While the thoroughbreds might be out of the gate and across the finish line in just two heart-pounding minutes, the party around them lasts all day. And coming as it does on the first Saturday in May, a Kentucky Derby Party is also a perfect way to celebrate spring.
If you are hosting a party of your own, we’re here to help. We’ve gathered a slew of useful tips from three veterans of First-Saturday-in-May party hosting: Sarah Knight, a DC-based donor and organizational advisor (who throws annual parties for about 100 people), Brent Emerson, Pinhook’s Southeast Sales Director in Louisville (parties for 30-40 people), and Sarah Stodola, a New York City-based, Kentucky-raised writer who is responsible for much of Pinhook’s content (parties for 25 people). See below to soak in their hard-won wisdom…
This is a daytime party. The Kentucky Derby usually runs a bit after 6pm--this year it's scheduled for 6:45pm--and guests often see its conclusion as the beginning of the end to the party:
Sarah K: “We tend to send invitations that say from 4pm-8pm. Because post time is kid dinner time-ish, most people tend to scatter pretty quickly after the race, but there are always 20-25 who stay. I usually buy a bunch of frozen pizzas so that we can feed the ones who stick around. By 10pm, we're done and in the process of cleaning up.”
Brent: “I usually start the party around 2-3pm and will go until people have had enough.”
Sarah S: “I put 2:30 on the invite, anticipating a resulting 3:30pm arrival for most guests. I usually start herding people in to watch the race at around 6pm. (Now that a lot of people have cut the cable cord, it’s important to make sure ahead of time that you’ll have access the live broadcast.) The crowd usually disperses soon after the race, and by 7:30 it’s winding down, with a few stragglers ready to make a night of it.”
Serving mint juleps is a non-negotiable. The challenge is to keep ‘em coming for a crowd. You can make them one-by-one using Pinhook’s mint julep recipe, or pre-batch them for easy mixing as the party progresses. And as the veteran party-throwers know, it’s important to also have other beverage options available:
Brent: “I will make the first one for a guest but I make them watch me so they can make their own. Also, since I have all of that mint I like to serve mojitos. I make mint simple syrup mixed with lime juice so it doesn't take as long to make. Another pro tip: I go to Frisch's Big Boy to buy their nugget ice. It’s a lot easier than crushing your own ice.”
Sarah S: “I pre-batch the mint juleps. Instead of muddling mint, I make a mint simple syrup. And I make a bunch of crushed ice in the blender to have that ready to go, as well. I actually water the batch down a bit because people don’t always realize how strong a pure mint julep is. (Another cool tip: Pinhook’s flagship bourbon makes a great base for the mint juleps—with a thoroughbred on the bottle and jockey-silk designs, it can double as décor.)”
Sarah K: We use the Lee Bros. julep recipe (and the 21 julep cups I inherited from my southern mom). We usually add a planter's punch for the non-bourbon drinkers (also Lee Bros). And people tend to bring bottles on bottles of bourbon and wine with them.
Dishes here veer southern and toward items that can be eaten while standing, with a drink in the other hand:
Sarah K: “We mostly pull from the Lee Bros. Cookbook: cheese straws, pimento cheese. We always have homemade biscuits, ham, and pepper jelly. A friend always brings a large on-theme sheet cake.”
Brent: “If the party lands on Cinco de Mayo, we'll do a taco bar, queso etc. Otherwise I will do a lot of the southern favorites like benedictine spread, pimento cheese, and Hot Brown dip. My in-laws bring burgoo and assortments of smoked meats. If we stay up late, hanky panks are served. These are a combo of ground beef, sausage, and velveeta cheese all melted on a piece of rye bread.”
Sarah S: “Finger sandwiches are my go-to. I always make cucumber sandwiches–tons of them–and one other kind. Because people are already sipping on sweet mint juleps, I tend to stick to savory, snacky offerings instead of anything sugary.”
Tradition dictates clear-cut fashion requirements, but not every party follows them:
Sarah K: “We are very loose here. No standards!”
Sarah S: “The floral sundresses and the seersucker suits and elaborate hats are why I throw these parties, so I can be militant about encouraging guests to dress for the occasion. The request goes on the invite, and I have a collection of hats on hand to force on people who show up without one.”
Brent: “Very casual. With Kentucky weather in May you can experience any kind of crazy weather.”
You likely don’t run actual books, but there are some creative ways to make sure guests can get some skin in the race if they so choose:
Brent: “Now that you can use the Twin Spires app, it’s pretty easy for people to bet on their own, but we also do a big board where you can put $5 on a horse to win. If your horse wins you get to split the pot between people who put their money on the horse as well or take it all home if you put your money on a long shot.”
Sarah S: “Here’s our system, perfected over the years: We print out the names of each horse on a piece of paper that goes into a hat (depending on how many guests are participating, we may put each horse’s name in twice). For $10, a guest can pick a name out of the hat. Once the hat is empty, we let the free market take over, with some guests selling their pick for a profit, or making a one for one trade. The winner takes all, except for $10 that goes to the last place finisher.”
Sarah K: “I get people invested in the race ahead of time (including the silks, so it's easier for people to ID their horses on the track). I try to send a morning-of email to get people focused, pulling from the most intelligible coverage I can find. We don't do a real betting system. We put the odds up on a poster board, and give people little stickers so they can place their names on their picks.”
This is peak springtime, so flowers are a must, and red roses are definitely on brand:
Brent: “The first Saturday in May was chosen for a reason. All of the flowers have bloomed, the grass is as green as it is going to get. We usually just put a lot of flowers out and don't get too fussy. We will have a duck race game and a spin the wheel game for the kids, and if it’s nice outside we will have croquet and bocce ball."
Sarah S: “We always set out cut flowers in abundance.”
Sarah K: “We just get out all the fancy serving pieces and glasses that we never use otherwise, and let the peak azalea magic work its wonders outside.”
And you're off!