Off to the Races: Celebrating the Kentucky Derby at Home

Before I moved to Louisville, I didn’t really understand what the big deal was about the Kentucky Derby. Despite its moniker as “the most exciting two minutes in sports,” it was just a horserace, right? Wrong.

Kentucky Derby Racing(Photo: National Geographic)

It’s a two week festival of fun, including an over-the-top fireworks display known as Thunder over Louisville, a parade, and balloon races all leading up to the big day. Surprisingly though, few locals actually attend the Derby; they go to the Oaks races the day before and let the tourists and celebrities attend the more famous (and expensive) event.

kentucky derby fireworks(Photo: United States Coast Guard News)

Whichever day people attend Churchill Downs, they are sure to be dressed in their southern finest. Seersucker suits for the men and big, bodacious hats for the ladies are de rigueur.

fashion at the Kentucky derby(Photo: Elizabeth Anne Designs)

This might be the only occasion where the accessory is more important than the outfit. Like many women, when I attended I bought my hat first and then found a dress to match.

Fancy Hats at the Derby(Photo: The Wife Hates Sports)

Those who don’t go to the track still get dressed up for elaborate Derby parties. That’s what I am going to do this May 5th and with these tips you can too.

Yellow Hat via Style Handler(Photo: Style Handler)

Ask your guests to dress up. Although people not connected to Britain’s royal family might not have a hat collection, this doesn’t have to be an expensive endeavor. Great pieces can be found at vintage stores or you can dress up inexpensive straw hats with trimmings to your own taste. To encourage creativity, offer a prize for the most creative headwear.

Fancy man's hat(Photo: Naples News)

Serve Southern staples. The official drink of the Kentucky Derby is the mint julep, a syrupy-sweet mixture of bourbon, crushed mint, and sugar. These are traditionally served in silver julep cups but any glass will do. Just make sure to drink them slowly, as the sweetness masks their potency.

mint julep, the drink of the derby(Photo: Sports Interaction)

Southerners like to put out a spread, and traditional favourites include Benedictine, a delicious mix of cucumbers and cream cheese, and pimento cheese, a fiery blend of cheeses. Both work well as dips for crudité or crackers and also make excellent fillings for dainty tea sandwiches.

benedictine spread(Photo: Huffington Post)

Dessert has to include Derby pie, similar to pecan pie but with the addition of bourbon and chocolate chips. This treat is actually trademarked by Kern’s Kitchens, Inc. and can be ordered online but a more party-friendly version recipe can be found at The Kitchn in the form of bars.

Derby Pie bars(Photo: The Kitchn)

Another great derby treat are bourbon balls. Just keep this candy away from the kids-they really pack an alcoholic punch!

Bourbon Balls as part of your dessert menu(Photo: My Own Sweet Thyme)

But don’t get so distracted by the food that you forget the race (it is only two minutes long after all)!  Set up a betting pool for your guests so that they can feel like they are at the track. You can use real money and split the cash amongst the winners or bust out the Monopoly bills and offer up fun prizes instead (bourbon has always been a popular one with my guests).

horse racing at the Kentucky Derby(Photo: ESPN Front Row)

Most travel guides list the Kentucky Derby as one of those “things to do before you die” activities. But if you can’t make it down to Louisville, you can still have this thrilling Southern experience at home.

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