Don and Holly Mattingly devote one day in May to a Kentucky tradition on their hometown turf
As a Louisville native, Dan Mattingly grew up giving much fanfare to the Kentucky Derby, but when he and his wife Holly moved to Paducah, they found their new town’s derby celebrations to be lacking. In 1997 the couple decided to spread a little Louisville enthusiasm for the big race and invited a few people over to watch the derby on television.
The 15 people who attended the Mattingly’s party that year started what would become a major derby tradition. Every year since, the Mattingly’s have celebrated the derby with friends, family, food, and music. Local musicians provided live entertainment for the first few parties, but four years ago their friend Cary White offered to set up his sound system and play the best of the best for the soiree. He was a hit, and he continues to be a hit every year. Now the event brings together over 100 people to watch the fastest two minutes in sports!
Dining with the Derby
When it comes to food, the Mattingly derby party is never lacking. “Foodie” friends bring their culinary delights to share, and other friends may just grab a bag of chips, but everyone pitches in. There are spiral-baked hams, rolls, and of course the bourbon-infused, chocolate-covered strawberries.
“Creating the strawberries just takes a few good friends and a considerable amount of time,” Holly Mattingly said. “The Friday before the derby a handful of my girlfriends come over for a Strawberry Party. The evening starts with some wine and cheese—and typically some more wine—before we get down to work,” Holly said. “Some of us inject the bourbon, some prefer to dip and decorate, and at the end of the evening we have hundreds of bourbon-infused strawberries. Naturally we have to taste-test them to ensure a quality product!”
The party also features a table of mint juleps made by following Irvin Cobb’s classic recipe, save for the cold spring water “pure as the angels are.” A friend makes a mint simple syrup each year that is used in the juleps instead.
The Mattingly’s create a wager board each year, decorating it with jockey-themed-decor and colors that Dan creates with a pack of Sharpies.
“Taking on the wager board duties the day of the derby is no easy task, but every year the men step up to the challenge,” Holly said. “Every square has to be sold for the system to work. There may be 60 squares with three dollar amounts per square, so there could be a $2 bet, a $3 bet and a $5 bet, which means 180 bets have to be placed,” she explained. “The fun thing is, you never know which horse you’ll end up with!” Once the slots have been sold, the horses’ names are drawn and placed in order on the board. Someone with a $2 bet might win anywhere from $12 to $60, while someone with a $5 bet could walk away with as much as $180 for a horse that wins. Holly says that big winner or not, everyone has fun with it.
Derby Day Prep
Preparations for the party begin as early as March, when Dan Mattingly gets started on the landscaping. There are flowers and greenery to tend to, of course, but each year Dan usually adds a little something extra—some unique touch like a new stone pathway or brick fire pit. “Working in the yard is therapeutic!” Dan said, “so preparing for the party is actually an enjoyable process for me.”
About a week before the party, friends and family pitch in too by cleaning, polishing silver, hanging last year’s photos on the derby board and getting everything together. Neighbors loan tents to put in the yard and create extra gathering space. Friends come over early derby morning to help set up tents and tables and take care of last-minute details, bringing fresh-cut flowers, candles, extra outdoor seating and even extra ice and paper towels.
“Each person adds a little personal touch some way or another,” Holly said. “While the event may be at our home, it really is everyone’s party!”