By the time Churchill Downs Bugler Steve Butteman sounded the “call to post,” a number of notable performances had already taken place.

The University of Louisville marching band played “My Old Kentucky Home,” Kentucky native Wynonna Jud performed the National Anthem and lifestyle influencer and restauranteur Martha Stewart called “Riders Up” from the red carpet. 157,000 people had experienced Louisville hospitality in-person and 16.7 million tuned in for the “most exciting two minutes in sports” at watch parties all over the world, many with mint julep at hand.

Read More: Louisville Experience

Smart Meetings witnessed the photo-finish win by the decidedly not favored horse Mystik Dan with a group of fascinator-adorned fans at LadySomm Carmel Wine School and came away with these lessons for meeting professionals managing events with expectations of traditional elements, but practical requirements to innovate and adjust. After all, we are talking about a $5-million event that can make the career of jockey, trainer and owner. For Louisville, it is a chance to show off all that the city has to offer, including new exhibits at the adjoining Kentucky Derby Museum.

Hit the Traditional High Notes; Add Modern Harmony

statue of jockey riding horse
Photo: Kentucky Derby Museum

The first leg in horse racing’s Triple Crown series, The Run for the Roses, as the 1 1/4-mile thoroughbred race is also known, has set the tone for the season on the first Saturday in May since 1875. It is the longest continually held major sporting event in North America and many of its traditions are sacred to fans; but that doesn’t mean the program forgoes new experiences.

Read More: History of the Kentucky Derby

Enhancements for 2024 included sponsor activations that gave attendees of all ages a chance to get closer to the action and modernize their experience.

Woodford Reserve Paddock Club and Sports Illustrated‘s Club SI flanked the sides of the newly renovated $200-million paddock with access to the paddock circling ring via an exclusive underground tunnel.

In the First Turn Club, Tractor Beverage Company offered certified organic drinks and mocktails along with an Instagram-worthy photo area.

Ford Motor Company’s sweepstakes gave winners the choice of three horsepower sources: a Ford Bronco Badlands, Ford F-150 Platinum PowerBoost Hybrid or a Ford Mustang Mach-E.

In a nod to Gen-Z fans, The Unwell Network hosted experiences such as live interviews with Call Her Daddy host, Alex Cooper, and Hot Mess host, Alix Earle.

“Churchill Downs and the Kentucky Derby sit at a unique crossroads of entertainment, sports and fashion with a global audience both in viewership and onsite guests,” said Casey Ramage, vice president of marketing and partnerships for Churchill Downs. “We are proud to partner with these world-class brands and appreciate their creativity in creating distinctive memories for our fans.”

Feed the Hunger for Southern Comforts

When tasked with feeding the crowd at one of the world’s premier sporting events, Chef Robert Lopez, senior executive chef for Levy Restaurants, focused on quantity and quality. After all, while it was his first Derby, it was the 23rd consecutive year Levy has partnered with Churchill Downs to feed the cheering crowds for the legendary race weekend.

Read More: Mocktail Recipes

“Any chef who’s created culinary experiences in a sports and entertainment venue dreams of the opportunity of the Kentucky Derby,” said Chef Lopez. “150 will never happen again, so our approach in creating the menu was to elevate the classics and take advantage of the wealth of seasonal ingredients in our community and region. We sourced local ingredients like asparagus, peas, bourbon and cherries to strike a balance between rich, bold flavors of iconic Southern staples and the freshness of spring,” he said.

On-track menus included seasonal Southern favorites such as spring pea pasta salad, grits, bourbon cherry brisket, burnt ends and plenty of Old Forester mint juleps.

In total, Lopez figured the operation would go through 20,000 pieces of assorted desserts; 10,000 pounds of smoked brisket; 9,000 pounds of shrimp; 1,000 pounds of mint; and 20,000 bottles of Woodford Reserve.

Meanwhile, Martha Stewart created an at-home menu that included Benedictine dip, deviled eggs, hot crab dip, pimento cheese and big-batch lemon-mint juleps.