The Kentucky Derby Is About Drinking, Not Horses
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because mixing mint juleps and friends is a great introduction to playing the ponies.
This article originally ran in May 2014, but has been updated for your enjoyment in 2017.
A ticket for tomorrow’s Kentucky Derby can cost anywhere from hundreds to thousands of dollars, depending on whether you stand in the infield or hobnob along Millionaire’s Row.
But you needn’t drop that much cash to appreciate Southern charm and horse racing’s most exciting two minutes.
It’s that time of the year again, when Louisville residents — “Louavul” to natives — and fans across the country polish their silver julep cups, don fancy hats and bake pies as they and their friends gather to cheer on the Thoroughbreds. Bars and restaurants have also gotten in on the action, with thousands of Derby-themed parties on offer nationwide.
No party is complete without mint juleps, the Derby drink since 1938, and there are as many recipes as hats on race day. But sugar, mint and bourbon — Kentucky whiskey — are the essential ingredients. The drink is traditionally served over crushed ice and with a sprig of mint in a silver julep cup, which helps keep the contents chilled. This weekend, some 127,000 mint juleps will be served in celebration of the Kentucky Derby’s 143rd running, according to WalletHub.
Some skip the lengthier process of boiling sugar water and dropping in mint leaves to soak overnight, opting instead for the mint extract shortcut. The Silver Dollar restaurant — a Louisville institution — has its own, famed recipe, which calls for demerara sugar and rubbing the mint leaves inside the cup to release their flavor before discarding them and filling the glass. “The effervescent mint aroma is key for the mint julep,” according to Silver Dollar beverage director Susie Hoyt.
You have to have a mint julep to sip on in the sun as you wait for the races.
Frank Myers, Derby party host
But whatever the technique, a glass in hand is a must. “You have to have a mint julep to sip on in the sun as you wait for the races,” says Frank Myers, a Louisville native who has been hosting Derby parties for nearly 35 years. His grandfather launched the tradition decades ago, hosting parties whenever he couldn’t get tickets to the Derby.
Another must? Derby pie. Myers won’t divulge his family’s recipe, but he hints that it’s pecan pie with lots of chocolate chips and bourbon.
According to WalletHub, a whopping $192.6 million was wagered on the Derby in 2016, with $151.8 million paid out for winning tickets. And it’s a sure bet that most house parties include some form of wagering. Many opt for downloaded software and pari-mutuel bets. But Myers, recognizing that few of his guests know much about the horses at the starting gate, opts for pools.
The horses’ names go into a hat at the Myers’ party, and guests pay to draw one in three different pools. Those holding the names of the top three horses win cash as well as official Derby glasses. “Every year the glass is different — it’s what they serve mint juleps in at the Derby, and it lists all the winners from previous years,” notes Kelly Myers, Frank’s wife.
But losers don’t leave empty-handed. “Last place in the pools get a plastic loser cup, which lists all the losers from previous years,” Kelly says.
The Myers have collected many fond Derby memories over the years — from Frank watching Triple Crown winners Affirmed and Seattle Slew run at Churchill Downs in the late ’70s to him and Kelly sipping mint juleps with family and friends at home. “I love seeing people from all parts of our lives come together,” adds Kelly.
With drinks in hand and horse names clenched in fists, Myers’ guests sing “My Old Kentucky Home” as the horses parade onto the track. The revelers remind Myers of his grandfather, his Kentucky roots and just how lucky he is, win or lose.
Make Your Own Mint Julep
- Fresh mint leaves (4 to 5 sprigs)
- 2 sugar cubes or 1/2 ounce simple syrup
- 2.5 ounces of nice bourbon (such as Woodford Reserve)
- Crushed ice
- Mint sprig for garnish
Put mint leaves and simple syrup or sugar into a julep cup or old-fashioned glass.
Gently muddle (this releases the oils from the mint).
Fill glass with crushed ice. Let glass get good and frosty.
Garnish with mint sprig.