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How to Throw a Kentucky Derby Party: A 10-Step Guide

The Kentucky Derby is an incredibly popular broadcasting event, bringing millions of in-person and virtual spectators together to watch the race live each year. According to recent Comcast reporting, the event draws an average of 16 million viewers annually. Full of pomp, circumstance, and tradition, the Kentucky Derby is a fashion-forward event that sports fanatics, horse racing enthusiasts, socialites, gambling-lovers, fashionistas, and party-goers look forward to each year. If you’re interested in getting in on the fun and want to know how to throw a Kentucky Derby party, we can help.

 The race at the center of the derby, dubbed “The Run for the Roses,” is commonly referred to as “The Greatest Two Minutes in Sports.” In this post, we will show you how to throw a Kentucky Derby party that turns two heart-pounding minutes into an entire enthralling event that friends, family, co-workers, and other guests are sure to love.

How to throw a Kentucky Derby party guests will rave about!

An annual event, the Kentucky Derby traditionally takes place on the first Saturday in May at Churchill Downs, an impressive horse racing complex located in Louisville, Kentucky. The race is a wonderful excuse to round up friends and family to watch the spectacle, enjoy delicious snacks, consume classic cocktails, play games, and celebrate derby day traditions. Host the Kentucky Derby party of your dreams by following our simple steps.

1. Book a venue for the party

Throw a Kentucky Derby party at the venue of your choice. Host derby day events in your house, in the backyard, at a private estate, a bar, a restaurant, or at any special event venue that can live-stream the broadcast. Keep in mind, however, that wedding season typically lasts from late spring to early autumn. Demand for local event venues may be high during weekends in May, which could lead to a shortage of venue availability.

If you’re interested in hosting a Kentucky Derby party at an event venue, start your search early to find and secure event space on the day that the race takes place. Confirm the venue’s event policies, restrictions, catering options, day-of services, available AV equipment, and streaming capabilities before booking. Secure event space and vendor services early to avoid last-minute party headaches.

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2. Determine the dress code for your event

Establish the attire style and dress code for your Kentucky Derby party. The event is known for its bold and appealing fashion. Each year, spectators don festive hats, fashionable fascinators, dramatic dresses, and full Seersucker suits. What party style are you going for?

  • Are you going full glam or embracing country club chic?
  • Is the dress code casual or formal?
  • Will the party feel laid-back or upscale?

As with most parties, derby-themed party guests are likely to follow the host’s lead. If you want party guests to go all out, encourage them to gussy up by showing that you’re excited to do the same.

In addition, consider that some of your guests may not have attended a derby party before or may have never even heard of the event. Be prepared to give guests inspiration and ideas for party attire. Create a Facebook event page or website for the event. Provide links for costume ideas and outline derby day traditions for attendees that may not be familiar with race day protocol.

3. Pick a color scheme

Select a color scheme to use when planning and hosting a Kentucky Derby party. Determine a cohesive color scheme that you can rely on when selecting party décor, invitations, and other party elements that create the overall event design. Traditional spectator derby colors are black, white, or navy. The classic pallets are always in style; they create a neutral base that allows colorful accent pieces, like a handbag or hat, to really pop.

If you’re looking for a more exciting color scheme, embrace modern derby fashion. The fashions of the 2022 Kentucky Derby were largely inspired by bold colors and flair from the 1970s. Live spectators were seen clad in eye-popping colors like cobalt blue, hot pink, bright oranges, and vibrant yellows. Instead of wearing traditional suits and dresses, many guests chose to fully embrace 70s fashion, sporting stylish rompers and jumpsuits at the event.

4. Send thematic invitations that set the stage for the event

Choose thematic invitations that set the tone and energy for your Kentucky Derby party. In addition to providing key details about the party’s date, location, and time, give invitation recipients an idea of what to expect at the event. Use your invitations to express the event’s style.

Outline any derby day dress code, entertainment, or transportation information guests may find helpful in Kentucky Derby party invitations. Send a friendly email reminder when event RSVPs are due, and include a fun photo to fan the flames of excitement. Include a picture of outfit ideas or event decorations; display the craft cocktail menu or give guests a sneak peek of your over-the-top party hat.

5. Prepare derby day decorations

Bring the racetrack to derby day events by adding party decorations that will make guests feel like they’re actually at Churchill Downs. Welcome guests with a hanging banner or horseshoe-shaped garland. Add a flash of color by placing a faux grass table runner on the snack table. Create a stunning centerpiece with a jockey figurine as the star. Use Seersucker fabrics, taffeta, ribbons, and other unique textiles to give party decorations depth and texture.

In addition, roses are the ultimate derby day decoration; it is the official flower of the event. Each year, the winner of the Kentucky Derby is draped in a stunning, fragrant blanket of 554 lush red roses in celebration of their victory. Incorporate roses into your Kentucky Derby party decorations using flush floral arrangements, rose garlands, or bountiful red rose wreaths.

