A Kentucky Derby party can be much like a mint julep, the horse race's official drink. The formula for each can be deceptively simple, yet so easy to get wrong.
Ted and Rowena Crosbie have found just the right formula for their annual event, which is Saturday. They also know how to make a perfect mint julep.
“We invite a pretty diverse cross-section of people. Those people know half of the people and have fun getting to know the other half,” said Ted Crosbie, vice president of global plant breeding and chief technology officer for Monsanto.
The 75 to 100 guests include fellow horse lovers from Nebraska and Iowa, personal friends, business associates, community members and notables, including Iowa Lt. Gov. Kim Reynolds and Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad.
The Crosbies maximize race-watching possibilities at their two-story, less-than-4,000-square-foot brick home in Earlham, Iowa, near Des Moines.
TVs include a 100-inch screen in the media room and three screens in the home's sports bar, he said.
The Crosbie home sits on 289 acres of woods, pasture land and cropland. Besides the 250 rose bushes in the front yard and several water features, the acreage has 10 miles of trails.
“It's just kind of the people and the setting that make it a great party,” Crosbie said. “We're into horses and decided it would be fun to have friends over to watch the race.”
His guests agree.
“He hosts the best Kentucky Derby party in the Midwest,” said Dr. Luke Matranga of Omaha. He and his wife, Sam, will be at Saturday's party.
So will Monte and Diane Antisdel of Adel, Iowa, who have attended for several years. They keep coming back for “the fellowship, friendship and being able to watch the Kentucky Derby while everybody's guessing who's going to win,” Diane Antisdel said.
Larry and Carine Stava of Bennington will be party newcomers. She shopped, bought, returned and then purchased a second special Derby hat for the Crosbies' annual contest.
“I got the coolest pink hat at Charming Charlie's and it was definitely Derby-worthy,” said Carine Stava. But the hat didn't match the pink of her outfit.
So she exchanged the stunning pink hat for a wide-brimmed, white-bowed blue hat that matches the nautical outfit she will wear Saturday.
The party's hat contest has been for women, but if men wished to compete, they could, Crosbie said. Applause and admiration are the prizes.
Stava and Antisdel will be dressed somewhat formally like the women at Churchill Downs on Derby day. Other guests will dress more casually, Antisdel said.
Party invitations also are a mix of formal and casual. Some guests receive verbal or email invitations. Others get a formal invitation designed each year by Rowena Crosbie.
The party's not just about the Run for the Roses. The Antisdels and others will bring their four-wheelers to ride, then go home to change clothes and return for the afternoon.
“Some people actually bring their horses and ride before the Derby starts,” Ted Crosbie said.
He also will lead a horse around for kid rides.
“I've been a horse person for a long time,” said Crosbie. He belongs to the Omaha-based North Hills Hunt Club, founded in 1965, and hunts fox up to three times a week from October through April.
Luke Matranga is master of foxhounds for the hunt club. Monte Antisdel is a former master of foxhounds.
The Matrangas also own Regg & Wally's Tack & Saddlery in Omaha. The Stavas own a Bennington horse barn, Farm at Butterflat Creek.
For the party, people from the horse set help with bartending and food. Crosbie smokes at least eight briskets and a dozen racks of ribs.
And, of course, there's those mint juleps.
“Until we got into it, I never thought I liked mint juleps,” Crosbie said.
“But if you follow the recipe exactly, it's a fabulous drink. The freshness of the mint actually matters. You have to have fresh, truly out-of-the-garden mint.”
Steep the mint-sugar water 24 hours, Crosbie said, and buy Woodford Reserve bourbon at least a week ahead of time, because it can be difficult to find. He buys half-a-dozen bottles for the party. And you must use crushed ice.
Unlike the juleps, the party decorations are low-key.
A friend brings his collection of Kentucky Derby glasses. Plates and napkins are a mix of horse racing and fox hunting themes.
Diane Antisdel said the guests eat before, during and after the two-minute Derby.
“We might end up staying for quite a while after the Derby is over,” she said.
If the weather allows, guests sit outside on the patio.
Too bad the Crosbies' roses won't be blooming in time for their namesake race.
Want to deck out your home for the Derby?
» Set the mood by sending out invitations that say Kentucky Derby or have horses and jockeys on them.
» Decorate with women's fancy hats like those women wear to the Derby. Use removable hooks to hang the hats on one wall.
» Draw inspiration from jockey silks. LimeLight Expressions, an event-planning firm in Omaha, suggests covering tables in silk or silk-like tablecloths, hanging or draping silk banners from the ceiling or window treatments, or tying each chair with silk ribbon.
» Think of roses, because the Derby also is called the Run for the Roses. Choose red for a classic palette or a variety of pastel colors to brighten the space. Using roses, create a garland to drape, a wreath to hang, or arrangements for centerpieces.
» LimeLight suggests making centerpieces of 6- to 8-inch straight hurricane vases or trophy cup-shaped vases. Fill each very full with red roses. Both centerpiece styles will emulate the roses draped over the winning horse.
» Another choice for centerpieces, says LimeLight, is to fill three square vases with tightly bundled red roses. Set all three at different levels. Tie each with a red ribbon and number them 1, 2 or 3 on the front of the red ribbon to represent the winners.
» Display your food or beverages trackside. Make a small white fence in an oval shape and place it on a tabletop or island, LimeLight suggests. Place green Easter grass inside the fence. Just outside the face, make a racetrack of crush chocolate cookies or dry baking cocoa. Use more green Easter grass to fill to the edge of the table or island. Place platters and trays of food or beverages in tiers atop the green Easter grass inside the fence.
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