The Kentucky Derby is the Bonus Holiday We Deserve

A good Derby party involves no fuss, no stress, just a good cocktail and a friendly wager.

Mint Juleps
Photo: Brent Hofacker / Getty Images

Working at a food publication, you quickly find out which holiday is which editor's favorite. Associate Food Editor Bridget Hallinan waxes rhapsodic about the pizza rustica her family makes for Easter. Senior Editor Kat Kinsman thinks you should up the ante with your Thanksgiving spread with a gravy fountain at the head of it. And around Super Bowl time, it takes very little to get Associate Editorial Director Sean Flynn going about the merits of an authentic Buffalo wing.

Me, I'm a Kentucky Derby girl — always have been. Growing up in Lexington, Kentucky, this celebration of horse racing on the first Saturday in May was an extra holiday in early spring, a frivolous bonus between Easter and Mother's Day, and an easy one, at that. There would be a certain amount of buzz in the weeks preceding the race as the slate of horses was finalized, maybe a little banter about the merits of various jockeys. But otherwise, the Derby does not ask much of its celebrants. There are no expectations that you navigate through a crowded airport, buy piles of gifts, attend religious ceremonies or prepare a massive dinner. You can put on a big fancy hat or preppy tie, but both are extremely optional. You don't even have to follow the sport or pay attention that long; the Super Bowl may be three hours long, but the Kentucky Derby requires just two minutes of your time. All you need to do is turn on the TV, pick a horse, and cheer it on. It's that easy.

I don't come from generations of Derby-watchers. My parents immigrated to America a couple of years before I was born and picked up the Derby-watching habit after moving to Kentucky a few years into their time in this country. We didn't always fit in with the community; in a place infatuated with heritage and legacies, we could count our years in the area on one hand. And we weren't necessarily a horse-obsessed family, despite living down the road from a small farm that boarded horses and being surrounded by some of the best horse farms in the world. But you don't have to be a horse person to love the Derby. The tradition is in the air each spring as much as the smells of bluebells popping up in the growing bluegrass, and yes, sometimes a hint of manure.

And so, each year, my parents threw a small Derby party for our family. It wasn't fancy; most years my father was still in the old suit pants and shirts he wore on weekend afternoons spent tending to his rose bushes. My mother didn't put on any of the hats she'd brought over with her when they moved here from London. My parents would each sip a Mint Julep before reverting to their usual (a glass of Chablis for my mom and a Scotch and soda for my dad — what he sipped on Saturday late afternoons while watching Hee Haw, no doubt contemplating how much his life had changed since leaving his hometown in India). My brothers and I would drink bottles of Ale-8-One, a Kentucky-made soda best described as the Fast & Furious of soft drinks, or "kiddie cocktails," a concoction of ginger ale, 7Up and maraschino cherries that makes my teeth ache as I write this but was the height of sophistication in our world.

Our snacks were simple. My Irish mother was still actively mourning the scarcity of a decent sharp cheddar in America at that time and did not make or buy pimento cheese (which wasn't as popular back then anyway). We nibbled mixed nuts and crackers while sipping our cocktails and watching the crowd at Churchill Downs, where the race has taken place since 1875. Mom would cut out the names of horses from the special section of our hometown newspaper, and we each drew a couple of those slips, printed in colors to match the jockeys' silks. We hoped each year would produce a racing icon, a horse whose name would one day grace one of the streets in town, like Man O'War or Alysheba. We sang "My Old Kentucky Home" as the horses were led onto the track, then leapt up from the beat-up blue plaid sofa as the race began. The winner in our house was handsomely rewarded — I recall a $5 prize one year — and the celebratory spirit stayed with us through the evening. It was an easy, fun day, but those memories are as meaningful to us as any Christmas or landmark birthday.

I say that the Derby comes with few expectations, but, of course, I and a lot of other people have plenty of ideas about what you should eat and drink that day. After I moved to Chicago, I met my friend Amanda, a native of Louisville who became my Kentucky sister. We threw epic all-day Derby parties with fried chicken, bacon-topped deviled eggs, spicy cheese straws, angel biscuits, and slices of Derby Pie, a chocolate- and bourbon-laced pecan concoction whose recipe (from a community cookbook my mother bought in the 70s) calls for a lavish hand with both bourbon and Karo Syrup. Amanda made the most prized bite at those parties: chocolate cupcakes topped with green sugar frosting, each featuring a small plastic horse on top with a chocolate chip strategically placed behind the horse's rear on the green sugar grass. Our friends wore seersucker suits and large-brimmed hats and placed bets with my brother's friend Steve, our self-appointed Derby bookie stationed in the corner of the dining room. On any given year as many as 50 people, unfamiliar with horse racing and the Derby but up for a party, sipped Mint Juleps and belted out "My Old Kentucky Home" before the raucous two-minute race.

We haven't thrown one of those parties in a while, but still celebrate the Derby every year in some fashion. The years my family is together on Derby Day — for the wedding of a family friend or my nephew's graduation — we pick horse names from a hat, ante in a few dollars each, and watch the race together, even if it means huddling in the corner watching on someone's phone. (You can't invite Kentucky people to a wedding on Derby Day without giving us a few minutes to watch the race.) Even the babies and toddlers get a piece of the action. (Note to my niece Adeline: Your parents owe you $100 from when Always Dreaming won in 2017.)

When we're not together on Derby Day, race chatter dominates the family WhatsApp group that spans from Chicago to Kentucky to Charleston to Kenya, where my oldest brother now lives with his family. My younger brother assembles his children in front of the TV and lets them pick horses, just like we did when we were kids. We place bets over text, nibble on Pimiento Cheese and Fried Chicken, and sip bourbon. These days, I turn my Mint Julep into a spritz, mixing in a little Topo Chico to lighten it up and cut some of the syrupy sweetness. It's not a blowout like in years past, but my appreciation for this tradition remains in full force. The details don't matter as much as the fact that we pause on a busy weekend for a few minutes of cheering on horses and teasing each other about the race. Now, more than ever, we all deserve a bonus afternoon of fun.

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