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Origin of the Roses
The tradition of draping a garland of roses across the neck of the Kentucky Derby winner began in Colonel Clark’s day. A flashy visitor for the 1883 Kentucky Derby was New York socialite E. Berry Wall, who bet heavily on the winner, Leonatus. Wall had previously tried to purchase Leonatus from owner Colonel Phil T. Chinn. But Chinn decided not to sell and won the Derby while Wall claimed the consolation prize of winning a bucket load of money betting on Leonatus. How much? Racing author James C. Nicholson, who dug up the story, says Wall wouldn’t say. “I have a lot of money to spend,” was Wall’s answer.
And spend it he did.
Earlier that year, Wall had attended a flower show in New York where a new rose was debuted. The new variety had been developed in France but was renamed the American Beauty for its showing on these shores. Anticipating a Kentucky Derby victory, or at least a fun time during his Derby visit, Wall ordered a railroad car filled with the new roses to be shipped to Louisville. After Leonatus’ victory, Wall hosted a dinner at the Louisville Pendennis Club, followed by a larger party at the Galt House Hotel — both functions liberally decorated with his American Beauties.
Colonel Clark fell right into the sentiment and began a tradition of awarding roses to the winner of the Kentucky Derby. The first such crowning corsage, for 1896 winner Ben Brush and jockey Willie Simms, consisted of a beautiful, but modest, blend of white and red roses.
Colonel Winn happily carried on the rose tradition and made sure that reporters noticed the presentation to the winning horse and rider. In 1932, Winn formalized the custom by commissioning Louisville florist Grace Walker to create a full-fledged garland of roses each year. Burgoo King won that Derby, and jockey Eugene James held a gloriously long blanket of blossoms across Burgoo King’s withers — with the thing draping all the way to the ground like a royal train. When Walker retired in 1974, she passed the rose baton to daughter Betty Korfhage, who continued the rose blanket creation through 1984 when she sold the Kingsley Walker Florist business.
Since 1987, the Kroger Company has carried on the tradition. Each year, one of its larger stores is selected to create the rose blanket, and the public is invited to witness the event. It’s an all-night process on Derby Eve, and the store finds interested fans dropping by throughout the night. Kroger also creates a blanket of lilies goes to the winner of the Kentucky Oaks.
Oh, and don’t forget Bill Corum, Winn’s sportswriter pal from the New York Journal, who would succeed the Colonel as president of Churchill Downs in 1950. It was in 1925, on one of those Derby Week mornings when Corum was tapping out a story with the dateline LOUISVILLE, that he thought of dubbing the Derby the “Run for the Roses.”
The Garland of Roses, as it is officially called, is 122 inches long, 22 inches wide, and weighs about 40 pounds. The blanket lining is made of green “moiré bengaline,” with the inside (the side next to the horse) embroidered with the words “Commonwealth of Kentucky” on one end, and the emblem mark of Churchill Downs on the other.
Today, more than 400 “Freedom” roses are used to create the rose garland. The Freedom rose is so named to honor the victims of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
There is also a separate winning jockey’s bouquet of 60 roses wrapped in ribbons, plus more than 2,000 roses not chosen for the blanket that are employed in decorating the celebrity red carpet entrance and the winner’s circle. Plus, of course, thousands upon thousands more roses adorning the Downs’ restaurants, suites, private tents and pavilions.