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It's Derby Week!

Next Saturday is the 135th Kentucky Derby. I attended last year for the first time, and learned a few things about this American institution. First, the locals don’t call it “the Kentucky Derby” but rather Derby or Derby Week. Secondly, it’s a holiday in Louisville, to the point where complete strangers wish each other “Happy Derby!” the day of the race. Lastly, "the Derby" refers to only one of many races held that day. This is probably obvious to those who follow horse racing, but then, I’ve always been the sort who arrives at my alma mater’s homecoming events without knowing who we’re playing at the game. I’m more about the social events surrounding a sporting event rather than the contest itself.

Happily, the Derby presents social opportunities even if you’re not in Louisville.  Want to hold a Derby party of your own?

Roses, bourbon, mint...it must be Derby time! (source)


Of course, you must serve mint juleps...it’s the official Derby drink! The mint julep I tried at Churchill Downs was not so great, sadly. The experienced was salvaged by the mint juleps we had back at our host’s house (a HUGE antebellum home complete with white columns). Delicious! Refreshing! Minty! I think the difference is that our hostess used mint infused simple syrup. Make a big batch...it's delicious in iced tea, too.

Once you’ve made that, you can make your Mint Julep. Here’s a how-to video (replace the sugar & water with your simple syrup). If you want to make a non-alcoholic version, use lemonade instead of bourbon.

Traditionally, mint juleps are served in silver cups, but those are a little hard to find outside of Kentucky. Surprisingly, you can sometimes get them at floral shops. In Chicago, I’ve been told that A New Leaf has them in stock. Otherwise, just use a glass of medium height...if that was good enough for the pretty house on the banks of the Ohio River, it’s good enough for your condo in Lincoln Park.

Other traditional Derby Day favorites include:

Benedictine sandwiches
Hot Brown
Derby Pie

Round out the menu with additional Southern staples like fried green tomatoes, deviled eggs, cheese grits, and fried chicken.

Mmm...delicious Derby Pie (source)


Since it’s the Run for the Roses, it’s appropriate to decorate with red roses. Short stem roses look gorgeous in silver mint julep cups, but don’t stress out if you can’t find them. A silver or clear vase will suffice.

If you trust your guests to control their hand-eye coordination even after a few juleps, this is a great time to use pretty china plates. It adds to the gentility of the occasion. Speaking of gentility, you can set the tone for the party and ask your guests to dress up...although if you live in the north be aware that most women don’t own a big hat (I don’t, and that makes me sad), nor do most men own a seersucker suit (my husband doesn’t, and it makes him sad...no, really. He wanted one after seeing them all over Louisville last year.).

I'm swooning.  I need this hat.

Need more stuff? There’s still time to order from the official Derby site.
Want to go crazy? Purchase horseshoe coasters.

Otherwise, go to a store that sells stamping supplies, buy a cute horseshoe stamp and some fabric ink, and stamp a horse shoe onto heavy paper cocktail napkins.



Ok, so this isn’t the hippest, coolest music out there, but 135 year old institutions aren’t about hip and cool, but rather, tradition. This playlist has some good suggestions (except it’s missing "Run for the Roses" ...a song I was first introduced to in 1983 when my dad bought a new car and it came with a tape to demonstrate the kickin’ General Motors hi-fi).

If you don’t already have these songs and don’t want to hunt them down, I suggest you keep it country. This isn’t the time for ambient trance.



For some, betting is a big part of the day. You can bet online, but if your guests aren’t interested in that, it’s nice to have a list of contenders available so everyone can pick a favorite to cheer on.  Remember, the race is on NBC at 4pm Central, with post time (when the race actually occurs) at 5:04pm Central.  Pass the time with a game of horseshoes!


Additional Resources

The Derby's official party-planning site

Feel like going out instead? List of Derby parties in Chicago.

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Reader Comments (4)

Derby Pie is actually a Thanksgiving tradition in my (mom's) family. An aunt from Louisville who married into the family brought along her recipe, and while none of us became fans of horse racing, we sure do like the pie and it's hard for me to imagine Thanksgiving without it.

April 29, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterSusan

That's a great idea for Thanksgiving! Maybe I'll try it this year...

April 30, 2009 | Registered CommenterJen @ SecondCitySoiree

The mint juleps look yummy!

May 2, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterEllen

Thanks, for the posting,

May 2, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterLauren

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