Although the Kentucky Derby has a few nicknames, perhaps its most lyrical is the “Run for the Roses.” Evocative of the garland of roses draped across the victorious horse in the winner’s circle, it conjures up images of past greats sporting the floral adornment at Churchill Downs.
Roses have been intertwined with Derby history since the late 19th century. The flower’s first known connection to the iconic race came in 1883 — not with the winner, but at a posh post-race party, where roses were handed out to the ladies. That reportedly prompted Col. Meriwether Lewis Clark, the track’s founding president and creator of the Kentucky Derby, to designate the rose as the race’s official flower in 1884.
But not until 1896 is there a first report of a Derby winner receiving the roses. That year’s hero, Ben Brush, marks the start of the recognized tradition. Yet it took about another decade for the victor’s laurel to become permanently fixed as rosy.
Inspired by the custom, New York sports columnist Bill Corum coined the phrase, the “Run for the Roses,” to describe the Derby in 1925. It proved memorable enough to pass into the lexicon of American sports. And in a fitting coda, Corum eventually became the president of Churchill Downs (1950-58).
Seven years after Corum came up with “Run for the Roses,” the garland took on its current form. The 1932 winner, Burgoo King, is pictured with the blanket of red roses that has now become iconic.
No description of this nickname can be complete without a reference to singer/songwriter Dan Fogelberg’s “Run for the Roses,” a moving tribute to the horses who chase the Derby dream: