Kentucky Derby Party Planning

Plan the ultimate Derby Day party with the help of caterer extraordinaire Marianne Miller.
A Derby Day refreshment: Mint juleps.

And they’re off! If you can’t make it to Churchill Downs on May 7, bring a little bit of the Kentucky Derby to the lake area with our party planning guide. Marianne Miller, owner of Saga Hill Cooking & Events, shares her tips for a Derby Day party that will net you the most bang for your buck.


Set the Scene

As with any elegant southern affair, it’s important to dress not only yourself but your tabletop, too. Gather up your finest linens, china and flatware—or borrow from your mother or grandmother’s collection. If you don’t own a matching set of place settings, don’t worry. Miller suggests mixing different patterns, colors, even styles for a shabby chic vibe.

Looking to add to your assortment? The Hope Chest for Breast Cancer in Wayzata is a treasure trove of fine furnishings at a fraction of their retail cost. It’s a great place to find beautiful table linens in spring colors, additional pieces of china, even those mint julep cups for the signature drink of the day. Miller lists the Hope Chest as one of her secret weapons, though she’s been known to scour area thrift stores like the new Goodwill in Minnetonka.


Derby Classics

The Kentucky Derby is known as the “run for the roses,” as the winning horse is draped in a blanket of red roses upon winning the race, so don’t forget to accessorize accordingly. If fresh red roses are out of your price range, you can find silk beauties at Natures Harvest in Wayzata or Michaels in Minnetonka at a fraction of the cost.

While keeping the television on is considered tasteless at most parties, this is one time you won’t want to miss the action. The race is actually the 11th of the day—and happens around 5:24 p.m. Central Time—but keep the TV tuned to the action as lively ambiance throughout the soiree. Encourage guests to sit and enjoy the rush of the Louisville crowd with ample seating. You can even throw a few oversize pillows on the floor for the men.

To get your guests engaged in the race itself, print out a listing of the horses and their stats at Place these near the TV, complete with pens and pencils for making notes, and encourage friendly wagers. Remember, the Derby pays out for a win, place or show (first, second or third, respectively) just like other horse races.


Hats Off

There are no hard and fast rules when it comes to Derby hats, but a general rule of thumb is bigger is better. Ask the women on your guest list to bring their own or have a few hats on hand for forgetful partygoers. Really, the sky’s the limit. Start with the biggest hat you can find and add on any kind of embellishments, from feathers and netting to fake flowers and miniature horses. While the hats originally were intended to shade female attendees from the powerful Kentucky sun, Derby hats have morphed into a fashion statement the world over.


Good Eats

Dainty, bite-size nosh is the name of the name at Derby time. Miller recommends the classic cucumber sandwich—crusts off, of course—and her take on the legendary Derby-Pie. As any native Kentuckian will tell you, no Derby is complete without this liquored-up version of chocolate-pecan pie. While Miller’s recipe contains no alcohol, if it’s an adults-only party, add in 3–4 Tbsp. of your favorite Kentucky bourbon with the vanilla, pecans and chocolate chips. See her recipes below, including two classic Derby drinks: a mint julep and an earl grey martini.

If you’re pressed for time, Miller looks to the pros at Lunds & Byerlys when she’s in a food pinch. She advises against prepared food, as it costs an arm and a leg, but looks to the many dips and spreads the food emporium is known for. The Lunds in Navarre stocks these delights in abundance and is centrally located in the lake area.


Clean Up

Once the last guest has departed, it’s time to start cleaning—or sit down, rest your feet and leave the dishes to someone else, as Miller prefers. She hires out Saga Hill dishwashers at $15 per hour with a four-hour minimum. If there’s a still wiggle room left in your budget, she swears they’re the best of the best and “actually know how to clean your stuff,” she says. They’ll even assist with pre-party, sous-chef-like tasks, like cutting carrots for a veggie tray. Now’s that some real help.


