Hats, mint juleps, horses: Detroit celebrates the Derby

Stephanie Steinberg
The Detroit News
Tiffany Gunter, left, Michelle Jeffreys and KaTrina Duren were among the women dressed up for The Circle’s party.

The mint juleps, over-the-top hats and seersucker suits are no longer just for Southerners in Louisville. This year, Detroit is getting in on the Kentucky Derby fun.

While residents haven’t historically gathered to watch the horse race dubbed the “Greatest two minutes in sports,” a few Detroiters are trying to change that. A debut event called Derby DéTROIT will be held May 7 at the Roberts Riverwalk Hotel, featuring signature mint juleps, Southern-style fare and live horses for photo opps. Another grass-roots effort from a social group called The Circle is hosting a derby party with live entertainment at the Detroit Seafood Market in Harmonie Park.

The Circle threw its first derby party last year after member Michelle Spears, 47, of West Bloomfield was scrolling through Facebook pictures of her friends touting elaborate derby hats.

“I was thinking, I would love to experience that,” says the born-and-raised Detroiter.

So she and her five fellow Circle leaders decided to bring the Kentucky Derby to Detroit.

“There are certain events that Detroit is just not privy to either because of the location or we just don’t know about it, so that’s what The Circle is seeking to do — find those events and get Detroiters exposed to them,” Spears says.

The free event will offer specials on Kentucky-themed food, mint juleps and music from Circle members and local deejays Bruce Bailey and Phil Tha Mixx. Attendees should wear “their swankiest of hats,” Spears says, but they shouldn’t expect to hear the sounds of the South. The deejays will be cranking out R&B, hip-hop and old-school jams.

“That’s where the Detroit part comes in,” Spears says. “We’re going to bridge the splendor of the Kentucky Derby with the comforts of Detroit.”

Meanwhile, a rival party on the riverfront, Derby DéTROIT, has sold over 400 tickets at $50 apiece for general admission and $75 for VIP.

“There isn’t a lot of people who can make it out to the Kentucky Derby to experience it, so we aim to emulate exactly what goes on at the derby,” says Detroit resident Darren Brown, 36, founder of The Refinement Group, which is hosting the event.

Guests will sample hors d’oeuvres, watch the derby on large screens and hear live music from Detroit jazz group Collective Peace.

Sarah Maynie brought the sun and shade with her outfit at last year’s party hosted by The Circle.

The Refinement Group started four years ago to “create a better nightlife experience” and throw themed-parties that represent the true spirit of an event, Brown says. The live horses they’re bringing from MotorCity Horsemen, a stable in Belleville, is just one example.

“I haven’t seen any other derby parties bring in horses for the ambiance,” Brown says.

To find proper derby party attire, the organizers are pointing attendees to online retailers Dress To Kill and Bleu Bowtique, as well as Detroit shops Thrift on the Ave, The Peacock Room and Hot Sam’s.

“I’ve been in this business since 1974,” says Hot Sam’s owner Tony Stovall. “My phone is jumping off the hook with people asking me about the derby.”

The downtown retailer is selling colorful seersucker suits (a derby fashion staple for men) around $250.

“It’s summer,” Stovall says. “It’s time to take off the dark clothes and wear colorful clothing, but do it tastefully.”

His daughter, Lauren Stovall, the store’s stylist, advises women to find their hat first, then pick out the dress. “It’s almost backwards when you talk about styling,” she says. “The statement is the hat, so you want to go a lot more simple with your attire.”

If hats aren’t your thing, The Peacock Room owner Rachel Lutz recommends fascinators — elaborate headbands or hair clips that became trendy after the 2011 British royal wedding.

“Sometimes finding the right hat that fits your face, shape and hair style can be a challenge,” Lutz says, “but anybody can wear a fascinator.”

Lutz says she’s seen increasing interest in the Kentucky Derby party scene, just based on the handful of women who walk through her apparel boutique each day in search of hats and floral dresses.

“To be honest, I don’t think it’s about the horses,” she says. “I think women enjoy the fashion of the derby parties. In our culture where sweats and flip-flops have become more normal, it’s a great excuse for women to dress up and feel like a lady.”

“I’m sure the mint juleps don’t hurt either,” she adds.

Want to host your own Kentucky Derby party at home? New York-based celebrity event designer Cathy Riva shares fun and easy tips:


The Kentucky Derby website offers derby-themed recipes from bourbon-glazed short ribs to artichoke, sweet pea and mint ravioli. For a more simple menu, Riva suggests serving watermelon and tomato salad in mason jars for a Southern touch. (If you don’t have mason jars, jam jars will do). Pair that with shrimp and smoked grits with tasso gravy for a hearty dish. Not into seafood? Try a New York strip steak with a truffle sea salt crust.

“You can just throw it on the grill, and forget about it,” she says.

And don’t forget the snacks. Riva suggests buying inexpensive derby hats from a costume or party store. Line them with wax paper and then fill them with chips or Chex Mix for a decorative twist that will “bring out the table,” Riva says.


If you’re going to throw a derby party, you have to serve the signature mint julep.

“The trick to a great mint julep is you have to really pack it with shaved ice — think snow cone quality,” Riva says.

Buy a bag of ice, and crush it into smaller pieces with a mallet. Typically served in flowery silver cup, the top of the drink should look like “a dome of ice,” Riva says.

For the liquor, opt for a Kentucky-made Woodford Reserve bourbon.

“It adds a bit of authenticity,” Riva says.

DJ Phil Tha Mixx went with white for The Circle’s party.


Lost on what to wear? Riva suggests checking out the website VineyardVines.com. There’s a section on derby attire that will provide inspiration.

Men can keep it simple by wearing a jacket with a pocket square, or a plain button-down shirt with a derby-themed tie.

“For women, this is the time to bring out your inner Sunday school girl,” Riva says. “You can wear whatever giant concoction you can think of.” She’s referring to the infamous derby hats, where the rule of thumb is the bigger, the better.

If you don’t want to spend a ton on a hat, you can decorate your own straw summer hat using a hot glue gun. Loop colorful ribbon around the rim, and glue on fake flowers from a craft store.

Remember, “the hat is the star,” Riva says.

The accessory should include the colors of your dress, but if your dress is a solid color, the two don’t have to match.

Decor and ambiance

Riva recommends a Kentucky bluegrass playlist (or Google “Kentucky Derby playlist” for ideas). Stick to green and pastel colors for decor. “You want to mimic the idea of spring,” Riva says, adding that you just have to look outside for inspiration. Think: white carnations, ivy, ferns and violets.


If kids are attending, organize a few games like horseshoes or cornhole. Youngsters can also make their own “horse on a stick” with horse head print outs. Then have a horse race in the backyard for old-fashioned fun.


(313) 222-2156

Twitter: @Steph_Steinberg

Mint Juleps should contain lots of shave ice.

Mint julep

2 ounces bourbon

1/4 ounce ginger liqueur

1 lemon

1/2 of teaspoon of honey syrup

Add lots of ice,

garnish with mint leaves

Serves: 1 drink

Kentucky Derby Watch Parties


Roberts Riverwalk Hotel

1000 River Place Drive, Detroit

4-9 p.m.

$50 general admission, $75 VIP

The Detroit Kentucky Derby Day Party

Detroit Seafood Market

1435 Randolph, Detroit

4-8 p.m.


Hazel Park Raceway

1650 E. 10 Mile, Hazel Park

Doors open at 9:30 a.m.