Host the Perfect Kentucky Derby Party

Daphne’s Amy McDonald hosts an annual Kentucky Derby soiree, complete with red roses, betting pools and sweeping views of Mobile Bay. With the running of the roses thankfully back this May, we let her festive fete inspire a few perfect party ideas.

Man and woman dressed in Kentucky Derby party attire
Amy and Matt McDonald have opened their home for years to partygoers dressed in their Derby best. We let these fabulous soirees inspire a few fun ideas that guarantee a win, place and show at your own home. Portrait photos by Summer Ennis Ansley

Three weeks after moving into a new home, most people are up to their knees in boxes, piles of clothes and chaos. Inviting over anyone who doesn’t have a broom in hand or a Ph.D. in organization is out of the question. But in early 2015, when Amy and Matt McDonald moved into their new home overlooking Mobile Bay in Daphne, Amy saw the potential for the perfect party. With a wide grassy lawn, beautiful pool and sweeping views of the water, she could envision elegant gatherings and fun nights with friends. Checking the calendar, the next event on the horizon was the Kentucky Derby, just three weeks later. Amy immediately issued the invitations.

That first Derby party was a smashing success, and the couple continued it the next four years. 

“I love having a chance to get dressed up and entertain a little more formally,” Amy explains. They set a dress code for the party — Sunday dresses and finest hats for the ladies, suits or colorful spring attire for the gents. “We offer trophies for the best dressed men, women, and couple, and we put up a big betting board for the horse race. We just try to make it really fun.” 

In addition to looking the part, guests enjoy catered food and the drink of choice for every race day — mint juleps. “I researched all the quintessential Derby foods and let that inspire the menu,” she says, which has included everything from shrimp and grits to Kentucky hot brown sandwiches to bourbon bread pudding. And Champagne is always flowing. 

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Then in 2019, an opportunity came for the McDonalds to attend the Derby in person and watch from a private box. “We hated to cancel our annual event, but it was too good to pass up.” The couple and four friends spent the weekend enjoying everything the Bluegrass State has to offer, including a bourbon tasting at a local distillery, a lesson on how to bet on the race and the chance to watch scores of horses run, leading up to the main event. “We arrived at 11 a.m. for the races and the actual Derby isn’t run until 4 p.m., so we had a lot of fun all day. I know the first time you do something is the most impressive, but it was quite an experience! We sat right at the finish line, so it’s hard to beat that.”

The pandemic affected everything in 2020, including horse racing. The annual Kentucky event was postponed from May to September and run before a bare-bones crowd, so the McDonalds resurrected the annual party on a very small scale with just a few close friends. “It was wonderful to get together with some friends outside in the yard,” Amy remembers. When asked about 2021, however, she says they are heading back to the real thing and making it a girls’ weekend. “With all the parties we’ve had through the years,” she laughs, “I have plenty of hats to choose from!”

Table decorated with flowers, books and barware
Food and drink photos by Elizabeth Gelineau

Derby Party Hosting Tips

Send invites (either paper or email) with an equestrian theme. Be sure to specify attire: Your best Derby dresses and hats encouraged!

Add horsey touches to your table — think bits, leather, vintage riding helmets or even boots turned into vases. Easy tip: Buy plastic horses from the dollar or toy store and spray-paint them gold, then tuck them amongst your bar offerings or around the buffet.

Set up a betting board or have a prize for the best hat or best dressed. Let the winners take home the centerpiece.

Not the betting kind? Turn rosette ribbons from Amazon into name badges bearing the name of each horse set to run. Pass out to your guests upon arrival to wear on their lapel, and that will be their horse for the race. Assign prizes for win, place and show.

Every Derby begins at Churchill Downs with the crowd on their feet singing “My Old Kentucky Home.” Those of us in south Alabama, however, would be hard-pressed to chime in. Print the lyrics on small cards, and share with all your guests so they can join in on the chorus with gusto.

The sun shines bright
in the old Kentucky home,
‘Tis summer,
The People are gay;

the corn-top’s ripe
And the meadow’s in the bloom
While the birds make music

All the day.

Just like Amy McDonald, we looked to Louisville to inspire our Derby menu, including Benedictine spread, Kentucky hot brown sandwiches and plenty of the Bluegrass State’s famous bourbon. Some chocolate and pecans nicely finish the day.

With smart TVs, bluetooth speakers and even projectors and outdoor screens, there is no reason you can’t easily take the Derby outside. Just test your setup ahead of post time to avoid tech glitches.

Woman mixing a drink at the bar table
Photo by Elizabeth Gelineau

The mint julep has been an official part of the Kentucky Derby since the 1930s, but it is said that Churchill Downs planted mint outside the clubhouse for their juleps as far back as 1875. Juleps were certainly an important part of race day when Prohibition began in 1920, as the newspapers at the time lamented their absence. Start collecting vintage julep cups from local antique stores to elevate your bar, or pick up a sleeve of plastic ones online in a pinch.