Recipes courtesy of Marianne Miller and Saga Hill Cooking & Events

Cucumber Sandwiches

1 loaf white bread
1/2 cup crème fraîche
1/4 tsp. extra fine minced garlic

Salt to taste
1/4 tsp. white pepper
1 Tbsp. finely chopped fresh dill
1 seedless cucumber, thinly sliced

Dill sprigs, for garnish

Remove crust from bread with a sharp knife and cut into triangles. Place crème fraîche, garlic, salt, pepper and 1 Tbsp. dill in a small bowl; stir to combine. Spread lightly on bread; top with cucumbers and garnish with fresh dill sprigs. Cover with a damp paper towel until ready to serve to keep the sandwiches from drying out.

Chocolate Pecan Pie

Famous Derby Pie


1 cup all-purpose flour

1/2 tsp. salt

7 Tbsp. butter, cold and grated

2 Tbsp. cold water



Place flour and salt in a large bowl. Grate butter. (Chef’s tip: Freezing the butter for an hour works best.) Once butter is grated, stir into the flour mixture. Add water and stir with a fork until the flour mixture is moistened.

Mix with your hands into a ball that cleans the bowl. You may need to add a bit more water or flour if your dough is too dry or wet, respectively. Don’t overwork, but let come together.

Roll dough into a circle large enough to fit into pie pan; place in pan. Crimp the edges. (Chef’s tip: Use a fork or make a fluted edge with your fingers.)



1 cup sugar

1/2 cup flour

1 stick butter, melted

2 eggs

1 cup chopped pecans

1 1/2 cups chocolate chips

1 tsp. vanilla



Combine flour and sugar in a medium sized bowl; pour in melted butter. Stir together and add eggs. Next, add the vanilla, pecans and chocolate chips. Once combined, pour into your pie shell. Bake at 350 degrees for 40–45 minutes or until a nice golden brown color.


Early Times Mint Julep


2 cups sugar

2 cups water

Sprigs of fresh mint

Crushed ice

Early Times Kentucky Whisky

For presentation: Silver Julep cups



The night before: Make a simple 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.

The day of: Make one drink at a time by filling a julep cup with crushed ice, adding one tablespoon mint simple syrup and two ounces of Early Times Kentucky Whisky. Stir rapidly with a spoon to frost the outside of the cup. Garnish with a sprig of fresh mint.


Earl Grey Martini


1 1/2 oz. Earl Gray Gin Infusion (see below)

3/4 oz. fresh lemon juice

1 oz. simple syrup

1 egg white

1 lemon twist, for garnish

Lemon Zest Sugar, for garnish (see below)

Cubed ice



Fill a cocktail shaker or small pitcher two-thirds full of ice and add the gin infusion, lemon juice, simple syrup and egg white. Shake for 15 seconds. Strain into a chilled cocktail glass rimmed with the Lemon Zest Sugar. Add the twist.


Earl Grey Gin Infusion


1/4 cup Earl Grey tea leaves

1 liter Tanqueray gin



Add tea leaves to the bottle of gin. Replace cap and shake well. Allow the tea to steep in the gin for 2 hours; strain to remove the tea leaves. (Chef’s tip: Do not press the tea leaves to extract excess.)


Lemon Zest Sugar


1 lemon

1/2 cup granulated sugar



Finely grate the zest of the whole lemon, being careful not to include any of the white inner pith. Add sugar and mix well.



The Hope Chest for Breast Cancer, 3850 Shoreline Dr., Wayzata; 952.471.8700

Goodwill, 13820 Wayzata Blvd., Minnetonka; 952.544.6648

Natures Harvest, 320 E. Wayzata Blvd., Wayzata; 952.473.4687

Michaels, 11522 Wayzata Blvd., Minnetonka; 952.541.8109

Lunds, 3333 Shoreline Dr., Navarre; 952.471.8473

Saga Hill Cooking & Events, 4198 N. Shore Dr., Orono; 612.281.1846