A Legendary Derby Day Party

Tip your hat to the South's great race with a dashing celebration.
Ellen Ruoff Riley / Photography Ralph Anderson

Anticipation mounts, and the call, "They're off!" sets tradition in motion. Even though the legendary Derby lasts only a few action-packed moments, for one sparkling afternoon in early May, a good portion of the world yearns to be part of this idyllic Kentucky ritual.

The excitement comes with good reason, says Jon Carloftis, landscape designer and native Kentuckian. "It's tradition at its finest. The Derby gives you an occasion to celebrate with good friends, terrific food, and fun," he explains. "For that day, everyone hails from Kentucky."

Relaxed elegance defines Jon's style, and his secrets apply to any occasion. Party time finds him at the door, greeting each guest personally. "It's so simple to make people feel special," Jon contends. "For around $75, you can rent a red carpet. When guests step onto that carpet, they are transported to another place."

Fresh flowers at the door continue the warm welcome and emphasize Jon's mantra of ease and elegance. Pots of blooms are simply dropped into decorative containers to frame the steps and punctuate the carpet's destination.

Hats remain the fashionable Derby icon, and the festive attire adds to the celebratory atmosphere. "People love it, and it makes a difference," Jon admits. "When you dress up, put on a hat, and have a mint julep, you're at the Derby."

Indoors, Jon arranges food in one place, setting the table with a mix of everyday and special serving pieces. "I like to use what's close at hand," he says. A topiary horse reigns as the centerpiece, holding a single rose as a nod to the day's event. Julep cups filled with roses carry on the theme.

On a lovely spring afternoon, you can share this event. As the magnificent horses are off and running, put on a fabulous hat, sip a julep, and appreciate the genteel nature of this ageless Kentucky tradition.


"Derby Day" is from the May 2007 issue of Southern Living.