From the long-standing traditions and festivities to the fashion and the glamour, the Kentucky Derby is one of America’s most unique and extravagant sporting events. Each year millions of Americans around the country put on their floppy hats and Southern best to join in the celebrations and tune in to watch the fastest two minutes in sports. What better way to celebrate such an iconic event than by hosting a viewing party for all your friends? With the racing event coming up May 5, Her Campus Mizzou put together a guide filled with essential Kentucky Derby information and party tips in order to help you throw a great watch party.
Derby 101: essential terminology, history and long-standing traditions
The Kentucky Derby is also frequently referred to as “The Greatest Two Minutes in Sports” for its short duration and “The Run for the Roses” for the lavish blanket that’s made of more than 400 red roses and draped over the winner. The first Kentucky Derby was in 1875, making the Derby America’s longest-running annual sporting event.
The Kentucky Derby is held every year on the first Saturday of May at Churchill Downs in Louisville, Ky. The Kentucky Derby Festival is the annual festival held during the two weeks prior to the race. Festivities include fireworks, a hot air balloon race, the Great Steamboat race, the Pegasus Parade and the Derby Marathon and mini marathon.
Most guests of the derby hold general admission tickets in the infield. They see very little of the race due to their position. Still, every year 80,000 fans pack the infield and partake in the famous party atmosphere.
Guests sitting in “Millionaires Row” are often rich, famous or well-connected, and they typically have a full view of the track. Needless to say, tickets in this area are extremely hard to get and ridiculously pricey. As you watch Derby coverage, look to see if you can spot any famous celebrities in the “Millionaires Row.”
Racing silks, or colors, were originally used to make it easier to distinguish jockeys. Today the colors help distinguish jockeys and represent the jockey’s owners, but “because there are so many owners, they (the silks) have become even more colorful,” according to the Kentucky Derby’s official website.
The University of Louisville’s marching band performs “My Old Kentucky Home” as the horses make their way to the starting gate. Although the beginning of the crowd-favorite tradition is unclear, it is believed to have started at the 47th race in 1921. Print out the lyrics, included below, for guests to sing along with.
“My Old Kentucky Home”
By Stephen Foster
The sun shines bright in the old Kentucky home,
Tis summer, the people are gay;
The corn-top's ripe and the meadow's in the bloom
While the birds make music all the day.
The young folks roll on the little cabin floor
All merry, all happy and bright;
By'n by hard times comes a knocking at the door
Then my old Kentucky home, good night!
Weep no more my lady. Oh! Weep no more today!
We will sing one song for my old Kentucky home
For the old Kentucky home, far away.
Traditionally the governor of Kentucky, currently Steve Beshear, awards the garland and the trophy to winner of the horse race. The Kentucky Derby is the only major American sporting event to annually award a solid gold trophy. The trophy is 22 inches tall and weighs 56 ounces, excluding its jade base, and it is topped by an 18-karat gold horse and rider, according to the Derby’s official website.
For a horse to win the Triple Crown, it must win the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness Stakes and the Belmont Stakes. However, only 11 horses have won the Triple Crown. The last horse to do so was Affirmed in 1978, according to ESPN.
Traditional Derby Recipes
No Kentucky Derby party would be complete without classic Southern food and the mint julep.
The mint julep has been the traditional drink of the Kentucky Derby for the past century. “Each year, almost 120,000 Early Times Mint Juleps are served over the two-day period of the Kentucky Oaks and Kentucky Derby,” according to Kentucky Derby’s official website.
Try this popular mint julep recipe, which includes step-by-step instructions. Or you might be able to find ready-to-serve mint julep cocktails such as the Early Times Mint Julep, the official mint julep maker at Churchill Downs, at your local retailer.
Although it is tradition to serve mint juleps in silver julep cups, most college students don’t have silver julep cups lying around. Instead look for plastic derby themed cups like this one at your local party store.
For dessert, whip up the Kentucky chocolate pecan pie that’s traditionally popular at Derby parties. Try this recipe, or look to see if your local grocery store or bakery is selling the pies on Derby day.
Encourage guests to bring snacks and appetizers to share. Check out your local grocery store to buy ready-to-serve Southern food or to pick up a bucket of fried chicken for guests to enjoy.
Derby Pool and Games
To make things a bit more exciting, put together a derby pool for guests to compete in. Write the name of each racehorse or simply write the numbers 1-20 on individual pieces of paper; fold them and place the slips in a hat. Next, have each guest pull out a slip of paper that gives them a horse to root for during the big race. Just repeat numbers if you have more than 20 guests. Buy a couple of prizes ahead of time, perhaps a mini bottle of Kentucky Bourbon, for each winner.
Have guests who are looking to bet actual money contribute to a pool in which the winner takes it all. Or get serious and create an account on Twinspires.com for everyone to wager on the race.
You and your guests can always create your own drinking games to play as you watch the Kentucky Derby coverage. For example, pick out one racehorse ahead of time, and then every time its name is mentioned, take a sip of your drink. Every time a celebrity is shown on TV, take a sip. Be creative! Or play a round of the fun (and dangerous!) drinking game of horse, instructions found here.
Kentucky Derby Fashion
The Kentucky Derby is as great excuse to dress-up as a classic Southern belle!
Derby founder Colonel M. Lewis Clark Jr. wanted the racing environment to feel luxurious and to resemble the European horse-racing scene, according to the Derby’s website. Starting in the late 19th century, the event quickly became the place for the well-to-do to show off the latest fashions. Today the race remains an event to dress up for.
On your invitations, encourage female guests to wear a summer dress or skirt, a big hat and pearls. Encourage your male guests to wear seersucker, khaki suits or brightly colored pants and a bow tie. If possible, include a picture as an example for guests to follow.
As a way to motivate guests to dress for the party, announce a best outfit and best hat contest ahead of time. Make simple award certificates or pick up award ribbons to pass out as prizes. Remember to take a lot of pictures of your guests!
You can easily make a simple sun hat more Derby-worthy with a quick trip to the craft store. Simply pick out accessories such as feathers, fake flowers and ribbon, and arrange them into a design on the hat. Then carefully hot glue them in place. Just remember that if your hat is ornately decorated, you should keep the dress simple.
This year, preppy brand Vineyard Vines has partnered with the Kentucky Derby to create both a women’s and men’s fashion collection for the event. The women’s collection includes cute sundresses, hats and various Derby silks accessories. The men’s collection includes, among other fashions, adorable printed ties and bow ties. Shop the collection here.
Finally, make sure your TV is working and tune into NBC for coverage starting at 3 p.m. Cheers!