How the rose became the Kentucky Derby's signature flower

April 26th, 2021

The rose is the official flower of the Kentucky Derby, and it is every owner’s dream to receive the huge garland presented to the winner of the Run for the Roses each year. But where does the tradition come from, and how has it changed over the past century?

The tradition began in the early 1880s

Back in 1883, ladies who attended the Derby parties around Louisville all received a red rose. They sound like the kind of parties that would have been shared all over Instagram by celebrities while the rest of us looked on in envy.

The Churchill Downs President at the time, Colonel Meriwether Lewis Clark, saw what a success the roses were and decided to make the association between the flower and the Kentucky Derby in 1884.

Ben Brush was the first winner to be presented with roses

But it was 12 years later, in 1896, that the tradition really ramped up. Ben Brush didn’t have the benefit of a prep race as a three-year-old, and in the Kentucky Derby itself he stumbled at the start of the race almost unseating jockey Willie Simms. Luckily Simms recovered and gave Ben Brush one hell of a ride to close down the leaders and win by a nose in a pulsating battle with Ben Eder. When Ben Brush came back to the winner’s enclosure, he was presented with a flower arrangement of white and pink roses, as well as $4,850 in winnings.

The red rose became the official flower of the Kentucky Derby in 1904

Eight years later, in 1904, the red rose was given the status of official flower of the Kentucky Derby. A horse called Elwood won that year and it was the first Derby winner to be bred by a woman, Emma Holt Prather in Faustiana Stock Farm in Missouri.

The Call to the Post is played by bugler Steve Buttleman in the 141st running of the Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs in Louisville, KY. (Photo by Jeff Moreland/Icon Sportswire)

"Run for the Roses" is coined in 1925

The rose garland was now a permanent piece of Derby history, and it became even more so in 1925. Ahead of Flying Ebony’s win, beating Captain Hal by a length-and-a-half, New York sports columnist Bill Corum coined the term "run for the roses." The phrase stuck and Bill went on to be a future Churchill Downs President.

The first rose garland is awarded in 1932

Seven years later in 1932, we saw the first Derby rose garland that we know and love today. Burgoo King was a convincing five length winner of the race ahead of Economic and Stepenfetchit and he donned the garland of roses that we are used to today, 89 years later.

John Velazquez throws a rose to the crowd after winning the 143rd Kentucky Derby on May 06, 2017 at Churchill Downs. (Photo by Chris Humphrey/Icon Sportswire)

For the last 34 years, the Derby garland has been made by Kroger’s master floral designers in Middleton, Kentucky. It is made on the eve on the Derby in a local store, and the public can watch the 400 red roses be sewn together to create the garland. There is a crown of roses added to the garland which symbolizes the heart and struggle required to be a Kentucky Derby champion.

Ever since Grindstone won the 1996 Derby, the garland is sent to Danville in Kentucky to be freeze-dried, and the horse’s owner gets the garland after it is dried.