5 Ways to Celebrate Derby Day like a Southerner

Every year on the first Saturday of May, “the most exciting two minutes in sports” the Run for the Roses (AKA, the Kentucky Derby) takes place. The viewership and anticipation exceeds that for any other horse race.
Celebrate Derby Day in style with classic mint julep cocktails

With hat couture on par with the attire for Kate and Will’s royal wedding, Derby-goers and revelers don their finest to participate in the revelry at the Churchill Downs in Louisville on Derby Day.

Though it’s very much a Southern thing, folks from around the country get into celebrating the Kentucky Derby, so even if you’re not in Louisville this May, fret not, for you too can indulge in the food, fashion, and fast-paced frivolity that is the legendary Kentucky Derby.

5. Drink the Part

Served in a pewter or silver julep cup is the traditional cocktail of the Kentucky Derby, the Mint Julep.  Mint Juleps are traditionally made with mint, simple syrup (or sugar and water), and bourbon (because, Kentucky, obviously).  Other liquors or whiskeys can be used, but the official bourbon of the Derby is Early Times whiskey.

I have a friend who hosts a party every year and generously invites me despite the fact that my hat is always the least inspired of the group.  As an aside, I thought I hosted classy parties until I attended my friend’s Derby Day event. Everyone shows up looking totally Derbs Dapper as they partake in organized betting with little slips of paper already printed and ready for our wagers (I would most likely be handwriting all of this the moment of).

The real winner is that my friend and her husband have a delectable spread of finger foods from the savory to the sweet; all are expertly prepared.  The first year I went, I kept discretely returning to a pizza-type dish so frequently that I may or may not have eaten half of the thing myself.

I’m getting off topic.  The real winner at this Midtown Mobilian’s soiree is her dedication to the cocktail.  She grows her own mint (or gets locally cultivated from friends; I’ve offered mine before, though, it’s never been called into action for the cause), and she and her husband meticulously tested several bourbons in a julep to select one they felt ultimately made the most drinkable cocktail.

The mint is rendered into the simple syrup; the finished product is married with the bourbon and served to guests over ice with a sprig of mint.  Before I continue describing this delightful party, I’ll share the Derby’s official julep recipe with you:

• 2 cups sugar
• 2 cups water
• Sprigs of fresh mint
• Crushed ice
• Early Times Kentucky Whiskey
• Silver Julep Cups

Step 1: Make the Simple Syrup: Boil the sugar and water in a pot on your stovetop until the sugar is dissolved (I told you it was simple).  Cool your syrup and refrigerate in a covered container with several (6-8) mint sprigs overnight.

Step 2: Combine Ingredients to Serve:  Start with crushed ice in the julep cup; add two ounces of whiskey and top it off with a tablespoon of mint syrup.  Stir.  Garnish with a mint sprig.

Step 3: Enjoy: You shouldn’t need directions for this; though, my lawyers advise that this is the part where I should tell you to please drink responsibly as failure to do so would make you a Derby Downer.


4. Dress the Part

When attending or celebrating the Kentucky Derby, another essential component is that you dress the part.  For men, this means donning seersucker suits in an array of citrusy pastels (Foghorn Leghorn accent optional).  Khaki suits are also appropriate costume de rigueur.

Ladies wear something that would be fitting for a garden party in which their engagement announcement would be imminent.  Most essential to the ladies’ attire is the hat.

I am ashamed of my hat selections over the years; though floppy-rimmed, my hats lacked the stylish adornments characteristic of Derby Day hat couture.  While you simply must have a hat for Derby Day, you don’t have to blow the bank (how else will you pay for admission to Churchill Downs?), just get sassy headgear at a cute thrift shop.

While we are on the topics of hats, though menswear has already been noted, men can and should wear hats, and if you’re one of those festive Americans hosting a Derby party, by all means, consider a hat contest for the gents and the lasses (winner gets five free bets).

3. Place Your Bets

As one does at Churchill Downs, at my friend’s soiree, we place bets for the horse we think will win the whole enchilada (actually, it’s a garland of roses).  We can bid to our heart’s content; though, I always bid modestly and without any real basis for determining a winner because I neglect to follow the Road to the Derby coverage (#KyDerby) on social media where I might otherwise have a clue as to which horse might win the thing (perhaps if I won, I could buy a better hat?).

