40 sure-bet Kentucky Derby party ideas for the big race day
As flowers bloom and the warmth of May sets in, who among us doesn’t yearn for an excuse to don the most fabulous hat we can find and sip ice-cold bourbon cocktails? More than just the only horse race you can name, the Kentucky Derby is an ode to springtime and Southern charm, and a perfect opportunity to host a spirited and stylish party.
Unlike the 3+ hours of staring-at-a-TV that typically define other sports-themed parties (looking at you, Super Bowl), the refreshingly short run-time of the Derby is a feature, not a bug. Kentucky-fried refreshments, lush décor, and beginner-friendly betting games will ensure your colorfully-attired guests feel at “Old Kentucky Home,” regardless of their interest in thoroughbreds or high-stakes sports gambling.
So, want to turn ‘The Most Exciting Two Minutes in Sports’ into a full-fledged get-together? Read our 40 sure-bet Kentucky Derby party ideas, summon your inner Southern belle, and get ready to bring your Kentucky Derby party to the finish line.
Image via Diary of a Debutante; “Derby Tumbler” by Paperless Post.
Get the word out with beautiful invitations
The Kentucky Derby is all about unabashed fanfare, and your Kentucky Derby invitations should reflect that excitement. Inspire “yes” RSVPs from the starting gate with on-theme derby invitation wording, such as:
1. “And they’re off! To a Kentucky Derby Party”
2. “Run for the roses with us”
3. “Join us for a day at the races”
In Louisville, Kentucky, locals celebrate the Derby for a full two weeks. Encourage that level of enthusiasm in your guests with these on-theme invitations from Paperless Post:
4. “Derby Tumbler”: Get those juleps front and center to emphasize the “party” element.
5. “Tip Toppers”: Lean into hats for a fashion-motivated crowd.
6. “Racing Silk Stripe”: Keep it simple with a jockey design.
Whichever design you choose, make sure to specify your “Derby attire” dress code clearly in the invitation.
“Tip Toppers” by Paperless Post; Image via Lili Kobielski/Vogue.
Dress for the photo finish
Your guests may be asking “how should I dress for a Kentucky Derby party?” and happily, the clothes are the most party-worthy of all Kentucky Derby traditions. The annual event at Churchill Downs racetrack is a chance for Southern society to show up in their most ostentatious springtime duds; your party guests should do the same. Examples are plentiful, and usually include:
7. Brightly-colored dresses
8. Headwear: either a wide-brimmed hat or a sculptural fascinator. Conceptual pieces such as this deviled egg are also welcome.
9. Bold costume jewelry or pearls
10. Standout handbags
11. Collared shirts patterned with gingham or floral
12. Bowties—bonus points for more patterns
13. Suits or jackets made of seersucker or linen
Above all, have fun with springy colors and patterns.
Decorations: get that “Old Kentucky Home” aesthetic
What decorations do you need for a Derby party? Again, think: garden party. Plus horses.
The Kentucky Derby is known as “The Run for the Roses” because the winning horse is draped in an iconic blanket of red rosebuds, a motif to embrace for your party décor:
14. A rose-drenched photo wall or a DIY horseshoe wreath serve as Insta-worthy backdrops for those impeccable Derby outfits.
15. Expand beyond crimson into the springtime vibe with rose-printed napkins and this reusable Rose Blossom Garland
Draper James X Coterie Gingham Pinwheel Fan Toppers, Meri Meri English Garden Lace Small Napkins, Meri Meri English Garden Party Cups, and Meri Meri Flower Garden Giant Garland all available at Paperless Post Party Shop.
Serving ware for Southern-inspired presentation
16. Anything gingham, like these pinwheel fan toppers
17. A pitcher worthy of your mint-muddling labors
18. Barware: ice-cold mint juleps are most appropriately served in metal cups, so bust out that copper drink ware you were gifted during the mid 2010’s Moscow mule craze.
19. Festive biodegradable straws
Image via Delish; “Jockey” by Paperless Post.
Serve up some Southern comforts
Assume your well-dressed and excitable guests will arrive hungry as a horse, and prepare an on-theme table spread of snacks and sips in accordance.
For the snack table
Statistically speaking, everyone agrees that food is the best part of Southern culture, and Derby day parties are an excuse to dig in.
20. BBQ chicken wings
22. Hush puppies
23. Deviled eggs (to coordinate with the aforementioned fascinator)
24. Southern-inspired charcuterie board
25. Bourbon balls are a traditional treat with many variations.
26. Derby Pie is an approachable recipe for a beginner, or you can order the real deal from Kern’s Kitchen in Louisville.
Juleps and more
27. The mint julep is the star of a Kentucky Derby themed party. The recipe is simple, but take care to source the all-important mint. This common garden herb can be in short supply in grocery stores, especially on Derby day—so think ahead and identify your source. And secure ice—so much ice!
