Kentucky Derby Day Celebrations and Preparations – 5 Key Must Have Items
In the first half of the 20th century, the most popular sports in the U.S. were baseball, boxing and horse racing. Baseball, of course, is still very much around even though it was surpassed by football as the “American pastime” decades ago.
Boxing’s decline began after the reign of Joe Louis, Rocky Marciano and Sugar Ray Robinson, and accelerated after Mohammed Ali left the scene. After (and perhaps partially because of) Mike Tyson’s career, boxing was largely supplanted in the nation’s sports consciousness by bouts in the UFC octagon and steel cage matches at Wrestlemania.
What of horse racing? It’s been in steep decline for more than fifty years and is now only the 13th most-popular sport in America. A complicated mix of factors is to blame, including the proliferation of other types of gambling, corruption, increased competition from more television-friendly sports, bad management and a number of financial issues which have turned thoroughbred racing into a niche sport primarily appealing to older gamblers.
The Kentucky Derby
There’s one shining exception to the largely-irrelevant nature of the horse racing industry.
Once a year, sports fans gather in their homes, in bars and in casinos to wager on and watch “the most exciting two minutes in sports” – the Kentucky Derby, run annually since 1875.
A large field of three-year old thoroughbreds competes over the 1¼ mile track at Churchill Downs in Louisville, Kentucky on the first Saturday every May.
Around 170,000 fans gather at the track to watch and party – and even in today’s fractured TV world, the race still attracts around 16 million American viewers annually, with nearly $120 million dollars bet legally on the single two-minute race. Two other major stakes races, the Preakness and Belmont, follow in rapid succession; horses which accomplish the nearly-impossible task of winning all three are said to have won the “Triple Crown,” but even the final and most-difficult “jewel” in the crown, the Belmont, has still never eclipsed the popularity of the Kentucky Derby. Nor has the Breeders’ Cup, created in the 1980s in an effort to rejuvenate the sport.
In the heyday of horse racing, thoroughbreds like Man o’War were nearly as famous as athletes like Ruth, Gehrig and Thorpe (even though, surprisingly, Man o’War never ran in the Kentucky Derby.) But it’s been generations since thoroughbred horses were “household names” before making their big appearance at Churchill Downs. Even the best horse of the modern era, Secretariat, was largely unknown to most sports fans before his epic Triple Crown run in 1973 which began with a sub-two minute victory in Louisville.
That means that almost all of the viewers who tune in for the race each year know nothing about the horses that will be running.
Then why is the Kentucky Derby still a major American sports event? It’s simple: Derby Day is a great excuse for a day-long party, whether you’re among the throngs at Churchill Downs or gathering for a house party, watching at a local sports bar or betting the race at another track or a Las Vegas casino.
Derby Day Celebrations
The atmosphere at Churchill Downs on Derby Day is legendary.
Horse racing crowds at major events are allegedly sophisticated, so it’s traditional for Derby attendees to wear fancy outfits rather than shorts and beer-can hats. Wealthy spectators, and the huge number of celebrities drawn to the Derby each year, carefully chose their clothing for maximum impact and attention.
Over the years, though, many “regular” fans have abandoned that tradition, foregoing elegant pastel-colored linens or seersucker for downright funky suits and dresses. That has led to a bizarre and fascinating collection of Derby Day outfits in the crowd, but what has remained constant is the focus on large elaborate, fabulous or just plain bizarre hats.
No big sports event – or party – would be complete without libations.
The drink of choice at the Kentucky Derby is the mint julep, a mix of Kentucky bourbon, mint leaves, sugar syrup and crushed ice which has been served at the Derby since the 1800s and is now sold to fans in special souvenir glasses.
To be kind, it’s an acquired taste (at least to the taste buds of our Groom+Style experts) but you can’t visit Churchill Downs without at least trying one of these sweet and very strong drinks.
Well over 100,000 mint juleps are sold at the track every Derby weekend. More interested in food than drink? Then you’d want to sample burgoo, a local favorite that’s a stew of all sorts of meats and vegetables and available at stands throughout the Downs, and then follow it up with a slice of chocolate nut Derby Pie.
Betting isn’t what draws a crowd of more than 150,000 people to a single venue, but it’s still an integral part of the experience at the Kentucky Derby.
You won’t become a millionaire betting $2 or $5 on a horse race, of course, but it adds to the fun and many people prefer to take their winning ticket home as a remembrance of the event instead of cashing it for a few bucks profit. There’s an entire day of racing at the Derby as well, so there’s ample opportunity to gamble as much as you’d like.
The Kentucky Derby is known for many other small but revered traditions, including the playing of “My Old Kentucky Home” as the horses parade to the starting gate, and the blanket of 564 roses placed on the winning thoroughbred (thus the nickname for the race, the “Run for the Roses”).
All combine to make the Derby one of the events that many put on their bucket list, even if they’ve never been to a horse race in their life.
Going to the race doesn’t always mean you can see the race.
Those in so-called “Millionaires Row” naturally have the best view (and the best food), and celebrities who pack the Turf Club aren’t far behind. You’ll be OK if you get a seat in the grandstand, but if you end up in the track’s infield you’ll only have good views of the people around you.
You should be prepared to watch the action on Churchill Downs’ “Big Board,” the world’s largest 4K video screen.
