The Kentucky Derby, Key West style, and Gardens Hotel hosts - A man riding a horse on a track - Horse racing
The 145th annual Kentucky Derby is held at Churchill Downs in Louisville on May 4. DERBYBOX

By Erin Stover Sickmen

Last year, the Kentucky Derby began a new practice of selling $1,000 mint juleps. The pricey concoctions, which are served in handcrafted sterling silver cups and contain a single petal from the Garland of Roses — draped upon the winner — are poured in order to raise funds for a local arts charity. If the idea of a thousand-dollar drink elicits sticker shock, there is a party closer to home where the juleps are markedly less expensive and the funds still benefit a worthy cause.

This weekend, The Gardens Hotel brings horse-racing revelry to Key West with its third annual Derby Party. General manager and self-proclaimed “Giant Jockey” Jim Marquardt promises a full-flavored Southern garden party in the center of Key West. A $25 donation at the door grants guests a mint julep and a feast of delectables like bourbon meatballs and mini pecan pies by Judy’s Little Bites. Actor Daniel Bochlas, in his finest Jim Dandy costume, keeps the party moving as a lively master of ceremonies. Once guests have grabbed a julep, they may pony up and select a favorite horse in the Derby raffle. When the horses and jockeys hit the track, the crowd gathers as The Gardens presents a live-stream of the “most exciting two minutes in sports”. 

Leading up to the main event, visitors can expect to see some jockeying on The Gardens grounds as partygoers vie for best hat and costume prizes. The original Kentucky Derby, held in 1875, was itself a gamble. Founder Meriwether Lewis Clark Jr. spent years in Europe attending high-profile races and hoped to bring the well-heeled glamour to the states. At the time, though, U.S. audiences associated horse-racing with gambling, drinking and general debauchery. In order to sell the vision to his new audience, Clark crafted a dress code requiring “full morning dress” for gentlemen and hats and gloves for ladies. Trends have evolved over the past 144 years, but fashionable hats are a mainstay. While the Kentucky Derby is ground zero for extravagant headwear, it’s no secret that the Key West community knows its way around creative costuming and is certainly up to the task of emulating. Those who bring their best hat game to The Gardens next weekend could take home some fabulous Derby-themed prizes, in addition to bragging rights.

The Gardens Derby Party is about more than hats, though. Fittingly, the fête is designed to raise money for Key West Police Department’s Mounted Unit. Marquardt teases that beyond first-place food and drinks, they are also offering a celebrity meet-and-greet. The celebrity? A horse, of course. Actually, two of Key West’s finest equestrian officers plan to hold court on the red carpet, posing for selfies with guests. The Key West Mounted Unit provides a friendly presence around town, but is an especially important asset in a parade-friendly city like Key West. Mounted police are more visible in crowds and serve as gentle deterrence to crime. The city supports the unit financially by providing stables, feed and basic care. Fundraisers, like the Gardens Derby Party, help provide specialty equipment and potential emergency vet care.

The event is family-friendly and open to all. In true Key West form though, everything is a bit nice and a bit naughty. This year’s theme, “Talk Derby to Me,” ensures that guests will see at least one costumed participant proudly brandishing a leather whip. It’s reassuring to know that whatever is happening in the world, good-humored debauchery and fashionable hats still reign supreme in Key West. 

For more information about The Gardens Hotel Derby Party, contact the hotel at (305) 294-2661, and for more information about the KWPD Mounted Unit, contact Officer Matt Johnson at [email protected].


The Gardens Hotel Annual Derby Party
“Talk Derby to Me”
Saturday, May 4
5:30 to 7:30 p.m.
$25 donation at the door

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