28. Bourbon isn’t for everyone, so consider adding a cocktail that hits the same refreshing Southern notes, like a spiked Arnold Palmer. Make sure to include a booze-free option with an equally enticing presentation.
29. Beyond cocktails: offer rosé and Blue Moon, the official craft beer of the Kentucky Derby.
“Live from Kentucky…” How to screen the main event
In 2023, the Kentucky Derby will be broadcast live on NBC. You can also stream via NBC Sports or any app that includes NBC live programming such as Peacock, Hulu, or YouTube Live. Subscriptions are required for streaming, so make sure to test your access before the big day.
The race itself is the centerpiece, but most of your event should take place before those crucial two minutes. The suspense of the approaching race lends an air of excitement to the proceedings. The official ‘post time’ (when the horses are lined up ready to race) is usually just before 7 p.m. ET., so your party should start by 5 p.m. ET.
Hours before the race, live pre-coverage on NBC features attendee fashion, updated odds, and highlights of this year’s jockeys and thoroughbreds. Tune in, but keep the sound off with closed captions or low during this period so guests can socialize while also taking in the live visuals from Churchill Downs. Abundant mingling sets a Derby party apart from other sports events. Read up on our favorite conversation starters to ensure proper schmoozing before the big race begins.
Word to the wise: NBA playoffs sometimes compete with the Kentucky Derby. Some guests might insist you turn the channel, but resist their pleas. This is not a basketball party.
“Dead Ringer” by Paperless Post; Image via Kara’s Party Ideas.
Key Derby details to set the tone
To showcase your Southern hospitality, brush up on party etiquette tips, and keep these unique Kentucky Derby-themed party features in mind:
30. Setup: It’s deep spring, so outdoor space is ideal. A backyard screening is impressive, or you can simply usher guests inside to view the main event. If fully indoors, make sure to have extra flowers and seasonal party decor to enhance the seasonal feel. Either way, the two-minute race means no need to fuss about every guest having a seat in front of the screen.
31. Hat station: These days, there are only so many people willing to lend a hat. Consider providing an array of affordable fascinators and hats for your guests to wear and keep. For a hands-on experience, set up a craft table for guests to create their own hats.
32. Music: Use an upbeat but relaxed playlist for background vibes. Kentucky is the Bluegrass State, providing an obvious choice, but not a requirement. Whatever the genre, keep the volume at a daytime level that doesn’t overtake conversation. As the race approaches, spike up the energy with this slightly tacky Spotify playlist. Then, switch the sound to the live Derby coverage in time for the traditional recitation of Kentucky’s official state song, “My Old Kentucky Home,” just before post time.
33. Parting gifts: Not everyone’s horse can be a winner, so make sure your guests don’t go home empty-handed. A single long-stemmed red rose is a classy on-theme party favor, paired with some bourbon balls to-go. Or pour your juleps into commemorative glasses, which also serve as gifts.
Activities to entertain down to the home stretch
Aside from complimenting everyone’s outfits and watching a two-minute race, what do you do at a Kentucky Derby party? Make the day memorable with Kentucky Derby party games based on the titular race:
35. A “best-dressed” competition to celebrate everyone’s fashion efforts
36. A Derby-themed trivia game
Betting games for all experience levels
The world of horse race betting can seem complicated and full of insider language like “Box Exacta.” It’s your job to ensure all of your guests feel included in Kentucky Derby traditions with some low-stakes and simple party wagering games:
37. The beginner’s Hat Draw: Add each horse’s name and number onto a slip of paper and drop them into a hat. Guests pay $1-$5 per draw (remind guests to bring cash and have some small bills on hand to break $20s). Whoever draws the winning horse takes the pot.
38. The slightly-more-advanced Betting Board: Set up a whiteboard with each horse listed. Guests can check the odds and select their choice for a winner by placing their initials next to the horse name, $1-$5 per pick. Everyone who selects the winner will split the pot.
39. Place real bets through an online wagering site, ideally before your third mint julep.
40. Experiment with more party wager games straight from the horse’s mouth.
Guests should have their horses picked at least an hour before post time to make the most of the anticipation and competitive spirit. Everyone loves the wacky thoroughbred names like “Instant Coffee,” and hopefully they’ll be yelling them wildly once the race is underway.
Best-in-class Kentucky Derby party invitations and party supplies
With convenient-to-send Kentucky Derby party invitations—delivered via email, text, or shareable link, plus instant RSVP tracking and seamless messaging, Paperless Post is the key to a sure-bet winning party.
Looking for the perfect spring party supplies and decorations to bring your Kentucky Derby party ideas to life? You’ll find them all at Paperless Post Party Shop. With Paperless Post, you can be sure all of your Kentucky Derby party needs will be covered down to the last furlong.