Sonya Julie, of Oxford, left, and  Michael Dwyer, of Rochester Hills, attend  the Kentucky Derby in Louisville, Kentucky.  Dwyer has attended at-home Derby  parties and has hosted his own.

Sonya Julie, of Oxford, left, and Michael Dwyer, of Rochester Hills, attend the Kentucky Derby in Louisville, Kentucky. Dwyer has attended at-home Derby parties and has hosted his own.

Photo provided by Michael Dwyer


No horsing around at this Kentucky Derby party

By: Maria Allard | Metro | Published April 21, 2021

  The bourbon-flavored mint julep is the signature drink of the Kentucky Derby.

The bourbon-flavored mint julep is the signature drink of the Kentucky Derby.

Photo by Sonya Julie

  Gena Conti, of Gena Conti Millinery, makes custom hats for the Kentucky Derby.

Gena Conti, of Gena Conti Millinery, makes custom hats for the Kentucky Derby.

Photo provided by Gena Conti

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METRO DETROIT — On May 1, horse racing fans will jockey over to Churchill Downs in Louisville, Kentucky, to cheer on their favorite horse in the annual Kentucky Derby.

They’ll place their bets, sip on mint juleps and sing “My Old Kentucky Home.”

But for anyone unable to attend the race — also known as “The Run for the Roses” and “The Fastest Two Minutes in Sports” — hosting a home party is another way to enjoy the festivities. While some opt for in-person get-togethers with platters of food, decorative hats and bourbon tasting, others may choose to hold virtual Derby parties because of COVID-19.

Travel writer Michael Dwyer is a Kentucky Derby enthusiast who has been to the event in person at least 20 times.

“It’s quite the scene, from college kids in the infield to classy and formal in the grandstands,” the Rochester Hills resident said via email. “And with Derby hats around every corner and mint juleps in most hands, it’s a party, a celebration and a bucket-list item for many people.”

But when Dwyer isn’t at Churchill Downs, he can be spotted at a local “The Run for the Roses” party or fundraiser. He even has a lapel pin that reads “talk Derby to me.” Dwyer has even hosted his own Derby parties and offers tips for anyone thinking of having such a shindig at home.

“The easy part of a Derby party is, the theme is already set — horse racing. You’ll have to plan the party to coincide with the event itself, so know what day, time and channel it’s on,” he said.

One recommendation is to set up one or two television sets so everyone can watch the big race, plus all the coverage throughout the day leading up to the main event.

“There are 14 races at Churchill Downs that day, and many channels will feature behind-the-scenes looks and backstories to the horses, jockeys, trainers and owners with ties to the Derby,” Dwyer said.

When it comes to betting, cellphone apps are popular, as are methods similar to Super Bowl squares; however, it’s recommended to check with your city municipality to determine what is legal. As for food items, hot browns, Benedictine spread or dip, bread pudding, burgoo, Derby pie, and bourbon balls are often served, according to Dwyer.

“An online search will give you dozens of ideas for food dishes for a Derby party,” Dwyer said. And the mint julep, a bourbon cocktail with sugar and mint, is a must.

At-home Derby parties usually come with a dress code. For men, suits with a bow tie are in vogue. To really get into the spirit of the day, a seersucker suit is on the right track. Women will don their best spring dresses, but the most important fashion item for women is the hat.

According to the Kentucky Derby website at kentuckyderby.com, wearing a hat to the race is believed to bring good luck. Most of the hats are wide brimmed with extravagant designs of ribbons, fake flowers, netting, feathers, beads, jewels and sequins.

“It’s all about the hat,” said Gena Conti, who owns Gena Conti Millinery in Wyandotte. Conti designs and creates custom and couture millinery for men and women. She has been making Kentucky Derby hats for years. Conti makes each hat from scratch and said it’s important to find the proper Derby hat.

“The clients that come to me are very serious about their hats. The whole idea for the hat is that it enhances you. It should be tailored to your stature. The ladies just have a blast with the hats. You’ve got to be able to see for walking,” the hat maker said. “Being the most outrageous is what some people go for. Some women like to have a veil on it because it’s romantic and sultry. Red is a big Derby color because it’s the ‘Run for the Roses.’”

Conti’s website, genaconti.com, has a special section dedicated to Kentucky Derby hats. It includes photos and a page titled “What hat style looks good on me” to help find a hat that complements the ensemble instead of clashing with it. Some of Conti’s customers have had horses in the race and will send photos from Churchill Downs.

“They will want me to do hats to match the clothing of the jockey,” Conti said. “That’s kind of fun.”

Over the years, Conti’s hats have been featured in the Kentucky Derby Museum Hat Exhibit in Louisville. While Conti has never been to the Kentucky Derby, she attended a virtual party last year to celebrate the race with others. The Derby, always held the first Saturday of May, was postponed until September in 2020 because of COVID-19.

“You had to wear your hat,” Conti said of the party. “It’s just plain and simple fun.”

At-home Kentucky Derby decor, including centerpieces and wall hangings, can help set the mood. Party Adventure, in St. Clair Shores, has a number of such decorations: table covers, plates, napkins, drinking cups, jockey helmet toothpicks, horseshoe drink stirrers, banners and streamers. Owner Dan Stevens leaves the items out all year and sells the merchandise prior to Kentucky Derby day.

“Sales are starting to get a little bit bigger,” he said. “(People) are surprised we do carry it.”

Sometimes, Derby fans will go for a more formal at-home party, while others prefer to keep things more casual. No matter the occasion, Stevens notices a common theme among patrons when shopping.

“People are usually in a good mood,” he said. “They’re planning a party. They’re celebrating.”     

Kentucky Derby week is April 24-May 1. For more information on events for a home/virtual party, visit www.kentuckyderby.com.

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