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by Anne Rogers

The Kentucky Derby is an annual, heart-pumping, two-minute thrill of a horse race where celebrities and locals get a chance to embrace their real…or imagined Southern roots. Inaugurated in 1875, the Derby is held on the first saturday of May, taking place at the Churchill Downs racetrack in Louisville, Kentucky. Even if you can’t jump a flight to the Bluegrass State and attend the live event, there’s still the occasion to throw a one-of-a-kind Derby party with our ten essentials:

a classy invitation

Set the tone for your Derby party by sending guests a stylish and proper (a.k.a mailed!) invite at least 3 weeks prior to the event. Polka Dot Design has a lovely variety of templates specific to the event and you can proof your final design before sending it to print. We’re enchanted with the soft and traditional watercolor style of each design.

a bonafide Kentucky Derby hat

Kentuckians and fashion enthusiasts alike know that when it comes to Derby attire, it’s all about the hat. Grand and gorgeous, wide-brim or cloche: Derby hats are intended to be bold and beautiful accessories for an elegant sundress or preppy pant suit. For the gentlemen, a well-fitting newsboy cap or fedora will do the trick. Vineyard Vines is the official style on race day and you can find the complete dress code on the event’s website.

the perfect mint julep

No Kentucky-themed party is complete without sweet, spicy, barrel-aged bourbon. Whether you’re a lucky collector of Pappy Van Winkle or prefer the trusty Maker’s Mark, arm yourself with a few bottles of your favorite brand plus simple syrup, distilled water, and sprigs of mint leaf in order to create the race’s official cocktail – the always-refreshing mint julep. This recipe by NYC bartender Eben Freeman is a perfect balance of spirit and sweetness. Serve the drink on crushed ice in silver or pewter julep cups or in 10 oz. highball glassware.

red roses

The Kentucky Derby is a run for the roses…literally. In a tradition dating back to 1896, the winning horse and jockey receive a garland of more than 400 red roses, which are sewn into a satin backing and feature motifs of the state seal, the Churchill Downs twin spires, and the race number. For your party, adopt the tradition by accentuating your table setting with red rose floral displays. Extra credit if you use julep cups as mini vases.

woodford reserve bourbon balls

Woodford County in Central Kentucky is home to famed horse farms and world-renowned bourbon distilleries, such as Woodford Reserve. Relaunched in 1996, the distillery dates back to 1812 and produces small-batch bourbon in its signature charred and white-oak barrels. They also, in collaboration with Ruth Hunt Candies, make the most delicious and decadent bourbon balls. Be sure to order enough for after-party snacking.

kentucky burgoo

This classic meat and vegetable stew is a must for any Derby party menu. It serves as an excellent side dish when paired with country ham and biscuits, another popular Kentucky lunch pastime. But be sure to start your prep well in advance – this delicious stew takes around 4 to 6 hours to cook. Try The Kentucky Bourbon Cookbook’s stellar recipe which features helpful tips for even the most novice chef.

horse shaped cutting board

A little horse decor goes a long way and we LOVE this cute cutting board from Peggy’s Gifts, a local Kentucky boutique. Serve your favorite fruits or cheeses on its gorgeous, multi-wood surface.

the official kentucky derby program

On the Wednesday before race day, you can download the official event program and print copies for your guests. We recommend printing on cream cardstock paper for a more refined look. The program details the horses, owners, betting odds, and track positions so that everyone can keep up with the day’s events. Start a friendly betting pool or offer for guests to draw horse names from a hat. Gift the guest with the winning horse a small box of bourbon balls or a bottle of wine as a nod to their victory.

hall’s beer cheese

Hall’s On the River is a Clark County landmark, famous for its local cuisine and beautiful location on the Kentucky River. Their Original Snappy’s Beer Cheese is a top-secret recipe only divulged to family; but fortunately for us, it’s available to purchase online and ships domestically. Serve it as an appetizer with assorted crudités and crackers.

derby pie

Butter, chocolate, bourbon, and pecans. This traditional pie boasts this amazing combination of simple ingredients to create a dense, chewy pie with a consistency not unlike a deep-dish cookie. Have a slice or two with a dollop of whipped cream. Diets shouldn’t argue with tradition, right?