Arts & Culture

How to Enjoy the Kentucky Derby from Afar

Fans can’t attend this year’s Run for the Roses, but that doesn’t mean you can’t watch the race from home in style

Photo: Adobe Stock

Nearly ten thousand people came out to Louisville’s Churchill Downs racetrack on the first Saturday of May in 1875 to watch Aristides win the first Kentucky Derby. The largest Derby crowd ever gathered in 2015, when more than 170,000 fans packed the track to witness American Pharoah capture the first leg of what would become the first successful Triple Crown bid since Affirmed in 1978. And this year, of course, marks another historic first: the first Kentucky Derby that will run without fans in attendance.

But the race will go on (albeit on the first Saturday in September), a winner will be draped with a blanket of roses, and the unbroken tradition of America’s oldest continually held major sporting event will endure. And there’s no reason not to enjoy it, with these tips for how to master a socially distanced Derby Day at home.

Place Your Bets Online

Let’s be honest: Horse racing is more interesting when there’s money on the line. Even a couple of bucks on a long shot will have you cheering on your pick like a personal visit to the winner’s circle is at stake. Online wagering has grown in availability, ease, and popularity, and now there exist numerous options, not only to bet on the big event, but on all of the week’s races leading up to the 146th running of the Derby on Saturday, September 5.

TwinSpires is the official online wagering portal of Churchill Downs, but there are others. I used Keeneland Select, which also offers Derby betting, for my first foray into online wagering when Lexington’s Keeneland racecourse held a truncated meet (also without fans in attendance) earlier this summer. I set up a profile, loaded some funds into the account, and was off to the races.

I told myself I would only bet on the major stakes races, but I quickly turned into something of an armchair handicapper as I cross-referenced expert picks and studied each horse’s confirmation as they saddled up in the paddock and paraded onto the track. In the end, I netted a whopping $10 over four days of racing. But considering what I’d typically spend on drinks and ill-advised, spur-of-the-moment bets at the track, it’s a win.

Mix Up a Historic Drink

Fun fact: So many glasses “went missing” from the clubhouse following the 1938 Kentucky Derby that the following year the track offered the first official souvenir mint julep glass for sale, and the julep has been associated with the Derby ever since.

Given the late date of this year’s race, Tim Knittel—recently appointed the first Official Bourbon Steward of Churchill Downs—suggests mixing things up with another historic drink with racing roots. The Jockey Club, which formed in New York City in 1894 and maintains a breed registry for Thoroughbred horses, also gave rise to two eponymous cocktails: one made with gin, and another with bourbon. Naturally we’ll go with the bourbon version, which tastes like a slightly sweeter Manhattan.

To make the drink, fill a shaker with ice and add two ounces of bourbon, one ounce of sweet vermouth, and a quarter ounce of Maraschino liqueur (simple syrup will also work), along with two or three dashes of Angostura bitters. Stir until chilled, strain into a cocktail glass, and garnish with a Maraschino cherry.

Dig into Derby Dishes

Despite your pandemic resolutions, Derby Day is not the time to skimp on calories. From bourbon-spiked chocolate pecan pie and bourbon balls to Hot Browns and beaten biscuits with country ham, many classic Southern dishes have come to be associated with the Derby. You’ll find most of them in Garden & Gun’s The Southerner’s Cookbook, as well as this collection of fifteen winning Kentucky Derby recipes, which includes beer cheeses and Benedictine spreads.  

Wear the Hat Anyway

One of the most memorable Derby parties my wife and I threw occurred when we were living in Chicago, far from our Kentucky home. It was the first Derby experience for many of our Midwestern friends, who arrived wearing cowboy hats, baseball caps, and all manner of chapeaus. We sipped mint juleps, ate burgoo, put together a Derby draw pool, and the last guests left long after the big race.

While the pandemic may have limited our ability to safely gather in large groups, it can’t squash that feeling of camaraderie. So set up the big TV outside, break out the good stuff, set out a spread of food, and invite a few friends over or just gather with family. Because even though the stands will be empty, when strains of “My Old Kentucky Home” play over the loudspeakers at Churchill Downs, we’ll all be singing along.