The world of horse racing has many different events throughout the spring, summer, and fall, but the world at large only seems to pay attention to the Triple Crown races: The Kentucky Derby, the Preakness Stakes, and the Belmont Stakes. While races such as the Traverse or the Breeders Cup boast more talented fields, one can’t deny the allure of the Triple Crown. Each race is a separate entity—a challenge unto itself—but the glory goes to the horse that wins all three. It’s such a daunting task that only thirteen horses have done it over a one-hundred year span.
Here’s how it works: First off, all horses must be three-year-olds to participate. They must win specified qualifying races or earn enough points in the designated point system during their two-and-three-year-old campaigns in order to take the field in the Kentucky Derby. The Derby, which is run annually on the first Saturday of May, at Churchill Downs in Louisville, Kentucky, usually has the largest field, or number of horses running, with twenty post positions. This race, which is a mile and a quarter, is a bit tricky due to the fact that it’s harder to make moves with so many horses on the track. Many a great horse has fallen short of the Triple Crown for this reason. The second leg of the Triple Crown is the Preakness Stakes, which takes place at Pimlico Racecourse in Baltimore, Maryland, and is run annually on the third Saturday of May. While the field is trimmed down to about fourteen, if the Derby winner elects to run, he will face some of the same horses from the previous race, but will also be challenged by fresh horses. Many Derby winners have made a Triple Crown push by winning this race, which is one and three-sixteenths mile long. The final race is the Belmont Steaks, which is run three weeks after the Preakness at Belmont Park in New York City. This beast of a race is a mile and a half long, and to use a hackneyed term, “separates the men from the boys.” If a horse has the health and stamina to run three races over a five week period against other great challengers (some old foes, others new) and win all three, that is a magnificent horse worthy of the Triple Crown. Many a tremendous horse has fallen short in the Belmont, often losing to a “fresher” competitor. Over the years, some have argued that in order to run in the Preakness or Belmont, it should be a prerequisite that a horse run in the Derby, basically eliminating fresh horses from challenging Triple Crown bid. It’s my not so humble option that removing fresh challengers from the field would dilute the challenge and the subsequent prestige of the horses that succeed—each race is its own challenge, and the ability to victoriously meet each over a grueling five weeks is what makes the Triple Crown what it is.
I grew up in a household where we watched horse racing throughout the year, whenever it was broadcast. Part of my childhood was spent in Louisville, Kentucky, where we would visit Churchill Downs during the season. Later in life, I attended the Preakness year after year with friends. I’m not big on gambling, but I am enthralled by the beauty and athleticism of the horses, as well as the strength and cunning of the jockeys, and the maneuvering of the trainers. I also love a good party—going to the races means getting dressed up, drinking fun cocktails, and eating great food! Even if you can’t attend a race, it’s a good excuse to throw a party, big or small, in your own home. Here’s what we did in our home this year.
The Kentucky Derby
My husband was out of town this year for the Derby, attending a conference in Philadelphia, so I decided to invite my friend and her kids over to watch the race. Her children are close friends with my son, so the little ones played in the toy room while the moms enjoyed a “girls’ evening in,” drinking Mint Juleps, the signature drink of the Kentucky Derby, and enjoying a Louisville-inspired menu. The food was served predominantly on pewter serving dishes that I have collected over the years. To pay homage to the race’s nickname, “The Run for the Roses,” I assembled a small bouquet of red roses (purchased at the grocery store) in a pewter julep cup, and placed it on the table with the food. This addition added a little elegance to the spread. Cocktail napkins adorned with a botanical print of red roses was another nod the blanket of roses draped over the race’s victor.
Brie Cheese & Water Crackers
There are several items on the menu that are a family tradition for Derby Day—Brie cheese and water crackers, strawberries, and some sort of roasted nut. These items have been part of the spread for as long as I can remember. Growing up, my mom would serve a kind of water cracker that she found when we lived in Louisville. They were light, airy, perfectly bite-sized, and came in a green box. No one in our family can remember the brand name, so we’ve always just referred to them as Louisville crackers. Sadly, it’s been years since I’ve seen them on the shelves of grocery stores and specialty food markets. In lieu of these delightful bites, I opt for Carr’s Water crackers, which allow the flavor of the Brie to shine.
The Kentucky Hot Brown sandwich originated in 1926 at the Brown Hotel, located in Louisville. It’s a hot, open-faced sandwich, which consists of a piece of thickly sliced bread, topped with turkey, bacon, Mornay sauce, and Parmesan cheese. Along with the Mint Julep, it’s a culinary delight commonly associated with the Derby. I knew I had to include it in some form on my menu, but I also didn’t want to spend too much time assembling food instead of hanging out with my friend. So, I opted to try a recipe I found on a fantastic website called The Seasoned Mom, and oh, my God, it’s so good! I used smoked Gruyere cheese and pimentos in the assembly, which really added to the flavor. Another dish synonymous with the Derby is the aptly named Kentucky Derby Pie—think chocolate chip cookie pie meets pecan pie…with bourbon. To make it, I used another recipe from The Seasoned Mom website. The links for the pie and the sliders are included above.
