7 Classic Kentucky Derby Traditions Slideshow

1. Infield


Inside the racetrack lies the infield, the center of all the action during the race (and accessible by underground tunnels). The day of the race, one can find over 80,000 revelers enjoying this area of “acceptable excess” that has been likened to Bourbon Street during Mardi Gras. For those looking for a party, the “third turn” area is filled with tailgates, flowing drinks, and lots of fun that never seems to stay G-rated. For those with families, the other end of the infield is a more sedate, grassy region — perfect for watching the race. (The track’s box seats, dubbed “Millionaire’s Row,” are where you will find the ladies and gentlemen dressed to the nines.)


DIY: Capture the spirit of the day and host your own “third turn”-inspired barbecue. Give your guests the option to come in costume and compete for the Best Costume award. Quench their thirst with mint juleps, but supplement the offerings with beer (for the ultimate Derby drinking game) and your favorite bourbon (soda optional). For food, fire up that grill and serve barbecued chicken alongside grill favorites like burgers and hot dogs.

2. Attire

Andrew Kung

For many, the Kentucky Derby is the fashion event of the season (it’s also the only sporting event that doubles as a fashion show). You’ll find men dressed to the nines in light khaki, seersucker, or madras suits, while women wear the latest in spring fashion, complete with a long-standing Derby tradition: the hat. While some go for an elegant, wide-brimmed look, others opt to design their own, made especially for the day to match their outfit. Don’t have thousands of dollars to spend this year on Derby attire of your own? Go preppy: As the official style of the Kentucky Derby, Vineyard Vines will make sure you fit right in.


DIY: Love spring fashion? Host a red carpet-worthy party where guests dress in their best and compete for the awards of Best Dressed and Best Hat, in addition to wagering on which horse will win. Set the table with bright silken fabrics, inspired by the jockeys’ racing silks. Keep mint juleps, served in silver julep cups, and Champagne free-flowing, and offer a variety of classic Kentucky and southern favorites like cocktail franks, grits, Kentucky hot browns, and derby pie for eating. 

3. The Mint Julep


Derby Day would not be complete without a Mint Julep (or four). This century-old cocktail made with Kentucky bourbon, simple syrup, and mint is the official drink of the race. Over the course of the weekend, over 120,000 juleps are made (requiring over 1,000 pounds of mint and 60,000 pounds of ice).


DIY: Serve lots of mint juleps (or another Kentucky bourbon-based drink) to celebrate the day. Don’t want to make the cocktail from scratch? You can also buy the ready-to-serve Early Times Mint Julep Cocktail — or order a $1,000 julep instead. 

4. The Song


Thought to have been played at the Derby since 1921, the Stephen Foster ballad My Old Kentucky Home is played while the horses parade around the racetrack from the paddock to the starting gate before the start of the race. 


DIY: Download the song and add it to your party playlist, along with country and bluegrass favorites like Alison Krauss and Bill Monroe.

5. The Rose Garland


Awarded to the winning horse, this rose-studded wreath (also referred to as a blanket or garland) has been a Derby tradition since the 1890s. Originally roses were given to each of the ladies in attendance. Nowadays, nearly 500 dark red “Freedom” roses and greenery are affixed to the 122-inch-by-22-inch green blanket. You can even watch the 40-pound creation be made in the days before the event at a Louisville Kroger grocery store.


DIY: Grab a bunch of red roses at the market, cut them short, and arrange the stems in julep cups to place around your buffet table. 

6. The Trophy

Dan Dry

The only solid gold trophy awarded annually to the winner of a sporting event, this diamond and ruby-encrusted statue is given to the owner of the winning horse. Nearly completely crafted by hand, the 22-inch tall, 56-ounce trophy is created from scratch each year, taking nearly 100 hours of work.


DIY: Short of casting your own gold trophies, award your own version of the trophy (printed or made with construction paper) to the winners of your Best Dressed or Best Costume clothing contests. 

7. The Silks


Since the 18th century, each horse and jockey racing in the Derby would wear a unique combination of racing silks — colors — to distinguish one competitor from another. While we now have high-tech equipment to track the competitors during the race, the colorful outfits are still worn today (and like a family crest, the colors are unique to each horse owner).


DIY: Be inspired by the bright colors of the outfits when setting your Derby party buffet table by choosing a bright, silken tablecloth. Or, go in costume, dressed up in a silk and carrying a crop (especially entertaining if you’re tall and lanky).