Beginner’s Guide to the KY Derby

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I’ve lived in Kentucky my entire life. I’ve been to the Derby several times, and have celebrated it many more times at parties in people’s homes. I’ve put together some Derby essentials for anyone attending the Derby for the first time or wanting to add some authenticity to their own Derby party. Seasoned Derby goers will also find some great shopping tips, drink recipes, and a brush up on betting.

Fashion for the Gals

When I think of Derby fashion, the first thing that comes to mind is outrageous hats. The point of a Derby hat is to be noticed! Whether you choose something in the smaller fascinator variety or something full scale, be bold in your choice. Wear something that stands out and sets your outfit off. If you haven’t thought about a hat at this point and are actually attending the Derby, there has never been a better time to use your Amazon Prime membership and have Derby hat arrive at your house in 2 days. You simply have to wear one. End of story. If want to add the option of trying them on beforehand, Macys and T.J. Maxx always have a nice, affordable hat variety, too.

Beyond “wear a hat” there is no other real rule for Derby fashion. I would dress for a nice daytime spring or summer wedding, with a mind toward dressing to impress. A great thought for the opportunity to wear something designer without paying the designer price is a service called Rent the Runway. They overnight you a designer dress to rent for an event, costing a small fraction of what you would pay to buy the dress. For a small additional price, you can even add on a backup dress to make sure you get something you like. I used Rent the Runway to attend a formal function last year, and had a great experience. My most fashion-forward friend Kasey introduced me to it, and swears by it! Check out their selection of Derby appropriate dresses, and if you see something you like, you can use this link to get a free backup size or this one to get 20% off your first order.

Me and Kasey Renting the Runway
Me and Kasey Renting the Runway

Drinks

As I’m sure you know, the traditional drink of the Kentucky Derby is the Mint Julep. It’s basically a combination of bourbon, sugar water and mint. So, let me be clear, if you don’t like bourbon, you won’t like Mint Juleps! Mint Juleps are sold at the Derby, in a very cool commemorative glass that is updated every year. I don’t like bourbon myself, so the glass is the highlight of the experience, for me. If you’re having a party at your house, you can serve them in their traditional serve wear, a silver Julep Cup.

My bourbon drinking friends tell me that the best Mint Juleps are the ones sold at the Derby, which makes it lucky for you, if you’re trying to replicate it. The Kentucky Derby website  details that the Mint Julep served at the event is Old Forester Mint Julep Ready-to-Serve Cocktail (which is sold in liquor stores) served with fresh mint and crushed ice. The site also offers the following recipe, if you’d like to make them yourself:

  • 2 cups sugar
  • 2 cups water
  • sprigs of fresh mint
  • crushed ice
  • Old Forester Straight Bourbon Whisky
  • Silver Julep Cups

Make a simply syrup by boiling sugar and water together for five minutes. Cool and place in a covered container with six or eight sprigs of fresh mint, then refrigerate overnight. Make one julep at a time by filling a julep cup with crushed ice, adding one tablespoon mint syrup and two ounces of Old Forester Kentucky Whisky. Stir rapidly with a spoon to frost the outside of the cup. Garnish with a sprig of fresh mint.

For those of us who aren’t bourbon drinkers, there is another, newer traditional drink that still fits the occasion. The Kentucky Oaks, which runs at Churchill Downs the day before the Derby, is a similar race for fillies (female horses). The Oaks has become a “celebration of the ladies” with pink décor and a much more palatable pink drink, the Grey Goose Oaks Lily. This drink made its official debut in 2006, though the race itself has been around since 1875. The Lily also comes with a cool souvenir stemless wine glass, and can be easily duplicated using the recipe, also published on the Kentucky Derby website:

  • 1 1/4 oz. Grey Goose vodka
  • 1 oz. sweet and sour mix
  • 1/4 oz. triple sec
  • 3 oz. cranberry juice

Once the ingredients are mixed, place the pinkish cocktail in an Official Oaks Lily glass (stemless wine glass) with crushed ice, add a straw and garnish with a blackberry and a lemon wedge.