Meanwhile, here’s how I place my bets:

• I eyeball which name piles seem to be the lowest and assume those are good picks and bet on at least one of the “low” piles of names
• I pick the names that I feel are most applicable to my life such as, “Exhausted Toddler Mom #1” and “Wine Today Hate Tomorrow” and “The Lord is Watching.”

Needless to say, despite my extremely scientific matrices for placing bets, I do not place actual bets on a larger scale because my max loss allowance is what one might be expected to pay for a Happy Meal.

2. Celebrate the Moment

The bets are placed.  My Mint Julep is filled to the brim.  I’m standing in a room full of infinitely more dapper folk, and we are all watching the TV with bated breath.  The excited tension is punctuated with bursts of chatter; these happen so often and randomly that it sounds like it’s just a room full of people talking, though the telling cue that something else is more pressing is that their bodies are (almost) oddly directed toward the TV in the corner of the room while their heads turned to engage their neighbors.

Then word sweeps through the crowd that it’s about to start, and we all stand at attention, clutching our Juleps and watching hopefully as the horses take off.  For two minutes, I am shouting things like, “Come on, Wine Today!” and, “You can do it, Exhausted Toddler Mom!” as though my encouragement has any bearing on these horses’ performances.

Ultimately and invariably, my horse places something noble yet (literally) unrewarding like third or fifth place despite giving me a moment of false hope in which “Wine Today” totally had that thing in the bag (however, “Horses You Didn’t Bet On” won).

1. Celebrate Derby Day

After the race, winners are congratulated as it’s all in good fun, and we disperse to gather elsewhere—on the porch swing out front or on the deck out back to overlook the backyard where children oblivious to their parents’ gambling of their future Happy Meals are playing joyfully.  Thankfully, the hostess gets a chicken tender platter from Chick-Fil-A (did I not mention that her party puts all others to shame?), so there will be no tantrums.  I prop myself against a banister and engage socially with a fellow partygoer; I even pose a little as though I’m awaiting Renoir to show up and capture a still life of this moment.

It’s one afternoon, but it’s a fun one.  Naturally, I know that not everyone is going to be invited to a Derby party, and that’s okay.  If you’re in Louisville, guess what? There’s a plethora of ways to enjoy Derby Day, from hosting your own party to going to brunch (this is also very Southern).

If you’re not on your home turf to host a Derby party or you don’t feel like hosting your own, then feel free to get your Derby Day brunch fixings at Louisville hotspot, Proof on Main.

Needless to say, Louisville—being the foodie town that it is—will have plenty of places keen to help you get into the Derby Day spirit.  In the meantime, here are some Derby Fun-Facts:

• The 1 ¼-mile race is run in two minutes or less (clearly, they’re using a better app than Couch to 5K because so far, I haven’t been able to get past ‘couch’)
• The Louisville Jockey Club was initiated by Lewis and Clark descendent Col. M. Lewis Clark (you should remember Lewis and Clark from that time you did your child’s history diorama)
• The track got the name Churchill Downs from Clark’s uncles and contributing landowners, John and Henry Churchill.
• Horses must be at least three years old; the last time a two-year old horse ran was in the late 1800s (#agebeforebeauty).
• The Kentucky Derby documented $11.3 million stakes in 2007; though, I’m fairly certain these figures don’t include the dollar bets we place at my friend’s awesome Derby party (admittedly, we should probably kick them up to $2 since the Derby minimum is $2 per bet with $1 minimum on exacta boxes). An exacta bet is when you pick the first two winning horses in the order of their winning.
• You can get into the Derby action and wager a bet online at TwinSpires.com.

As you can see, Derby Day can’t be summed up in a drink.  Or a hat.  Or a bet.  Like most things Southern, Derby Day is complex. It’s a slow and careful iteration of glorious, delicious, and delightful things that make up an elegant tapestry that you simply want to dive into.

If you’re skeptical, take my hand.  I was skeptical for my first Kentucky Derby party, too (despite being so Southern I may as well bleed sweet tea), but once my floppy hat touched my head and my heels touched the crisp green lawn of my friend’s charming Victorian-style home, I felt the surge of a hundred years’ worth of thundering hooves under my feet, and I never felt more like I belonged in the South.

Want to revel with the Southerners and experience a couture Kentucky party like no other?  Don your best hat and grab a Julep and check out the Go to Louisville webpage to learn more about seeing the Run of the Roses at the Churchill Downs and about visiting the hot Southern city that hosts the South’s most anticipated annual event.
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