The Kentucky Derby is to horse people what the Super Bowl is to football fans. Wild celebrations, friendly “speculations,” and parties mark each event. But no Super Bowl party comes close to the Derby party Dr. Brian Willoughby and his wife Erin Saboe throw every spring at their Denver Country Club home in honor of the most exciting two minutes in sports. Steeped in 140 years of tradition, the Derby and the Kentucky Oaks (races held the day after) are the oldest continuously contested sporting events in history.
“We got caught up in the tradition when we lived in Lexington during medical school,” said Willoughby, a facial plastic surgeon and director of facial trauma service at Swedish Medical Center. “When we moved back here in 1996, we missed engaging in the tradition and thought getting friends together under the umbrella of a rite-of-spring party would be fun.”
Little did they think their small backyard gathering in their then-Hilltop neighborhood would morph into one of the most coveted afternoon parties of the year. Instead of a small group of friends sitting on the ground drinking mint juleps from paper cups, now about 100 guests sit in chairs and mingle under a large tent warmed with space heaters. They sip the signature drink from classic silver cups, listen to a live bluegrass band, watch the races on a large screen projector and play horseshoes in backyard horseshoe pits installed for the occasion. A buffet table is sumptuous with a true southern-style spread: smoked country ham, pickled Sea Island green beans (a recipe from an island off the Georgia coast), coleslaw, platters of Kentucky Fried Chicken, biscuits, and traditional Derby pies. If it’s cold, which it often is on the first Saturday of May, Saboe will make Burgoo, a throw-everything-in-the-pot soup. A traditional Appalachian dish, possum and squirrel often are the main ingredients; but Saboe, a third-generation Coloradan, prefers chicken and pork, which are more readily available in the Rocky Mountains!
Willoughby, who was born in Kentucky and lived there as a small boy, smokes the ham overnight in a smoker his grandfather gave him. This requires monitoring during the night to refill the smoker with water so the ham retains moisture. Saboe makes the beans, coleslaw and pies. A bartender pours juleps and Lily’s (vodka, sweet and sour mix, cranberry juice and Triple Sec), the official drink of the Kentucky Oaks. Flowers are everywhere, said Saboe. “We have large centerpieces in silver trophies, small arrangements in Derby cups and flats of grass with small horses and jockeys and even a replica of the rose blanket that the Derby-winning horse wears that we put on a two-foot tall horse that sits on a table. All the flowers are done by a talented friend who I have known since preschool, Kristen Dorighi.”
Another long-standing tradition are fancy hats, which add to the people-watching aspect in Kentucky. So, too, at the Willoughby/Saboe party, which is another reason for Saboe’s fascination with the Derby. She is a milliner and owner of Go Go Chapeaux, a hat shop that will reopen this summer at a new location in Cherry Creek North.
Though traditions hold fast, weather is the variable at the Derby party. “The number of first Saturdays in May that have snowstorms is amazing,” said Willoughby who shoveled his entire yard one year before the party. No matter what the conditions, “the minute the band plays ‘My Old Kentucky Home,’ I get misty-eyed,” said Willoughby. “There’s something in there; you can take the boy out of Kentucky, but you can’t take Kentucky out of the boy.”
2 cups sugar
2 cups water
Springs of fresh mint
Make a simple syrup by boiling sugar and water for five minutes. Cool and place in a covered container with six or eight sprigs of fresh mint; refrigerate overnight. Make one julep at a time by filling a julep cup with crushed ice, adding one tablespoon mint syrup and two ounces of whiskey. Stir rapidly with a spoon to frost the outside of the cup. Garnish with mint leaves.
1/2 cup all-purpose flour
1 stick of melted butter
1/2 cup sugar
pinch of salt
2 eggs, beaten
3 tablespoons of bourbon
1/2 cup sorghum (can substitute corn syrup)
1 cup pecans
1 cup semisweet chocolate
1 purchased piecrust
Preheat oven to 350. Whisk together flour, sugar and salt. Stir in eggs. Add bourbon, sorghum, pecans and chocolate and combine. Then stir in melted butter. Pour into pie crust and bake until filling is set, about 35 mins.
BIO: Denver native Claudia Carbone is an award-winning journalist and regular contributor to Colorado Expression.