By Rebekah K. Bohannon Beeler
Sheila Strunk played hostess to a gaggle of gals donning their derby hats to watch the Kentucky Derby and brought a taste of Churchill Downs to Lake Tansi Village May 3.
“It is an ideal way to have a get together,” stated Strunk, each year adding to the irreplaceable memories she has with her treasured friends.
For the last several years, Strunk has held these Derby Parties. It all started five years ago when Strunk remembered that the Kentucky Derby would be on later that afternoon. She had some mint and thought to call a neighbor who had moved in and told her to grab a hat, come over, have a mint julep, and watch the derby with her. From there, the Derby Party grew into a tradition for Strunk and her closest friends. There’s only one rule: only ladies at the party wearing hats with dollars to bet.
“It isn’t always easy to find a hat,” said Strunk in her sweet, English accent. “You have to hit the second-hand stores and see what you can do with a gardening hat,” Strunk jested.
Strunk and her guests visit and chat and sip and graze on the “horse” d’oeuvres. This year she prepared everything in advance, including many easy Paula Deen recipes for delicious stuffed dates, frittata and bourbon balls.
The first year, Strunk wore a purple hat and purple gloves to match. Another year, a big storm came through just as the race began. As the winning horse crossed the finish line, Strunk’s power went out and they didn’t get to finish watching the race. She laughingly said the next day silken flowers from her guests’ hats had washed up in her backyard from their attempts at quickly getting into their cars in the harsh weather.
When the horses parade out of the stables onto the racetrack, everyone settles in and gets to know the horse they drew from the hat. This year the group rooted for the Kentucky Derby Cinderella story, California Chrome. It is a rare thing for the favorite pick to actually win it, least of all an underdog. The girls were also pulling for the only lady jockey on the track, Rose Napravnik riding Vicar’s in Trouble, although she came in last.
Everyone starts getting excited, yelling at the television screen and bemoaning NBC for not showing the winning horse getting the blanket of flowers laid on his back. When the race is over, the ladies celebrate the winner and finish getting caught up.
Strunk notes that England does have derbies, but she really isn’t much of a horse race person, or a gambler, for that matter.
“It’s just an excuse for fun, to have the girls over and enjoy each other,” she said. “You have a theme, you invite some people, set out some hors d’oeuvres, and the horses and the jockeys provide the entertainment.”
But she also admits that having these gatherings encourages her to follow the other big races that make up the Triple Crown — The Preakness and The Belmont.
“It is exciting, the whole idea of a Triple Crown winner,” Strunk imagined.
When asked about plans for another Kentucky Derby Party for next year, Strunk simply answered, “I already have my hat.”