6. Design a Kentucky Derby-themed menu

Whether you’re hosting a casual derby day event with finger foods and tasty appetizers or setting up a formal buffet with fine dining options, we recommend adding traditional derby day dishes to the menu, such as:

  • Benedictine Spread: A Kentucky Derby tradition, Benedictine spread is a savory dip made with dill, onions, cream cheese, and cucumber. Benedictine spread is a fresh and vibrant classic served with crackers, vegetables, or freshly baked bread. Festive hosts may choose to whip a few drops of green food dye into the dish, giving the dip an extra dash of derby flair.
  • Hot Brown: Put your unique spin on the classic Kentucky Hot Brown, an open-faced sandwich created in Kentucky in 1926. Stacked with bacon, turkey, tomatoes, and Mornay sauce, the original Hot Brown was served on thick-cut toast. Put your derby day spin on the crowd-pleasing favorite by using sweet bread, adding pimento cheese, or sliding the delectable ingredients in a miniature bun to create Hot Brown sliders.
  • Pecan tarts: Surprise guests with a tasty treat by adding bite-sized derby pies to your party menu. Using bourbon, pecan pie filling, and semi-sweet chocolate chips, Kentucky Derby party hosts can bring the sensational tastes of southern Kentucky to their guests.

A variety of staple dishes are served at Churchill Downs each year for the race. Kentucky burgoo and shrimp succotash are just two of the fan-favorite appetizers served at the Kentucky Derby each year. Guests will also enjoy more casual Kentucky-inspired snacks like smoked grits, pimento cheese dip, beef tenderloin sandwiches, or charcuterie cups.

7. Craft a classic cocktail menu

Mint juleps are the traditional cocktail of the Kentucky Derby. According to the event organization, almost 120,000 mint juleps are sold and consumed at Churchill Downs each May at the monumental horse race. Simple yet refreshing, the mint julep is a cocktail that is both delicious and easy to mix up for guests. Containing just three ingredients—bourbon, simple syrup, and fresh mint—hosts can crank out delicious mint juleps quickly.

Offer a variety of drinks for guests to choose from. Craft a cocktail menu that offers guests two to three classic cocktails to choose from, like:

  • Martinis
  • Gin & Tonics
  • Cosmopolitans
  • Old Fashioneds
  • Whiskey Sours
  • Screwdrivers
  • Manhattans
  • Daiquiris

On the menu, offer a few non-alcoholic beverages for guests to enjoy. Mix up delicious mocktails, like the virgin Pina Colada, or serve fresh smoothies and seasonal juices to impress and refresh thirsty guests.

8. Incorporate race day traditions

Entertain guests at your Kentucky Derby party with activities inspired by derby day events and traditions, like betting on the race! Assign each guest a competing horse at random by inviting them to draw names from a hat. At the end of the race, guests who selected the winning horse will get a prize to take home.

Save money by creating DIY betting slips or order them pre-made from sites like Etsy. Hosts can also use America’s Best Racing offers a gambling calculator to help more serious betters keep track of their plays.

9. Plan family-friendly derby day entertainment

If you’re hosting a family-friendly Kentucky Derby party, set up derby-themed activities that guests of all ages can enjoy. Create a “make your own hat” station stocked with cardboard, newspaper, tape, fabric, sequins, ribbons, and artificial flowers. Host a hat-making competition and vote for the winner.

Entice creative guests by setting up an outdoor space where guests can paint their own silks. Silks are what jockeys wear during a horserace to represent their bran. Young guests can express themselves while they enjoy painting helmet caps and tee shirts with easy-to-clean fabric paints.

Encourage guests to participate in outdoor lawn games while they wait for their turn at your Kentucky Derby silks station. Hold a children’s stick horse race or set up a rubber horseshoe pit at outdoor events.

10. Get ready to stream

Test, double-test, and triple-test your streaming service or TV connection before the party starts. Make sure that all of your streaming equipment (AV cords, cable connections, devices, etc.) is set up and ready to go. Ensure that your connection to the broadcast is strong, whether watching live on network television or streaming over the internet.  If you’re throwing a Kentucky Derby party at an event venue, keep contact information for maintenance or tech services available in case there are any issues on the day of the event. We also recommend having backup AV cords and developing a “Plan B” for streaming the live event, just in case.

Now you know how to throw a Kentucky Derby party!

With a simple ten-step plan in place, you’re ready to start planning a Kentucky Derby party that guests will talk about for years to come. The Kentucky Derby is in early May; that leaves party people with months of warm weather to fill with future fun events.

Up next, we provide party planners and hosting fanatics unique event ideas to inspire a summer full of celebration. Join us as we explore 18 creative summer event themes for parties and beyond.