Kentucky Derby Party Ideas

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“And they’re off!” With those words, the Kentucky Derby, often called “The Greatest Two Minutes in Sports” is on its way. Held annually on the first Saturday of May, the Kentucky Derby is one of the most important events in horse racing, as well as a celebration of Southern culture. Held every year since 1875, the Kentucky Derby is the oldest continuous sporting event in the United States.

Kentucky Derby History

Founded by Meriwether Lewis Clark, Jr., the grandson of William Clark of the famed Lewis and Clark expedition, the Kentucky Derby is limited to thoroughbred horses three years in age. The race is 1-1/4 miles long, and is held at Churchill Downs in Louisville, Kentucky. The Kentucky Derby is the first race of the Triple Crown, followed by the Preakness Stakes and then the Belmont Stakes. A horse must win all three races to win the Triple Crown, an achievement reached by only 11 horses in the more than 130 years the three races have been in existence.

The fastest time for the Kentucky Derby is 1:59.40 minutes, hit by Secretariat in 1973. All other wins have been between two and three minutes. Since 1896, the winning horse is draped with a blanket of 554 red roses, leading to the popular Derby nickname, “The Run for the Roses.” The owner of the winning horse receives over $1.4 million dollars, 10% of which is given to the jockey. The winning owner also receives a 22-inch tall trophy crafted of solid gold, the only such award for an American major sporting event.

Kentucky Derby Party Ideas

With its rich, colorful traditions, nod to Southern culture, and of course, thrilling horse race, the Kentucky Derby is a fantastic theme for a party. Get ready to host your friends and family on the first Saturday of May, and celebrate the excitement of this dramatic race.


Race day coverage begins in the morning and runs throughout the day. Invite your guests at least a week in advance of the race, and start your party at least a couple of hours before the race begins. Be sure your television is in working order and that you receive the channel that the race will be aired on.

kentucky derby party ideas kentucky derby party ideas

There are two groups of spectators at the Kentucky Derby. The infield is populated by “common folk”, with an anything-goes, casual-yet-crazy feel. If you want a comfortable, fun barbecue, with no pressure to dress up, this is the theme to choose. Even with a casual dress code, hats are a major element in the Kentucky Derby mystique, so encourage all guests to wear their biggest, fanciest or most outrageous hat.

The other group of spectators at the Derby includes celebrities, wealthy and well-connected racing fans, who usually sit in the “Millionaire’s Row” expensive box seats. Traditionally, those sitting in the box seats dress in their finest, with high fashion, silks, jewels and large hats on display. If you choose this theme, invite your guests to dress up in bright colors, silky fabrics, suits or ties for men, spring dresses for the women, and of course, spectacular hats for everybody.

Before race day, download information on the horses competing in the race, or purchase the Daily Racing Form that covers Derby day. Buy several copies, so guests can each have a paper to study. You can also order programs, brochures and horse information from the official Derby website,

Kentucky Derby Party Decoration Ideas

If you are going with a casual, infield celebration, think barbecue.

Decorate with:

  • Red and white checkered tablecloths
  • Horse figurines
  • Helium balloons in bright colors

If the opulence of Millionaire’s Row is your theme, your preparations will be more extensive. Set the scene with:

  • Cloth tablecloths
  • Crystal glasses and fine china dishes
  • Silver vases filled with fresh roses

Remember that guests will be gathering around the television, so clear away any unneeded clutter from your viewing room, position chairs and couches to face the screen, and hang pictures of the horses, the race schedule and betting forms on the walls.

Kentucky Derby Party Menu Ideas

It’s not the Kentucky Derby without the traditional mint julep as the beverage of choice, so mix up pitchers in advance. There are many recipes available online. Your food choices should reflect the south, with standards such as:

  • Barbecue ribs
  • Fried chicken
  • Hush puppies
  • Deviled eggs
  • Ham
  • Peach pie
  • Pecan pie
  • Small sandwiches
  • Sweet potato fries

Kentucky Derby Party Game Ideas

With a horse race as the focal point of your party, betting is the name of the game.Have guests study the Daily Racing Form or information from the Kentucky Derby website before the race begins, and choose their predicted winners. You can have actual wagers, or just encourage bragging rights for those who correctly choose the winning horse.

Have guests fill out a “betting form.” Provide slips of paper with numbers one through three, and have guests write down their predictions for the horse that will win, come in second (place) and come in third (show). Assign five points to the winner, three points for place and one point for show. The guest with the most points wins a trophy, which you can purchase at any party supply shop.

If you don’t want to wager, or just want to warm up guests with activities beforehand, a spirited game of horseshoes is in keeping with the Derby theme.

Horseracing is often called “The Sport of Kings” and the Kentucky Derby is certainly royalty among horse races. Get your friends together at a Derby-themed party to cheer for your favorite horse, enjoy mint juleps and wear your most outlandish hat.

Last Updated: April 26, 2012
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About Michelle Ullman Michelle Ullman has lived and gardened in Southern California since childhood. A freelance writer, she covers topics ranging from gardening to home improvement to health issues. She also has experience as a catalog copywriter and poet. Michelle has trained and worked as a respiratory therapist and surgical technologist, but prefers to spend her time gardening, and walking with her dog. Michelle holds a Bachelor's Degree from Redlands University in Business Management. 

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