Ahhhh Derby week.  The one week every year in the city of Louisville where absolutely N-O-T-H-I-N-G of consequence gets done at any place of business.  Beginning on Monday when locals start making casual trips to Churchill Downs for some racing fun to Thursday, when the party really gets moving on Thurby (Thursday of Derby Week…a locals’ tradition), to the Oaks on Friday and the Derby itself on Saturday, this is the week to live in Louisville.

It’s an entire week of distractedness at work, bourbon in the evenings, parties throughout the week and a massive community hangover on Sunday.  It’s awesome. What’s even better is that the vast bulk of us here in the city don’t even follow horse racing. But that’s not a prerequisite to enjoying this week. Far from it.

Contrary to many common thoughts, many Louisville locals don’t go to the actual Derby itself. It’s just too large an event. A popular tradition in the Derby City is the Kentucky Derby party. There may be nothing more authentic “Kentucky” than the Derby and the celebrations around it.  It’s as much a part of the Commonwealth as Bourbon.  And it need not be a particular Kentucky tradition either. What better way to ring in a celebration of spring than a party celebrating Kentucky, bourbon, horses, and general merriment?

How to host a Derby Party:

Learn what the Derby actually is:

The Kentucky Derby is a thoroughbred horse race. It is held the first Saturday in May at Churchill Downs in Louisville, KY. It is nicknamed the “Most Exciting Two Minutes in Sports.” It was first run in 1875 and has run 140 times since then (taking a short hiatus in the late 1800s and again in 1911-1912). 2015 will mark the 141st Kentucky Derby.

Wait, what’s that you ask? How can a party be centered on a two minute event? Fear not. Churchill Downs hosts a complete day of races that can be found on many national broadcasts and any number of television and online racing channels. There are 13 races, generally, on Derby Day, beginning at around 10:30 AM. The Derby itself isn’t run until nearly 6:30 PM, and there are more races after the Derby.

Attendees to the Derby are a mix of locals, partiers, and extremely wealthy and famous individuals. Some of them are ardent racing fans, most are just there for the spectacle. Men (other than those in the infield) tend to wear very nice spring-like suits and sportcoats. Women wear fashionable spring dresses with hats, sometimes bordering on the outlandish.

Show the races.

This is a must. So find out if your local provider has a racing network, get a pay per view, or find an online stream you can run on your TV. While you won’t really spend the entire day watching (13 two minute races means that the bulk of time throughout the day is coverage between races), it becomes a focal point of most parties, and you’ll want to let people get the “feel” of the races. When the Derby starts, MAKE SURE the main TV is on the right channel.

It’s an all day affair.

Remember when I said races started at about 10:30 AM and continued until well after the Derby ends at 6:30? Plan to have people show up no later than noon and stay until the races end, or the Derby ends- your choice.

Plan for food.

Make it a pot luck. People will be hanging about, drinking, munching, eating a meal or two, etc. So have plenty of food available. Generally, this is spring-like party food as what you might take to a picnic. If you really want to get into the Kentucky thing, try to make your food southern/Kentucky themed. If all else fails, a bucket of KFC is pretty “Kentucky.”  Lookup “Kentucky beer cheese” if you need an idea for a snack.  You will not regret it, I promise.


Plan for Drinks.

Here’s the fun part. You’ll want lots of beverages. That includes water, soda, drinks for the kids, etc. (yes, Derby parties are decidedly family affairs). For the adults, DEFINITELY have some Kentucky Bourbon on hand. This is a must. It’s not a Derby party if there is no Kentucky Bourbon. But remember other drinks as well. Don’t be afraid to mix up a pitcher of Grey Goose Oaks Lilly or Old Forester Mint Julep.  Keep reading for some cocktail recipes at the end of this piece.

Plan a theme.

If your party is reserved, have your guests dress up as if they’re going to the track. If it’s more casual, just have them dress casually.  Decorate with anything showing a Kentucky, jockey, or horse motif.


Plan some games.

There are a ton of horse-racing related games you can play here, both for the kids and for adults. Plan a “pin the tail on the horse” for kids. Have them participate in stick horse races. If weather permits, allow for an indoor-outdoor experience with corn hole or lawn games. Most importantly, have Derby pools. Allow everyone to pay $1 or $100, whatever the room’s comfort level, to randomly draw a Derby horse’s name from a hat. The winner takes all. You can also allow guests to access their TwinSpires.com accounts if that’s legal in your area.

Be Quiet for My Old Kentucky Home

Naturally, the National Anthem is played prior to the Derby Itself, but one of the greatest traditions is the playing of the Official state song of the Commonwealth of Kentucky, Stephen Foster’s My Old Kentucky Home.  When coverage turns to the playing of the song and the National Anthem, turn up the TV volume and ask guests to be quiet.

140th Derby My Old Kentucky Home

And it goes without saying, but I’ll say it anyway: Be Responsible. Don’t drink & drive, and don’t let your guests.

cocktail corner blueHere are some Kentucky Derby and Oaks-related cocktail recipes that would make great drinks to serve at your event:





GREY GOOSE OAKS LILY (Official Cocktail of the Kentucky Oaks)




  • 1 Oz Grey Goose® Vodka
  • ½ Oz Fresh Lemon Juice
  • ½ Oz Simple Syrup
  • 3 Oz Cranberry Juice
  • Splash of Orange Liquor

Method: Fill glass slightly above rim with cubed ice. Pour ingredients in order listed to ½ inch from top of glass. Stir slowly and present with a fresh blackberry and a slice of lemon






  • 1½  Oz Grey Goose® Le Melon
  • 1 Oz Fresh Grapefruit Juice
  • 1 Oz Fresh Lemon Juice
  • 1 Oz St. Germain
  • 1 Jalapeno

Method: Muddle one slice jalapeno in a shaker. Add remaining ingredients and shake vigorously. Strain into a Collins glass filled with fresh ice and top with soda and jalapeno garnish.


Photo courtesy of KentuckyDerby.com

Photo courtesy of KentuckyDerby.com

Photo & Recipe courtesy of kentuckyderby.com:

  • 2 cups sugar
  • 2 cups water
  • Sprigs of fresh mint
  • Crushed ice
  • Old Forester Kentucky Bourbon
  • Silver Julep Cups

Make a simple syrup by boiling sugar and water together for five minutes. Cool and place in a covered container with six or eight sprigs of fresh mint, then refrigerate overnight. Make one julep at a time by filling a julep cup with crushed ice, adding one tablespoon mint syrup and two ounces of Old Forester Kentucky Bourbon. Stir rapidly with a spoon to frost the outside of the cup. Garnish with a sprig of fresh mint.




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About Author

Bill is the Co-Founder, Editor-in Chief, and official Bourbon-o-Phile for ModernThirst.com, and Founder and Chief Blending Officer for Four Gate Whiskey Company. He is a native of Louisville, KY in the heart of Bourbon Country. He attended the University of Kentucky in the mid to late 1990s. He has also been published on Liquor.com. He has conducted various bourbon and whiskey tastings in cities across the country, and consulted for multiple national labels. He is married with two daughters, and lives in east Louisville. You can follow him on Facebook and Twitter @BillStraub and email him at Bill@ModernThirst.com.

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