Kentucky Derby How-To: Ask A Kentuckian!

In Louisville, Derby is a birthright. We are born into it. The hats, the bourbon, the local events, the parties–these are ours from childhood. We all may do Derby a little differently–and there are lots of different ways to do Derby–but we can’t help knowing how it’s done because it is such a part of our collective identity. Getting away from it would be like trying to abdicate a noble title. You could do it if you wanted to, but why would you? Derby is who we are in Louisville; resistance to the Derby magic is futile.

We absolutely adore the bits and pieces of national attention we get during the weeks leading up to Derby. Kentuckians are very eager to show the world who we really are, and we enjoy having our most charming customs presented in a way that flatters us and our culture in front of outsiders. We are painfully aware that sometimes outsiders consider us to be ignorant, barefoot rubes with missing teeth and bad grammar. Sometimes there are embarrassing stories that don’t accurately represent us. It’s nice for others to see us portrayed as we see ourselves: hospitable, genteel people who can throw a good party, know when seersucker is appropriate, and can maintain a classy buzz for hours in a fabled historic setting.

You see, we are absolutely steeped in Derby traditions and Derby pride from infancy. As preschoolers we dress up in horse-themed outfits and homemade hats to march in school Derby parades. My children’s preschool devotes two full weeks to Derby-themed curriculum leading up to the big day; lessons cover all the big Derby Festival events like the Great Steamboat Race and Great Balloon Race. The kids do Derby Festival-themed crafts, and there’s a stick horse race in addition to the parade. By the time we’re in elementary school, we’ve all been to the Junior Jockey Club at Churchill Downs, have a working knowledge of the way betting works, and have personally met Churchill Charlie.

In Louisville, we know all the most famous horses’ names, and we consider them old friends who bring back memories of Derbies past. I remember having simulated Derby races on the swingset of my elementary school–we’d choose which racehorse we wanted to be, and whoever swung to the highest point the fastest was the winner of the swingset Derby. Everyone wanted to be Secretariat.

By the time we’re twelve, we know what type of bourbon is appropriate for bourbon balls, because we’ve already been making them with our grandmothers for five years, and we know what to do at the betting window, too. Most schools don’t even have school on Oaks Day, because it’s pointless; no one really learns or works during Derby time.

On Derby day, whether we’re in the infield, the Turf Club, a friend’s Derby party, or our own garden planting tomatoes, when the race comes on and they lead the horses into the gate and sing My Old Kentucky Home, most of us will get a little misty-eyed because of the beauty and pageantry of it all. In that moment, this place is presented to the whole world as wonderful. We already know that it is, but there’s something so moving about all of us joining together to sing the song together, and to celebrate our collective history and culture. It’s one we’re happy to share with visitors.

Derby is a part of who we are as Kentuckians, and we know how to do it better than anyone else. The parties, the dresses, the hats, the Derby Festival events are second nature to us, and we can tell you how to navigate it all, because we have lived it our whole lives. That should count for something, shouldn’t it? I wouldn’t go to Paris and tell the people there how to be more Parisian.

And yet, in recent years, respected magazines like Southern Living and Garden & Gun, have published stories and tips for Derby that are written by people from places like Texas, who couldn’t possibly have the knowledge or experience with Derby that every Louisvillian has gained just by a lifetime of Derby osmosis. I don’t understand this, because I know so many people who know Derby and are willing to share Derby. If you want to know about Derby, ask a person who has lived it year after year.

I’m not just talking about a one-time offense, either. Twice in recent years Southern Living has featured Jenna Bush Hager’s ideas about what to wear to the races, and, bless her heart, I’m sure she’s really sweet and lovely, but she’s the wrong person to ask about Derby. Ask me, ask my mother, my grandmother, ask any of my children, or any of my friends, but please don’t ask Jenna Bush Hager, because she has clearly never been to the Derby. Garden & Gun had a piece about how to throw a Derby party in recent years. It was written by an Austin-based blogger who suggested decorating with lilacs of all things. That is just blasphemy. Lilacs are lovely, but they don’t say Derby. Roses say Derby, and even the most inexperienced Derby novice knows that.

Southern Living and Garden & Gun are two wonderful publications; I read both of them and I enjoy the content and ideas presented. I love that they celebrate the South, and It pains me to mention their sacrosanct names in a negative light. It’s just that I don’t understand why they wouldn’t ask a Kentuckian about the Derby. It seems so simple. If you’re trying to decide what to wear to a rodeo: ask Jenna Bush Hager or an Austin-based blogger. If you’re trying to demystify Derby, ask a Kentuckian. You can ask one any of us.

If you’re going to the Derby and need to know how to navigate a day at Churchill Downs, ask a Kentuckian.

If you’re curious about attending one of the big fundraising galas leading up to the Derby, ask a Kentuckian.

If you’re going to Derby and need help with a dress, hat, and shoes that will look the part and last through a very long day of walking, drinking, and being exposed to various kinds of weather, ask a Kentuckian.

If you’d like to learn how to make the perfect mint julep, ask a Kentuckian.

If you’re looking for recommendations on bourbon or traditional Kentucky foods, ask a Kentuckian.

If you want to decorate your house for Derby, ask a Kentuckian.

If you’re throwing a Derby party in your town, and need to know how it’s really done, ask a Kentuckian.

We’re here and eager to help, and we know what we’re talking about.

I plan to break it all down for you in the next few days, so stay tuned.

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