A table with mint Julep cups

Mint Julep

2 ounces Kentucky straight whiskey
1/4 ounce mint simple syrup
crushed ice
sprig fresh mint, for garnish 

Pour whiskey and simple syrup over crushed ice in silver julep cup and garnish with fresh mint sprig. Makes 1

Mint Simple Syrup
Combine 1 cup sugar with 1 cup water in a small saucepan and bring to a boil, stirring occasionally to dissolve sugar. Stir in 2 tablespoons chopped fresh mint leaves. Boil for one minute, then remove from heat and let cool. Strain the mint leaves out and discard. Store syrup in a glass jar in the fridge until use.

Hot Brown Sliders

Louisville’s Brown Hotel drew over 1,200 guests each evening throughout the 1920s for its famous dinner dances. By the wee hours of the morning, guests would grow weary of dancing and make their way to the restaurant for a bite to eat. Chef Fred Schmidt created an open-faced turkey sandwich with bacon and a delicate Mornay sauce to tempt tired partygoers, and hot brown history was made!

Hot brown slider sandwiches

2 ounces unsalted butter
2 ounces all-purpose flour
8 ounces heavy cream
8 ounces whole milk
1/2 cup Pecorino Romano cheese, plus 2 tablespoons for garnish
pinch of ground nutmeg
salt and pepper, to taste
12 slices thick-sliced brioche bread
14 ounces sliced roasted turkey breast
4 Roma tomatoes, sliced
8 slices crispy bacon, cut into three pieces
paprika and diced parsley, for garnish

1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. In a two‑quart saucepan, melt butter over medium‑low heat and slowly whisk in flour until well combined. Cook for two minutes, stirring frequently. Add cream and milk to the mixture and whisk over medium heat until the cream begins to simmer, about 2 ‑ 3 minutes. Remove sauce from heat and slowly whisk in Pecorino Romano cheese until the Mornay sauce is smooth. Add nutmeg, salt and pepper to taste. Set aside.

2. Remove crusts from bread and slice in half to form 2 rectangles. (There will be 24 rectangles in all). Arrange bread on a cookie sheet and toast until slightly golden and crisp. Remove from oven and set aside.

3. Fold one slice of turkey in half and then in half again to form a rectangle about the size of the toast. Lay on top of one toast and repeat until all toasts have a folded slice of turkey. Add a tomato slice to each and then 1 tablespoon Mornay sauce. Sprinkle additional cheese on top of Mornay and then top with one piece of bacon. Return to oven and bake for 10 minutes, or just until the sauce is slightly bubbly. Remove from oven and sprinkle with paprika, top with parsley and serve immediately. Makes 24 mini sandwiches

Benedictine Tea Sandwiches

Louisville caterer Jennie Carter Benedict invented this cucumber spread in the late 1800s and served it on sandwiches in the restaurant she opened in 1893. She catered all the best parties and weddings in Louisville, and her Derby menus were a must. Benedictine spread is also delicious served as a dip with raw vegetables and makes an elegant presentation when served on a leaf of endive.

1 large cucumber
12 ounces cream cheese, softened
2 tablespoons grated onion
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon mayonnaise
pinch of cayenne pepper
green food coloring (optional)
loaf of miniature pumpernickel bread
optional garnishes: sliced cucumber or radish, chopped parsley

1. Peel and grate cucumber and then squeeze out excess moisture. Add to a food processor with remaining ingredients (except the bread and garnishes) and combine until food coloring is evenly distributed. Refrigerate until use.

2. Use a small round cookie cutter to make circles out of bread slices. Top each slice with a small amount of cucumber spread and garnish as desired. Serves 12

A bowl of Pecan Chocolate Chip Bars

Pecan Chocolate Chip Bars

1 cup chopped pecans
4 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
1/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons granulated sugar
1/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons light brown sugar
1 large egg  
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 1/2 cups whole wheat pastry flour
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon Kosher salt
1 cup semisweet chocolate chips

1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Spread pecans in a pie plate and toast for a few minutes, until golden. Set aside to cool.

2. In the bowl of an electric mixer, beat the butter and oil with the granulated sugar and brown sugar until creamy. Add egg and vanilla and beat until smooth. Combine the flour, baking soda and salt in a small bowl and then add to the mixer at low speed. Add the chocolate chips and pecans and mix on low just until incorporated.

3. Line bottom of a 9-by-13-inch baking pan with parchment paper. Turn dough out into pan and press into an even layer. Bake for 20 minutes, until lightly browned. Remove from oven and let cool completely before slicing. Makes 24 bars

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