Betting

Betting the Kentucky Derby is like any other gambling event. Sometimes people win out of sheer luck, and other times people win because they’ve skillfully studied the field and calculated the odds. You don’t have time to learn those skills and shop for your hat, but you can learn the basic betting lingo so you can sound like you know what you’re doing! Making a bet is made up of a few pieces of key information with specific terms for each :

  • How much you’re betting per horse, per finish
  • What horse(s) you betting on
  • How you want those horses to perform in the race
  • What order you want them to finish in relation to each other

I’ll take these out of order to make more sense of the idea. First, a horse can finish the race in first, second or third place in most betting schemes. These are known in betting speak as win, place, and show. So you can bet on a single horse to either win, to place, or to show. If you think the horse could do any of those, you can bet it to do all three, which is called betting on a horse across the board. You can also place a win/place or a place/show bet.

The minimum bet for these basic bets is $2, but note that your betting amount is multiplied by the number of positions you bet the horse to finish. So, if you bet $2 on a horse across the board, you’re betting $2 for it to win, $2 for it place, and $2 for it show, so your bet would cost $6.

The amount you win back is determined by the odds of the horse winning at the time the race starts (this changes as bets are placed, so watch the screen at the track rather than relying on your paper betting program), how much you bet, and how difficult your bet was. For instance, if you bet a horse to show and it wins, you still get paid back, but because you had 3 chances for the horse to finish, you get less than a person who bet the same horse only to win. To figure out how much you’ll get back on a $2 win bet, multiply your odds by 2, then add $2. You can refer to this cheat sheet, too.

Choosing a single horse to finish a race can pay well if the odds are low that your horse will win. Low odds are reflected in a high number, like 50-1, and people call the low odds horses the long shots. The better opportunity to make a little bit more off your horses comes from what are known as exotic bets. In these scenarios, you group together the horses that you like, in order to choose the horses that will finish in the win, place, and show. If you want to choose just the win and place horses, that is called an exacta. If you want to choose the win, place, and show horses, that is called a trifecta. You can even choose the first four horses to finish in a superfecta.

If you name the horses in your exacta, trifecta or superfecta, they will be taken down in the specific order that you name them, and they have to finish in that order for you to win. If you would like to add the option of the horses finishing in any order, you can box your exacta, trifecta, or superfecta.  The minimum bet for an exacta is $2, for a trifecta is 50 cents, and for a superfecta is often 10 cents. However, keep in mind again that you’re multiplying horses and positions, so these bets can get expensive. My favorite exotic bet is a 10 cent superfecta box. It will cost you $2.40 because you’re betting so many horses in so many options, but it will often pay at least $75 if you win!

So, putting all this together, when you go to make your bet, it should sound something like this: “I’d like to bet (give the race number and the racetrack if you’re not betting on the upcoming race at the racetrack you’re in), $2 on horse 5 across the board.” or “I’d like to bet a $2 exacta box on horses 6 and 8.” You’ll pay and a paper ticket with your bets listed will be handed to you. Check the ticket before you walk away to make sure it is correct, because once you walk away, it’s too late to make changes. If you win, you come back to the betting windows to cash in your tickets.

Hopefully I’ve given you enough information here to participate in some Kentucky Derby fun like you know what’s going on! If you can’t make it to Kentucky, consider having your own Derby party!

 

Author: Rachelle

Rachelle Dodson is a 40something mom & lawyer. She lives in Lexington, Ky with her daughter Delanie and dog Bentley.

4 thoughts on “Beginner’s Guide to the KY Derby”

  1. I know very little about the Kentucky Derby, but I am in love with Rent the Runway. I just recently did the Unlimited membership and I am hooked. SO much fun to get new things to wear and return and get some more!!

    1. I lived in Lexington for a few years in the past… did not participate in any of the Kentucky Derby horse race events but maybe one day my wife and will! I do like the sounds of the cranberry sweet and sour vodka drink!

      1. It’s definitely worth doing! Sounds like you had a great time running the marathon, so you already know the Derby events are great!

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