Planning the Perfect Kentucky Derby Party

Chip Lambert, a past BEACHCOMBER Pet of the Issue, is ready to horse around.

By Samantha Lambert


If you enjoy horse racing, you look forward every year to the first Saturday in May and the running of the Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs in Louisville, Kentucky. This year is no different. The 144th Kentucky Derby takes place on Saturday, May 5, at 6:34 p.m. EST. It is considered the most exciting two minutes in sports.


According to, this is the longest running sporting event in U.S. history. Meriwether Lewis Clark, the grandson of William Clark of the Lewis and Clark expedition, saw a couple of popular horse races in Europe and wanted to establish a similar event in the states.


With the help of his uncles John and Henry Churchill, who donated land, Lewis formed the Louisville Jockey Club and funds were raised to build a permanent racetrack in Louisville. The club sponsored the first Kentucky Derby on May 17, 1875. Ten thousand spectators watched 15 three-year-old Thoroughbred horses race one-and-a-half miles. Aristides was the first Kentucky Derby winner.


In 1896, the track was shortened to one-and-a-quarter miles, and in 1904, the red rose became the official flower of the Kentucky Derby. The idea of a Triple Crown winner was established in 1931 with horses participating in three races—the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness Stakes, and the Belmont Stakes.


In 1932, the winner was draped in a garland of red roses for the first time—hence, the Run for the Roses. In 1973, one of the most famous racing horses of all time, Secretariat, won with the fastest time to date and went on to win the Triple Crown.


For those of us who cannot make it to Churchill Downs for the race, the next best thing is having your own Kentucky Derby party. My husband Scott and I have been hosting Kentucky Derby parties for years. Scott grew up in Floral Park, New York, near the Belmont Racetrack, the location of the third leg of the Triple Crown.


He attended many races there growing up. “I was very lucky,” he says. “The very first horse race I went to, I saw Seattle Slew win the Triple Crown at Belmont Park in 1977. The next year, I was also there to see Affirmed win the Triple Crown.”


There are many traditions from the Kentucky Derby to carry out at your home party. First—women and the hat tradition. This goes back to Meriwether Clark’s idea that this would be an event for the upper class. The extravagant hat tradition did not come about until around the 1960s, when the hats became bigger and brighter. At the Lambert Derby Party, female guests must create their own hat, and a hat contest is held for the best one.


Next is the tradition of the Mint Julep, which has been a part of the Kentucky Derby festivities for about a century. Another popular drink to serve at your party is Bourbon Lemonade.


Make it easy for your guests by using gallon beverage dispensers for your drinks. Always include ice water and sweet iced tea as choices for beverages as well.


Food is a must, especially if there is alcohol. The Lambert menu in the past has included items that could be kept warm or cold so that the hosts could enjoy the festivities. Hamburgers, chicken and barbecue are kept warm in chafing dishes where guests can easily serve themselves.


Items such as pasta salad and potato salad can also be served on top of trays filled with ice. For dessert, the traditional “Run for the Roses” cake is served along with other sweet confections.


Try and have plenty of seating both inside and outside for your guests to enjoy watching the race. If possible, have a television outside. Party games are always fun for before and after the race. A great source for derby related games and party decorations can be found at


There are plenty of ways to set up betting at your Kentucky Derby party. Guests can draw for a horse, or jars can be labeled with each horse’s name and guests can add money to the jar for the horse they think will win. Winnings can be split up. Remind your guests to bring some extra cash.


Also, plan for lots of pictures. Look online for fun background ideas for pictures for your party.


Television coverage for the race starts in the early afternoon on May 5. Invite your guests over early for socializing and prepping for the big race. Make sure you have a poster board with all the horses in the race listed and their odds of winning.


Having a Kentucky Derby party is a great way to spend a spring afternoon in Florida.

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