buy packs of white, cloth hotel napkins for about $16 at Home Goods. I love them because they are inexpensive but look great. And if they become so soiled that a soak, bleach, and wash doesn’t work, I now have another cleaning rag.
Mint Juleps have been the official drink of the Kentucky Derby since 1938. They should always be served in silver Mint Julep cups, not glass. You can purchase stainless Mint Julep cups at Party City for $4 a piece.
Food and Drinks
Keep in mind that one of the things people remember about a good party is the food.
Food and drink stations should be set up around the house because you want people to flow, and you don’t want your guests bottlenecked in one place (until the main event, of course).
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My menu often includes Southern classics: ham biscuits, tea sandwiches, deviled eggs, pimento cheese dip (yum, this is my girlfriend Stephanie's recipe, and a girl could get lost in a bowl of this old-school dip), mini shrimp and grits, and a crudités platter.
Courtesy of Kara's Party Ideas
Regarding the drinks, I think a Mint Julep station is always a sweet idea, since that is the signature drink of any proper Derby party. Also, not everyone indulges in the refreshing delight of the Julep; therefore, I suggest adding a nice sangria punch, a selection of cold beers, and of course, non-alcoholic options, such as sweet tea or lemonade. And always have either pitchers or bottles of iced cold water available. You don’t want your guests getting dehydrated -- not at your party, no sir!
A nice dessert bar displaying bourbon balls, horseshoe cookies, and a tower of treats is super cute.
Courtesy of Better Home and Garden
Time to Party
While Derby programming will air throughout the day (from 12 to 7:30 p.m. ET), the jockeys will mount their horses and take to the track at approximately 6:31 p.m. ET, and the Kentucky Derby will kick off at 6:50 p.m ET.
Since this is an all-day affair, I suggest having the day’s festivities on TV and streaming throughout the house, but on mute, with your favorite music playing in the background. NBC Sports is televising and streaming the event.
Also, providing games to entertain your guests is a great way to encourage interaction with one another. Set up horseshoes and cornhole in the back yard, or teach your guests how to bet on the horses with fancy betting slips that you provide (you can even download ones that match your invitation!).
Courtesy of Town & Country Magazine
I would suggest gathering your guests around your television before the jockeys mount their horses (around 6:20 p.m. ET), as you know how long that takes. Make sure everyone has their bets in hand, a Mint Julep, and get ready to enjoy the best two minutes in sports.
Here's to a flawless 2021 Kentucky Derby party!