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The Kentucky Derby and Cinco de Mayo: Throw a Great Theme Party to Celebrate

Apr 24, 2012 09:28AM ● By Erin Frisch

Cinco de Mayo

As April draws to a close, May flowers are not the only thing we have to look forward to. May also brings a couple of events worth celebrating—Cinco de Mayo and the Kentucky Derby—which fall on the same day this year, the fifth of May. Both occasions offer the perfect opportunity to bring friends and family together for a fun theme party and an all-around good time.

Cinco de Mayo

Cinco de Mayo is a Mexican holiday traditionally celebrated in the United States to honor Mexican heritage. It marks the unlikely victory of the Mexican army over French forces twice their number in the Battle of Puebla on May 5, 1862.

  • Decorations – As a celebration of Mexican heritage, Cinco de Mayo decorations should reflect the colors of the Mexican flag—red, white, and green. If you are setting up tables for guests to relax and dine at, small cacti make great centerpieces (inexpensive at your local flower shop or Home Depot).

  • Drinks – Alcoholic beverages should highlight tequila; consider traditional margaritas, tequila sunrises, or spice it up with jalapeño margaritas. Offer sangria for those who dislike tequila. As a non-alcoholic option, serve the traditional rice drink horchata.
  • Food – There are plenty of snack and finger food options for this theme, including various types of salsa and guacamole with tortilla chips. Cheese quesadillas are quick and easy to make, and can be cut into wedges for easy eating. If the weather is warm, gazpacho, a cold soup served in little cups, is another good choice that’s easy to make ahead. For a sweet ending, try cinnamon and sugar covered churros.
  • Guests – Ask guests to dress in red, white, and green and wear sombreros (or provide sombreros for guests as party favors; find them at your local party store).
  • Games/Contests – If you’re having games at your party, a piñata (or two) is a must. For children, fill it with candy and small toys. For adults, fill it with candy and nips of various liquors (plastic bottles only!). Other games for kids might include musical sombreros (played like musical chairs, but grabbing a hat when the music stops) or limbo. Then there’s the Mexican hat dance, of course! If your guests are over 18, a salsa-making competition lets everyone bring something tasty to the table.

Kentucky Derby

The Kentucky Derby is always held on the first Saturday in May at Churchill Downs in Louisville, Kentucky. This theme can be interpreted two ways, based on the two main types of crowds the Derby draws. There are the folks who sit in Millionaire’s Row—celebrities, royalty, the rich and famous, celebrity horse owners, presidents—you get the picture. Then there is the Infield, the grassy area around the track that draws both a younger, feistier party crowd and the family picnic types.

  • Decorations –The Derby is also known as the “Run for the Roses,” so vases of roses would make good table centerpieces. If you’re going for the upscale Millionaire’s Row theme, a red carpet could be laid out to mark the entrance to the party. For the Infield theme, decorate with horseshoes labeled with each horse’s name. Other decorations might include banners labeled with the different parts of the track: Winner’s Circle, Grandstand, Millionaire’s Row, etc.
  • Drinks – The traditional beverage of Churchill Downs is the mint julep, a beverage made with bourbon and simple syrup and garnished with fresh mint. For those who are not partial to bourbon, the Oaks Lily is the traditional drink of the Kentucky Oaks, the sister race to the Derby held the day before. If your theme is the Infield, try Infield punch. Non-alcoholic drinks can include traditional Southern sweet tea, as well as a mocktail version of the mint julep substituting ginger ale for bourbon.
  • Food – Traditional Derby fare includes burgoo, a thick stew that can be made in a crock pot (great because all the prep is done ahead of the party) and Kentucky hot brown, aka open-faced turkey sandwiches. For a Millionaire’s Row theme, Benedictine finger sandwiches can be served. Benedictine can also be served as a dip with crackers or veggies. For an Infield-themed party, tasty finger food can include derby dogs (pigs in blankets) or bourbon marinated mini hot dogs. In either case, typical barbecue fare makes a great main dish. For dessert, try mint julep cupcakes or chocolate bourbon pecan pie.
  • Guests – Whichever theme you choose, big elaborate hats for ladies are a must. They have been a Derby staple since its inception. If your theme is Millionaire’s Row, encourage guests to dress up a bit—for women, longer dresses, and for men, seersucker, bow ties, and brightly colored pants with blazers. For an Infield theme, dress is more casual; think sundresses, shorts, and T-shirts. To make your party a little more interesting, ask guests to dress in the same colors as the silks worn by their favorite horse’s jockey.
  • Games/Contests – Picnic-style games work well with the Derby theme. Try beanbag tosses (also known as cornhole), horseshoes, or bocce ball. For adults, a beer pong table can be set up if beer is being provided as a beverage. Contests might include a best-hat contest for the women, and for the Millionaire’s Row theme, a best-dressed gentleman contest for the men.

Kentucky Derby or Cinco de Mayo? Tell us how you plan to celebrate!

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