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Get your Derby on…in Pure Michigan Style!

Saturday, May 7 is the legendary Kentucky Derby—the longest-running sporting event in the United States, dating back to 1875.

But what if you can’t make it to Kentucky for the festivities, but still want to watch the race and throw back a refreshing Mint Julep—the “official cocktail” of the Derby since 1938, consisting primarily of bourbon, water, shaved ice and fresh mint? Not to worry. There are plenty of horse-themed locales throughout Michigan for you to don your flashy suit, dress and hat (or not) and spectate in the “most exciting two minutes in sports.”

As a quick side note…did you know Michigan has a growing number of craft distilleries making bourbon-style whiskey that pairs well with locally-grown mint—and that in the early 1900s, 90% of the world’s mint was grown within a 90-mile radius of Kalamazoo on farms primarily owned by A.M. Todd – the “Peppermint King” of the AM Todd Company?

Michigan is currently home to two active horse race tracks, both located in southeastern part of the state.

  • Hazel Park Raceway, Hazel Park. As one of Michigan’s only raceway to offer live thoroughbred racing, this track offers live races every Friday and Saturday night (May through September) and simulcast wagering seven days a week, all year long. Kentucky Derby day festivities include live music, derby glasses and race viewing in the dining room or trackside party suites on the paddock.
  • Northville Downs, Northville. Celebrating over 100 years of horse racing, this track will be showing the big race and serving up juleps and other adult beverages. The Trackview Restaurant is actually the city’s largest fine-dining establishment, with seating for 250 (reservations required).

Of course, when it comes to horses – no place in Michigan does it better than Mackinac Island. There are countless locations here that pay tribute to the equestrian lifestyle…and many are offering viewing parties on Derby Day.

  • Carriage House at Hotel Iroquois. While not open on Derby Day, add this to your list for a future visit (open for dinner, May 19-October 16 and lunch, May 27-September 11). Overlooking the Straits of Mackinac, this fine dining restaurant serves classic American cuisine.
  • Jockey Club at Grand Hotel. Located on the first tee of The Jewel golf course, this restaurant is open for lunch—with outdoor seating, weather permitting.
  • Mustang Lounge. Touted as “Michigan’s Most Historic Tavern” this bar has been family-owned since 1964 and is an islander’s favorite (as it is open year round). TVs are available in the bar area.
  • Pink Pony. Located inside the waterfront Chippewa Hotel, this historic award-winning bar is considered the “hottest” place on the island. Order up a Michigan craft beer or a famed “Rum Runner” (with the floater) and watch the race in the bar area.
  • Seabiscuit. This downtown eatery draws its name and theme from the 1938 true life story of the famed racehorse of the same name. Many people dress up for this Derby party – with awards for the best hat, best attire, etc. Expect a full-house to enjoy food and drink specials, merchandise give-aways and of course, viewings of the race!

Interesting enough, the Grand Rapids area also has several horse-themed eateries and bars worth checking out on Derby Day (or any other day for that matter).

  • Back Forty Saloon. No race viewing, but if you want a shot of premium whiskey, live music and line dancing, this is the place for you.
  • Derby Station. The race will be broadcast on the flat screens and on a giant projection. Wear your Kentucky Derby best, drink some mint juleps and enjoy some amazing food. You’ll also find 36 beers on draft, including many local craft beers. Located in the heart of East Grand Rapids’ Gaslight District.
  • Horseshoe Smokehouse. Paying tribute to the bar that originally occupied this location until the late 1970s—an epicenter for Jazz music in the 40s and 50s. Built in 1891, the building was originally a boarding house and grocery store catering to railroad passengers, until it became the Lamar Hotel post WWII. It is also widely rumored to have served as a brothel during this era. Visitors will find the best bar-b-cue and 16 beers on tap, including local offerings from Bells, Perrin, Elk and Short’s Brewery (as well as a rotating selection of seasonal brews).
  • One Trick Pony Grill & Taproom. Get your Pony on fir this annual event, where mint juleps will be served and the race will be on. Dress up if you’d like!
  • Silver Derby. Touting itself as a “Dive Bar,” the motto of this hole-in-the-wall pub is “You’re only a stranger the first time you walk through the door.” During the race, they’ll be offering 32-ounce domestic drafts for $3.50, and domestic bottles and well drinks for $2.50. They’ll also be serving their famous “Derby Dog”—a hot dog with chili, cheese and the works!

Other horse-themed / horse-named places of interest around Michigan include:

  • Curragh, Holland. Named for The Curragh Racecourse in Ireland, this traditional pub will be the place to be on May 7. Not only will you be able to watch the race on one of four TVs (with the sound blasting), but it is also the start of the annual Tulip Time Festival, rated one of the top events in the country for decades!
  • Dark Horse Brewing, Marshall. Stop down for one of the many handcrafted beers (including the award-winning Crooked Tree IPA and the new Kamikaze Kaleidoscope—a wit ale brewed with lemon and orange peels), sit out the expansive beer garden (weather permitting) and sample from the new pub menu—offering appetizers, soups, salads, dips, pizza, grilled subs and more).
  • Double JJ Ranch & Golf Resort, Rothbury. West Michigan’s premier dude (and dudette) ranch is home to the Sundance Grill, Shooter’s Saloon, Gold Rush Waterpark and Thoroughbred Golf Club, along with horseback riding, rodeos and more.
  • Draught Horse, South Lyon. Stop in and sample fine Michigan craft beer, along with pre-derby food specials, contests and the race on the pub TV.
  • Green Dot Stables, Detroit. On Derby Day (also considered Green Dot Stables’ “Anniversary”), you can sample Woodford Mint Juleps on the patio along with “Derby” Pie for dessert (Green Dot’s take on pecan pie). The race will be shown on all the restaurant’s TVs of course. Oh, and did you know they also operate an American gastropub in Malaysia? 
  • Mustang Wendy’s, Harbor Springs. While you can’t watch the race, you’re sure to get a fine mint julep (or a selection of other cocktails, craft beer and wine) for sipping and pairing with your fine meal as you gaze out over Little Traverse Bay. Live music is also offered on weekends.
  • White Horse Inn, Metamora. Here, they’re definitely horse lovers and Derby Day is a favorite. While you can’t actually watch the race this year, you should stop in for a tasty mint julep and a bite to eat.
  • White Horse Tavern, Flint. They’ve been serving up burgers, pizzas and more here for more than 40 years! On Derby Day, enjoy the regular half-off pizza special (dine in only, with purchase of any beverage). You can also sip on a mint julep and enjoy the race on all of the tavern’s TVs, including the big screen in the main dining area.

Finally, a few other horse-themed places worth checking out: