FORGET WHAT they told you about the Kentucky Derby being a horse race. Ten furlongs of turned-over bluegrass is just an excuse to disguise avarice as esthetics.

The real show is in the stands. Derby Day is a genteely calculated cross between a fashion show, a marriage market and a sanctioned drunk (the tendency to June weddings may not be coincidental to this May melee). Moonlight and magnolias are all well and good, but mint juleps are the real elixir, and not a belle worth her bourbon but knows it.

The actual Run for the Roses takes only a couple of minutes. In the old days, when the trek to Churchill Downs made seeing the Derby more rigorous than even Cosell makes it now, horse fanciers needed ways to spread out the celebrating, so the manufacture of the perfect mint julep was elevated from a trick to a trade.

Nowadays there are a thousand recipes, of course, some mightily corrupt. Rum has no place in a true julep, nor has brandy. Sour mash whiskey is not bourbon, despite common confusion (bourbon is "sweet mash" whiskey), so a Jack Daniels julep is a bastard concoction to be consumed cautiously. Dropping a maraschino cherry into a mint julep is punishable by death, or exile to Mississippi. A Jefferson cup is a nice accoutrement, but only if it's cold enough to mist (women glow, men perspire, horses sweat, julep cups mist).

The bone-basic ingredients for a julep are three to four ounces bourbon (you'll see two ounces in some recipes, but they're not translating a southern jigger correctly), a spoonful of bar syrup, shaved or cracked ice and a sprig of mint. You are expected to experiment heavily before proclaiming your own recipe.

However, the real test is making a whole batch to take to the track. My brother Michael has perfected just such a mass medicine, guaranteed to cocktail everybody out:

Buy a half-gallon of Henry McKenna in the crock, and refrigerate it if you have room. From your back yard (or the nearest vacant lot), glean an armful of fresh mint. Several hours before post time, boil one cup powdered sugar with one cup water; after turning off the heat, steep the mint in the syrup until ready to asemble.

Take the wilted mint out of the syrup. Pour off one to two cups of bourbon from the crock, and replace with flavored syrup. Carry plenty of ice and fresh mint with you to the track. Assemble there, so the ice doesn't dilute the potion.

P.s. Plan to have the chauffeur pick you up.