Don’t Throw Your Kentucky Derby Party Without These Expert-Approved Essentials

Yes, bourbon is required.

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On the first Saturday in May (that’s May 7 this year), the most exciting two minutes in sports takes place: the Kentucky Derby. Set to begin at 6:57 p.m. ET at Churchill Downs in Louisville, Kentucky, the 148th Run for the Roses is expected to host about 150,000 spectators. The event is certainly worth a trip if you’re able; but even if you won’t be one of the thousands attending, it’s still a fun day to celebrate with friends and throw a Kentucky Derby party at home.

While there’s no one way to host your own festivities for the big day, there are a few details that will help ensure your soirée is fun, on-theme, and all about the race. That’s according to the pros at Keeneland racecourse in Lexington, KY, who TZR spoke to in order to find out everything you need to know about planning. From the best dress code to traditional cocktails and food to the perfect activities, they provided the inside scoop on how to set your day up for success — and they should know, considering Keeneland throws an extravagant Derby Day party of its own.

The Kentucky Derby is quickly approaching, so continue on — ahead are some pro suggestions so you can start your planning now.

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Suggest A Dress Code

Speaking from personal experience, Kentucky Derby party outfits usually include lots of pastels and pretty spring dresses. Kara Heissenbuttel, senior director of operations and community relations at Keeneland, shares similar insight. “While Derby fans adorn various attire, most really dress for the occasion,” she tells TZR. So, encourage your guests to get a little fancy. And, of course, don’t let them forget their hats. “To truly celebrate the Kentucky Derby, headwear is a must for both men and women,” she continues.

Have Classic Cocktails On Hand

You can, of course, serve whatever libations you prefer. But if you truly want to stay on theme, “a traditional mint julep is iconic for any Derby celebration,” says Sarah Fink, Keeneland’s director of patron experience and events. If you have a large group, she suggests pre-mixing a large batch in a carafe or dispenser. “This way all guests need to do is fill a glass with crushed ice and add the mix.” Another idea? “Add some fresh fruit purees and other herbs to make flavored juleps,” she continues. “Some of our favorites include a Strawberry Basil Julep, a Blackberry Mint Julep, or a Bourbon Smash [with lemon].”

Keeneland’s Mint Julep Recipe


  • 1 ¼ ounce bourbon
  • 1 ½ ounce mint syrup
  • 1 ounce water

Directions: Mix this together, pour it over crushed ice, and top with fresh mint and a straw.

Incorporate Kentucky’s Favorite Foods

Again, you can go in any direction you want with the food for your Derby party — have a brunch, make your go-to appetizers, or break out some pizza. The point is to have fun and to ensure it’s easy to watch the races with whatever you’re serving. However, Fink does say that at Keeneland, they think it’s fun to incorporate some Kentucky favorites into the mix. “Some ideas include miniature hot browns, country ham biscuits, and beer cheese,” she explains. If you have the time and energy to make it, burgoo is also traditionally eaten at races. And for dessert, “Derby Pie or bread pudding is a great option,” she continues.

Be sure to include some Kentucky-related decor as well; horse-printed napkins, blue serveware (in honor of the Bluegrass state), and Derby cups will emphasize the race-day theme.

Get Involved In The Race

According to Heissenbuttel, many Derby fans enjoy “traditional” tailgating activities on race day, such as lawn games and Derby trivia (the latter of which you can easily download printable games for). To add even more fun to your event, Heissenbuttel says, “We recommend hosting your own Derby Draw so that everyone has a horse to cheer for during the Run for the Roses. Advanced wagers can be placed so that fans have an actual live Derby ticket.” And for any little ones present? She recommends having them design their own race day silks, make hats, and have stick horse races.

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