A perfect view isn’t a concern when you’re hosting a Derby Day party, or going out to watch the race on your local track’s simulcast or at a bar. The bigger concern should be having the right elements and accessories to celebrate.
Continue reading to find the top 5 must have items for your Kentucky Derby Day celebrations.
1. June’s Young Women Organza Race Hat With Ruffles And Feathers
Billy Crystal’s memorable character portraying actor Fernando Lamas on Saturday Night Live was fond of saying “It is better to look good than to feel good.” That’s a perfect slogan for those partying on Kentucky Derby Day, and as we’ve mentioned, a woman’s fancy hat is integral to her Derby look.
No matter what your personal style may be, this pink-and-black (some may see it as peach-and-black because the color is so light) organza hat will let you stand out in a stunning yet sophisticated way, and has been designed specifically for racetrack-themed events. In fact, it’s guaranteed that you’ll see at least a few of these if you have the chance to attend the Derby in person.
This 100% organza hat is large (an important requirement) but very comfortable and made extremely well. There’s a big brim and the feathers and ruffles won’t fall off, a problem with many lesser hats. An extra plus is the adjustable elastic band inside the hat which lets you make sure there’s a snug fit.
It’s easy to find crazy or goofy hats to wear to a Kentucky Derby party. This terrific hat from June’s is as extravagant as you’d want for a Derby event, yet chic and comfortable as well.
Details for June’s Young Women Organza Race Hat With Ruffles And Feathers:
2. Rubie’s Costume Company Kentucky Derby Pet Hat
If your Derby party is going to be at home, you don’t want to be the only one dressing up; your best friend should have a festive hat as well. That’s why the Groom+Style review team fell in love with this adorable accessory that’s perfect for smaller dog breeds like bulldogs, beagles, schnauzers, boxers and pugs.
A white bonnet with yellow flowers and pink ribbon and available in small/medium or medium/large sizes, this Rubie’s hat is costume-quality and priced to match, so it’s great as a novelty for Derby Day (or Easter, for that matter).
The Rubie’s Kentucky Derby pet hat will you set exactly the right mood for your Derby house party. After all, what could be cuter than a dog watching a horse race – and looking almost as beautiful as you do?
Looking closer at the Rubie’s Costume Company Kentucky Derby Pet Hat:
It’s easy to make your own mint juleps at home, and preparing burgoo for your guests may be too much work. So the best way to add some unexpected Kentucky Derby flair to your Derby Day meal is by serving delicious Derby Pie, still prepared by the company that originated the sweet tradition more than 50 years ago, Kern’s Kitchen.
You can’t make this pie at home and expect it to taste the same as it does at Churchill Downs, because the Kern family still keeps the exact recipe secret and has filed many lawsuits over the years to protect it; only family members and one baker know the actual recipe. What we can tell you, though, is that it contains chocolate and walnuts, it’s baked in a pastry dough crust – and it’s absolutely wonderful.
Kerns Kitchen ships Derby Chocolate Nut Pie in packages of two nine-inch pies, which will serve 15-20 very appreciative Kentucky Derby fans while giving them a small taste of what it’s like to be in Louisville on the first Saturday in May.
Facts and figures on Derby Pie Chocolate Nut Pie:
4. Caulfield’s Peel N Place Derby Day Clings
A festive atmosphere requires festive decorations, and the easiest way to do that (as any parent knows) is with cling-n-peels. It’s easy to find them for Christmas, Valentine’s Day, Halloween or other major holidays; decorative items for Kentucky Derby parties, though, aren’t something you normally run across in the drugstore or Party City.
Caulfield’s Peel N Place Derby Day Clings fit the bill. There’s a Derby trophy decorated with roses, a horseshoe-shaped “winner’s wreath” festooned with roses (there aren’t the traditional 564 flowers, but there are plenty), and four rose cluster clings. The lightweight, low-tack adhesive clings will attach effortlessly to any smooth surface and will pull off just as easily after the race, while adding just the right touch of authenticity to your viewing party.
You won’t need special decorations to enjoy a hotly-contested Kentucky Derby race. But the race only lasts two minutes and the party should last for hours; these decorations will set and then maintain the Derby mood for your entire day.
Specifications for the Caulfield’s Peel N Place Derby Day Clings:
The mood and ambience of Derby Day is the major attraction for most celebrants, but if you’re planning to watch the big race on a racetrack simulcast – or want to place an OTB bet to add some spice to your viewing – you’ll be able to increase the excitement by making at least a small wager.
Betting on a horse race isn’t difficult and the clerks will be happy to give you some help on actually placing your wager, if needed. Handicapping the race and trying some of the more exotic bets available for the Kentucky Derby or other races, however, can be a bit intimidating for novices. A quick read of the easy-to-understand “Betting on Horse Racing for Dummies” will give you the comfort level you may need to read a racing form, do your own handicapping, step up to the window and confidently put $10 on a trifecta while looking like a pro. At the very least, the knowledge will make you sound like an expert at your Derby party.
This “For Dummies” book is as well-written and simple to follow as the other books in the series; it may be the only one, though, that can actually pay for itself.
Digging deeper on the Betting on Horse Racing For Dummies:
If you are interested in fashion and style then be sure to check out Groom+Style’s review of the most stylish watches available: