Derby History: 114 Years of Red Roses

Events / Travel
Orb wears the 2013 Kentucky Derby rose garland.
Orb wears the 2013 Kentucky Derby rose garland. (Eclipse Sportswire)

The Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve is widely known as the run for the roses, but most people probably don’t know the story of how the red rose became the official flower and such a huge part of the tradition of the “greatest two minutes in sports.”

No worries, we’ve got the details right here for you!

In 1883, roses were given to all of the ladies who attended one of the fashionable Derby parties in Louisville. They were such a hit that Churchill Downs President Colonel Lewis Clark decided to make the association official for the 1884 running.

Though that started the tradition, it wasn't until 12 years later that the winner would be draped in roses. Despite never running farther than seven furlongs and without any prep races as a 3-year-old, Ben Brush won the 1896 Kentucky Derby in a hair-raising finish and was the first horse to be presented with a flower arrangement of white and pink roses. 

Kroger employees hard at work on the rose garland.
Kroger employees hard at work on the rose garland. (Eclipse Sportswire)

A few years passed, and in 1904 the red rose became the official flower of the Kentucky Derby. Churchill Downs has photos of the winner sporting a rose garland dating back to 1906. The red rose had earned its legendary Derby spot.

In 1925, it was a sure sign that the roses had claimed a place in Derby history when the term “run for the roses” was coined by New York sports columnist, and future Churchill Downs president, Bill Corum.

It wasn’t until 1932 that the Derby rose garland that we know today was first presented. The 58th Kentucky Derby winner, Burgoo King, was the first to don the garland of roses in its current design.

Nearly knocked to his knees in midstretch, Alysheba recovered and became the first winner to be presented with the garland made by the present-day official florist in 1987. Kroger makes the garland on Kentucky Derby eve in a local store where the public can watch. How many roses does it take to make the garland? More than 400 red roses are sewn together to create the garland and an additional “crown” is made of roses, green fern and ribbon symbolizing the heart and struggle required to become a Kentucky Derby champion.

Also on the garland is the seal of the Commonwealth of Kentucky, Churchill’s Twin Spires, and the renewal number of that year’s Derby.

Every year since Grindstone’s win in 1996, the garland is sent to Danville, Ky., to be freeze-dried. While the horse’s owner gets the garland, the winning jockey is presented with 60 long-stem red roses wrapped in 10 yards of ribbon.

Read more about the wonderful tradition of the Kentucky Derby and its garland of roses on Churchill Downs’ website.

This story was first run in 2014 and has been updated.

newsletter sign-up

Stay up-to-date with the best from America's Best Racing!