“The Run for the Roses!” “The Fastest Two Minutes in Sports!” “The Most Exciting Two Minutes in Sports!” It’s The Kentucky Derby!

Each first-Saturday in May since 1875 (neither World Wars or The Great Depression could stifle-injury this American tradition), the one and a quarter mile (10 furlongs/2.0 km) dirt track tests three-year-old contenders at Churchill Downs in Louisville, Kentucky, USA. A Kentucky Derby win simultaneously opens the gate to The Triple Crown Trophy (awarded to one horse who wins The Kentucky Derby and The Preakness and The Belmont Stakes).

The Kentucky Derby win brings colossal fortune via the winner’s purse ($1.24 million), stud fees (in the multi-millions of dollars), and yearling sales. However, in true horse-lovers circles, focusing on such thoughts of enrichment are garish.

The crème de la crème is the event itself: the horses, the trainers, the grooms, the “dressed to the nines” owners, the colorful jockeys’ silks, the pomp-and-circumstance of the trumpeter’s “Call to Post”, the “They’re off” explosion of energy from the gate with the thundering of hoof beats rumbling the ground as the field passes the grandstands. Finally, the encouraging roar of fan-screams that elevates the moment to exhilaration as the horses barrel down the homestretch and across the finish line.

The tradition continues in The Winner’s Circle with the bestowing of “The Garland of Roses” across the winning horse’s withers, the gifting of “The Jockey’s Bouquet” (60 long stem roses), and the awarding of the four trophies of the Kentucky Derby.

A Rose by Any Other Name

“The Garland of Roses” adorns the Kentucky Derby winner with a cascade of approximately 450 “Freedom” roses (grown at Passion Growers Farms in Ecuador, SA).  The Freedom rose was so christened post 911 as a tribute both to those taken and fallen in the attack on September 11th, 2001 and to America’s military men and women whose dedication and sacrifice protect freedom worldwide.

The Chosen Rose

Starting the creation of the Garland of Roses begins in a refrigerated work area of Horton Fruit Company with 7,000 roses and takes days to complete.  First, the roses are graded into “Win, Place or Show” categories.

To make the cut in the “Win” category, the rose must have a perfect spiral center and be perfectly consistent in size, shape, and color tone. The rose processing and grading processes begin on the last Wednesday before the Derby.

Then, a second grading of the “Win” category is performed to achieve greater consistency and rose quality. This final grading produces about 1500 perfect rose “Winners” for the blanket. From among these roses, about 700-800 are cut short and placed in water tubes. Processing and grading continues through Thursday and Friday morning.

Any remaining roses that are not selected for the blanket are used in other Kentucky Derby floral arrangements such as The Winner’s Circle area which utilizes 2100 red roses. Once the grading and selections are complete, the roses are quickly placed back into a 36-degree temperature-controlled, refrigerated trailer to maintain each rose at the perfect bloom stage.

In the meantime, all the “peeled” petals from the grading process are collected into small Ziploc bags and graciously handed out at the Kroger store to Derby fans as good luck tokens.


On Friday afternoon the garland and water-tubed roses are carefully transported to Kroger’s store in Middletown, Kentucky, where an open-door policy welcomes Kentucky Derby fans to view the final creation process as the roses are sewn onto the blanket.

Finally, the garland is  completed by master artisans at the Kroger Floral Shoppe who work from 4 PM to midnight Kentucky Derby eve. When finished, the drape weighs in at 40 pounds and is seven-and-a-half feet long.

On Saturday morning (Kentucky Derby day), the completed blanket is transported with a police escort to Churchill Downs at approximately 10 AM and is on display at the Clubhouse beneath the Jockey Club balcony until the post-race awards ceremony that is held in the Kentucky Derby Winner’s Circle.

All that Glitters IS Gold

When trophies are held high at Churchill Downs on Derby Day, all that glitters is gold (and silver).

The race is run and won. Elation, smiles, and congratulatory wishes abound, and a set of four Kentucky Derby trophies are awarded to the winners. The owner of the winning 3-year-old Kentucky Derby Thoroughbred receives a 14 karat gold trophy.

It takes an estimated 2,000 man-hours for New England Sterling artisans to create the trophy which stands 22 inches tall and weighs approximately 65 ounces/4.06 pounds (excluding its jade base).

Furthermore, recognizing that this incredible moment could never happen without the combined work, dedication, and expertise of the multiple players involved.  Accolades also are awarded to the breeder of the Derby winner (owner of the mare at foaling), the jockey who steered and rode the horse to victory, and the ever-essential, wise, and savvy strategist—the horse’s trainer. Each receives a handmade, sterling silver, exact replica Kentucky Derby Trophy (in half-size proportion).

The Kentucky Derby trophies

Honors to All

While roses might wilt and fade, a golden trophy might gather dust, and a silver trophy might tarnish, nothing can diminish the combined efforts and satisfaction in the accomplishment of a hard-earned Kentucky Derby win.

Not seen are the hours poured into designing the future foal. Not seen are hours growing and grooming the foal into a weanling, a yearling, and a two-year-old contender. Not seen are long, sleepless nights spent walking-off-a-colic or worrying over a hoof-abscess. Not seen are hours breezing the horse in rain and mud by exercise riders who will receive no glory.

No matter now. The race is run! The race is won! The victory is oh, so sweet! Savor the moments for a lifetime!

Join in the festivities! Celebrate and throw your own Kentucky Derby watch-party! For detailed instructions to create Kentucky Derby traditional foods and drinks, Derby decor, activities and more check out:  “How to Host the Perfect Kentucky Derby Party!”

Freedom Roses are available for purchase in Kroger’s stores and are great additions to any celebratory occasion. Flower photos and stats courtesy and by permission of Kroger Corporation.


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