A few years ago, my husband and I visited Louisville while traversing Kentucky’s famous Bourbon Trail. Afterwards, my husband and I hotly debated the cultural feel of the city—I believe that it’s strongly southern, while my husband thinks it feels more like the midwest. As in most arguments, I maintain that I’m right. With this conviction, it was necessary to include deviled eggs on the menu. No southern gathering is complete without them. And they pair perfectly with a mint julep, which happens to be the de facto cocktail of the south. Louisville = Mint Juleps = Southern. End of argument.
The Preakness Stakes
I have been to Pimlico Racecourse to watch eight Preakness Stakes, the last being when American Pharoah won in 2015. It’s often referred to as “The People’s Party” because of the infield debauchery which takes center stage. Of the Triple Crown races, it’s also the most affordable to attend. Drunken college students aside, it’s still a classy event, at least in some parts of the Racecourse. My favorite location to sit is the Clubhouse Turn Reserve, where there’s a great view of the track, separate betting windows, bathrooms, and bars—as my husband puts it, “You’re away from the riffraff.” All in all, this event is one of the few positives of the Baltimore area and I miss attending.
Brown Sugar-Brined Chicken
This year’s watch party included my husband and his friend from medical school, who happens to be a Navy doc at the same hospital. Unfortunately his lovely wife couldn’t join us—she was missed. In keeping with the regional theme, I made Old Bay Crab Dip, from the McCormick website, because when you think of Maryland, you automatically think of crabs—the crustacean, not the veenirial disease (although I’ve made plenty of STD-related jokes in reference to Baltimore). Also, they put Old Bay Seasoning on everything. There’s even an Old Bay Summer Ale, made by Flying Dog Brewery (located in Frederick, Maryland)—it’s actually pretty good, gross as it may sound. To eat the crab dip, a sliced French Baguette was provided. In addition to the crab dip, we snacked on crudités and roasted cashews, while drinking Black Eyed Susans, the official cocktail of the Preakness Stakes. After the race, we feasted on grilled chicken, rice and green beans. I had made Ina Garten’s Strawberry-Rhubarb Crisp for dessert, but our guest graciously brought pound cake with strawberries and bourbon whipped cream, leaving the Crisp for breakfast (no complaints here!).
The food was served in white ceramic serving dishes to match the white baking dish used for the crab dip. I served the drinks in some of the commemorative Black Eyed Susan glasses I’ve collected over the years, which recalled some wonderful memories. Unfortunately, Black Eyed Susan flowers, which are used to make the blanket draped over the race’s victor, are not readily available in Florida, so I didn’t have any adorning my table.
For dinner, I set the table with our everyday white plates set on faux-pewter chargers. I liked how the pattern of the plate’s edge matched that of the charger. Each plate was topped with blue and white striped linen napkins and silver wear. The adults each had a stemmed wine glass, while the kiddo used one of his plastic cups. As a centerpiece, I chose to use a pewter candle stick holding a white candle set inside a glass hurricane. It was low key, just as a Preakness party should be.
To watch the Belmont, we invited another family with young children and our med school friend to join us. This time round, I chose to serve food inspired by New York City. As a nod to New York’s pizza scene, I tried yet another recipe from The Seasoned Mom website, this time for Pizza Dip—it did not disappoint. I decided to make my own pizza crust dippers using store-bought pizza dough that I sliced and twisted, but I do not recommend doing this, as the dippers weren’t broad enough to scoop up the dip. When I make this in the future, I will go with her recommendation of bagel chips. Keeping in mind the many Jewish delis found throughout New York, I made Warm Pastrami Sandwiches on a smaller (slider) scale. Because I couldn’t find party-sized rye bread, I cut the regular-sized slices in half before assembling each sandwich. With the many wonderful snack options provided by street vendors in the City, I decided to pay homage to them and add spiced nuts (a grocery store purchase) to the menu, just for something a little sweet. I had toyed with the idea of making cheesecake, but keeping in mind that there would be small children present, I opted to make another New York classic, Black and White Cookies, using a recipe I found on the Sally’s Baking Addiction website. One thing I learned: If you make and ice the cookies in advance, DO NOT PUT PLASTIC WRAP OVER THEM—even if the icing is set, it will still be messed up (this may seem like a “well, duh” moment, but I’m a novice baker). In addition to the food we provided, our friend brought a wonderful melon and cured meats platter to represent the Italian contingency of the Big Apple. Finally, to quench our thirst, I made the official cocktail of the Belmont Stakes, the Belmont Breeze. I found the recipe on another great website, The Spruce Eats. The best way I can describe it is it’s like a Manhattan only fruitier.
Cinnamon Toasted Nuts
I wanted to keep things a bit more modern, so food was served in plain white ceramic dishes. I also provided white porcelain dessert plates with beaded edges (our good China) and hors d’oeuvre forks, as the food options were somewhat messy to eat. Lime-green and ivory paisley-designed cocktail napkins provided a pop of color on the table. The drinks were served in martini glasses in a nod to the many amazing cocktail bars gracing New York’s vibrant culinary scene. The official flower of the Belmont Stakes is the white carnation. Unfortunately, Publix was out of them, so no flowers graced the table for this party…maybe next year.
When all was said and done, we had the opportunity to watch some incredible—and in the case of the Derby, controversial—races, ate a lot of good food, enjoyed some fantastic beverages, and spent time with some of our favorite people. I can’t wait to do it again next year!