With its mint juleps and elaborate hats, the Kentucky Derby horse race is a good excuse to get together with friends each spring, even if you’re completely uninterested in sports.
Founded in 1875, the Derby is the longest-running sporting event in the country (it was held even during COVID). But perhaps more important than its longevity, the Derby has become a big social event in the South, with long-standing traditions ranging from food to fashion.
Even if you can’t make a trip to Churchill Downs in Louisville, Kentucky, to see “The Greatest Two Minutes in Sports” in person, you can still celebrate here in Colorado. The race itself is slated for 4:57 pm Mountain time (6:57 pm Eastern), but several Colorado bars and restaurants are hosting all-day parties on May 7. Here’s where to watch (and party).
Derby at the Station
Spend the whole day Derby-ing at Denver Union Station, which is celebrating the race from brunch through dinner. Start with a Derby-inspired pre-race brunch at The Cooper Lounge, then sip mint juleps and frosé while enjoying live music by the Royal Street Ramblers at the Terminal Bar Patio (there’s also a best-dressed contest).
For the race itself, head anywhere in the Great Hall to watch on two massive screens; shops and restaurants inside Union Station are also doing their own specials and games. You can also upgrade to a VIP experience called “Millionaires Row,” which includes unlimited mint juleps, sparkling wine and themed cocktails and reserved seating at The Cooper Lounge.
Denver Union Station, 1701 Wynkoop St., Denver, unionstationindenver.com
Off to the Horse Races at Poka Lola Social Club
Don your finest Derby dress and hat, then head to Dairy Block for Poka Lola Social Club’s all-day Off to the Horse Races party. Choose from three whiskey cocktails – a refreshing mint julep, a classic old fashioned and the Front Runner (mint, black currant and lime) – made with spirits from Woodford Reserve in Kentucky. Before and after the race, enjoy live music and enter to win a one-night stay at The Maven.
Poka Lola Social Club at Dairy Block, 1850 Wazee St., Denver, pokaloladenver.com/event/derby-day
St Julien Hotel & Spa Derby Party
Plan a staycation to Boulder so you can attend St Julien’s annual Kentucky Derby party, held on the hotel’s outdoor terrace and inside its great room. Make your own Derby hat with help from the team behind Boulder-based jewelry maker and leather artist John Allen Woodward or bring your own – either way, enter the St Julien hat competition to win prizes.
Jam out to live music from Bonnie and Taylor Sims in the afternoon, followed by Late for Supper in the evening. There’s also a silent auction and raffle benefiting Medicine Horse, a boulder-based nonprofit that offers free and donation-based equine therapy.
St. Julien Hotel & Spa, 900 Walnut St., Boulder, stjulien.com
Derby Day Party at The Brown Palace
The Kentucky Derby is steeped in tradition – and so is the Brown Palace, which dates back to 1888. The hotel is throwing a massive Derby party this year (in partnership with the Kentucky distillery Maker’s Mark), complete with live music, contests and Derby -inspired cocktails and dishes created by executive chef Kim Moyle.
Win prizes for having the best hat or for being the best-dressed couple while being serenaded by Hazel Miller and The Collective and, later, the Jennifer Lane Trio. Book a staycation and stay overnight at the Brown Palace to keep the party going long after the two-minute race ends.
The Brown Palace, 321 17th St., Denver, brownpncil.com
Family Derby Day at Stanley Beer Hall
The mint juleps will be flowing all day at Stanley Beer Hall, which is inviting families to watch the “run for the roses” from its massive outdoor patio or indoor tables that offer plenty of room to spread out at Stanley Marketplace.
Stanley Beer Hall, 2501 Dallas St. # 100, Aurora, stanleymenu.com
Kentucky Derby Day Watch Party at Urban Farmer
Make sure you’re photoshoot-ready and wearing your most over-the-top hat before visiting Urban Farmer to watch the Kentucky Derby: The LoDo restaurant is rolling out a red carpet for guests attending its Derby party, which also includes horse race- inspired food and drink (in partnership with Kentucky’s Woodford Reserve).
Munch on a Kentucky hot brown sandwich – a traditional Bluegrass State open-face sandwich made with turkey bacon, cheese sauce and chives – while sipping mint juleps, champagne and other derby-inspired drinks.
Urban Farmer, 1659 Wazee St., Denver, urbanfarmersteakhouse.com
Parker Derby Party
Head down to Parker Garage (and consider making a reservation first, as space is limited) for drink specials, a costume contest, prizes and other festivities.
Parker Garage, 19420 Main St., Parker, parkergarage.com
Denver Derby Party at McGregor Square
It’s one of the hottest Derby parties in town, so getting in may be a challenge. But if you can get a ticket to the Denver Derby Party at McGregor Square, you can enjoy unlimited mint juleps and other drinks, live music, a hat contest and a post-race DJ party; there will also be food vendors. This Derby party is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year and all proceeds benefit the Sean Ranch Lough Foundation, which awards scholarships in honor of Sean “Ranch” Lough, who died in a mountain bike accident in 2001.
Denver Derby Party, McGregor Square, 1901 Wazee St., Denver, denverderby.com
Bourbon Barrel-Aged Mint Julep Strong Ale at WeldWerks
WeldWerks isn’t throwing a big party or gathering, but the northern Colorado brewery did make a very special Derby-inspired beer that’s perfect for sipping on race day. Head to the Greeley taproom to grab a bottle of this 16% bourbon barrel-aged mint julep strong ale, which spent 17 months in eight-year-old barrels that once held Blanton’s bourbon (made by Kentucky distillery Buffalo Trace). Brewers also added fresh mint to complement the oak-y, whiskey notes.
WeldWerks only made 148 bottles of this beer (a nod to this being the 148th running of the Kentucky Derby), so be sure to hustle and grab one starting May 6.
WeldWerks, 508 8th Ave., Greeley, weldwerks.com
How to celebrate at home
Because there are so many traditions linked to this race, it’s easy to watch and celebrate at home with a little advanced planning. Here’s how to make it happen, according to the pros in Kentucky.
Serve mint juleps. Make your simple syrup ahead of time (by heating sugar in water until it’s dissolved), then toss in fresh mint leaves and pour into carafes. Line up various bottles of bourbon and a bowl full of crushed ice for guests to mix their own. Though mint juleps are typically made with Kentucky bourbon, you can fudge the tradition a bit to show off spirits from Colorado’s many craft distilleries.
“Have everything be as self-service as possible,” said Stacey Yates, who co-hosts the “Bourbon & Biscuits” video series on Kentucky food and drink for Louisville Tourism. “You want to enjoy the day, too.”
Decorate with hats and flowers. The Derby is known just as much for its vibrant hats as it is for the actual horse race. Encourage your guests to wear one, of course, but also consider decorating with them.
“A good thrift shop anywhere might have a nice assortment,” Yates said.
Also look for horseshoes and silver serving ware to add to the party decor. Red roses are the traditional flower of the Derby, so if you feel like splurging, head to your local flower shop and arrange them in empty bourbon bottles, Yates said.
Dress the part. Whether you coordinate outfits ahead of time with your guests or let everyone do their own thing, no Derby party is complete with extravagant fascinators or Panama-style hats, floral dresses and seersucker suits.
“There’s no such thing as too bold of a Derby look,” said Jessica Dillree, who co-hosts the Bourbon & Biscuits series.
Cue the music. For tunes, consider making a playlist with songs by Kentucky artists. And be sure to print out the lyrics for “My Old Kentucky Home,” which everyone sings right before the big race.
“The Derby is all about the traditions and pageantry,” Dillree said.