Derby Party Planning Guide

Derby Party Planning Guide

The Kentucky Derby has been a southern tradition since 1875 and for many people brings to mind all the charm and sophistication the south has to offer. That is until you visit the infield, the center of the track that is also the center of the ultimate, rollin-in-the-mud kind of party. But for all crowds; from Millionaire’s Row to those in the infield, the prospect of making it to Louisville every year for the Derby is challenging. So Derby-goers create the "Derby Party", a perfect opportunity for friends and family to get together and celebrate in their own special ways. Whether your affair is upscale or a little wild, we’ve got some tips to get your guests in the spirit!

1. Themes
The best place to start any party is with a theme. Fortunately for you intrepid party planners, there’s a long history of Derby to provide inspiration. History buff, socialite, sports fanatic, fashionista, Bourbon drinker, cook: you can make a Derby party like none other specifically geared toward you and your guests’ interests. If you like the long history of betting at Churchill Downs, pass out win, place and show betting sheets and designate a cashier to entrust with your guests' wagers. If you like the facts and stats, put your guests to the test with fun-filled games created to entertain and inform. If you like the fashion, throw your frilly fillies a classy affair on the lawn where they can parade their duds. Whatever your plan, designate the theme on your invitations so everyone can get in on the fun!

2. Dress to Impress

One of the most important staples of Derby and Derby Parties, no matter what the theme, is what to wear. Above all, the fashion statement most associated with the Kentucky Derby is the perfect hat. The Derby hat is one of the most fun and expressive parts about the celebration, so encouraging your guests to think outside the “hat box” will make your party special. There are hat options for all budgets and personalities for both men and women, so be mindful of what kind of celebration you intend to host.

If you’re rocking a remote infield party, suggest your guests stick to accessories that will allow them to let loose and Derby on. For the gentlemen, a comfortable 138 ball cap will keep the sun away. For the ladies, a hands-free, no-hassle fascinator will allow them to shine all day. Without the worry of an expensive, cumbersome hat to keep track of, a fascinator packs the same punch and will leave your guests free to enjoy themselves however you’ve planned.

If your party is rolling out the red carpet, then encourage your guests to get creative with their couture. Beautiful hats, simple or complex, can become a centerpiece to your party; and a hat contest or a hat decorating event can provide fun activities pre and post-Derby.

3. Set the Mood

 Another staple of the Derby Party is setting the right atmosphere for your guests. The idea of a Derby party is to help re-create the fun and excitement of being at Churchill Downs (without all the jostling), so decorations are always a nice way to communicate your specific party mood. Hanging an official Art of the Derby poster, placing votive candles in julep glasses along your walkway or using some recycled horseshoes from the track in your décor will make your home feel more like the track. On your entertaining table, have dynamic and interesting centerpieces and table settings: julep cups filled red roses, a 3-D Churchill Downs puzzle painted how you please. These will add pizazz to your place settings or hors d’oeuvres spread.

The most important part of hosting is helping your guest feel special and welcome, so personalizing each guest’s experience is key. If you’re having separate place settings, we suggest putting a Kentucky Derby Museum exclusive tac pin on each place card. Ask your guest ahead of time, when they RSVP, who his or her favorite Derby winner is, and he or she will be touched by your thoughtful gift upon arrival.

Or, take the year of their birth and give them a tac pin from that year's Derby win. Party favors, big or small, store-bought or handmade, are a great way to remind your guests of the great time they had! Give them the gift of dirt with an official track dirt collectible keychain or a Twin Spires paperweight with track dirt from Churchill Downs; or send them off with a 138 julep glass filled with mint julep candies or a Churchill Downs tote bag stuffed with more Derby goodies.

Finish off your table with a classic southern brunch & Mint Juleps. You can find all the recipes you need along with Derby photography, fun facts & more party tips in the new, 25th Anniversary Kentucky Derby Museum Cookbook.

4. Sharing the Fun of Derby 

In the time leading up to “the most exciting two minutes in sports,” give your guests lots of Derby-themed ways to blow off steam with games and activities. Encouraging conversation and building familiarity among your guests is made easy by attaching nametags to 138 lanyards that are given to each guest when they arrive.

To continue the chatting and begin building your guests’ Derby knowledge, download our fun Getting to Know You game. Each sheet is filled with questions about the Kentucky Derby experience and Derby trivia, and your guests ask each other the questions and gather each other’s’ signatures. The guest with the most signatures wins a Derby 138 Logo T-Shirt or a collectible 138 shot glass.

Or, try Triple Crown Bingo, a game where your guests see if they can get a “triple crown” by getting three in a row three times. The first guest to win all three legs of the game wins a set of Triple Crown winner tac pins.

If you’re out in the sun, try freezing some of our mini plastic horses in clear 2 oz. serving cups before the party; then remove them from the cups and watch the horses race as they melt down a slick surface.

And of course, before the Derby, ask your guests to place bets not just for the winner, but for the last-place loser as well. Even if no one chooses the 2012 Derby winner in their bets, everyone can go home with an unofficial Loser’s Cup that lists every last place finisher since 1875.

5. Don’t Forget your Fillies and Colts

Make sure you have a plan for the kiddos at your party too. A separate section where they can race stick ponies or desktop Derbies, apply temporary silks tattoos, build their own Derby hats out of recyclable materials, or paint, draw and do puzzles will give the kids endless entertainment before and after the big race! As favors, let them take home their creations and toys from the party, or send them home with a stuffed friend like the furry Churchill Charlie plush.

6. A Photo Finish  

A popular trend in party planning right now is setting up a themed photo shoot or photo booth for your guests—a trend easily accomplished for a Derby Party. Set up a designated photo station against a wall with a Horse Racing Flag or a painted background and furnish your lens-lovers with Derby-themed props such as racing crops, jockey goggles, (kid's sized but adjustable for most adults) a stick pony or 138 gamblers and some fancy hats. Post party, send your guests a keepsake photo, either developed and framed in our Kentucky Derby Frame or just loose.

Any way you plan your party, watching the Kentucky Derby live from Churchill Downs is your ultimate goal. To make your guests feel as prepared as possible, print out information about the competing horses (found at, or print the words to My Old Kentucky Home so everyone can sing along before the race.

Hope this helps you get your party out of the starting gate in onto the track!

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By Jessica Whitehead Retail Website Coordinator