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.

The Corn Top’s Ripe and the Meadow’s in the Bloom: a Day Trip to My Old Kentucky Home

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Kentucky girls on the front steps of My Old Kentucky Home

“Why don’t we just go up there and say, ‘This was our last weekend together, and we didn’t feel like going to Fort Sumter and touring goddamn colonial homes. We wanted to go to the beach and meet boys and go to wild parties and dance’? I mean why can’t we tell them the truth?” –Carson, from the movie Shag

I never tour a colonial home that I don’t think of that immortal line from Shag (the greatest slumber party movie of all time). Of course, like any other fun loving Southern former sorority girl, I make it a point never to miss an opportunity to go to the beach and meet boys and go to wild parties and dance. Unlike Carson, I’ve never considered those activities mutually exclusive with touring colonial homes.

I was the kind of child who enjoyed that sort of thing, and I still do. Colonial Williamsburg is my Las Vegas, and I love the party atmosphere in New Orleans almost as I love the French Empire antiques on Royal Street. Wandering through M.S. Rau or Ida Manheim, and then picking up a Hurricane in a go-cup is pretty much my idea of a perfect day.

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These Kentuckians know good bourbon when they see it.

I admit I was hesitant at first to let my own children in on the fun. The last thing I need is for one of my precious angels to break a piece of the historic wedding ring Limoges in the dining room of My Old Kentucky Home. But they have to learn good taste somewhere, and now’s the time–otherwise they’ll be 30 years old and standing completely bewildered in the middle of a Pottery Barn, with no clue where or how to begin. They’ll be the sort of people who can’t look at a chair and decide immediately if they like it or not, and so they have to search for a year for the right chairs, and constantly discuss their exhaustive search with bored friends and family. That is something I simply cannot abide. I feel sad for people who have no idea what their tastes are; I won’t let it happen to my family.

And that brings us to our day trip to My Old Kentucky Home, which I never would have attempted without the help of my gracious parents. Can you imagine taking these people into a 221-year-old house without reinforcements?

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It went well though. No one broke anything. The worst thing that happened was that Bea touched a marble top tea table just because I told her not to. I’m lucky to have an eight-year-old who does not suffer fools, or put up with any shenanigans from her sisters; she immediately laid the smack down. The girls got to hold some authentic sugar snips (they know how obsessed I am with sugar chests), and got to see a gorgeous old piano with mother-of-pearl keys and one of those creepy portraits where the eyes follow you. Our tour guide led us in a rousing chorus of My Old Kentucky Home, which my girls know by heart; it made me proud to hear them sing along. When Anne Miriam noticed the matching trumeau mirrors in the front hall, I had one of those rare transcendent parental moments where I knew I’m doing something right–which probably means that karma will be knocking me back down soon enough.

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The girls explored this pretty arbor on the side of the carriage house.
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“Wait for me, everybody!”