4 Flower Traditions that Win at the Kentucky Derby

Think the Kentucky Derby is all about horses? According to a winner’s circle of Kentucky florists who work behind the scenes, event flowers do some ‘grandstanding' of their own. Horses, parties, trucks and hats have one thing in common during Derby week—they’re all decorated with flowers. These four fresh flower traditions help race fans celebrate the Run for the Roses in winning ways. [vc_row][vc_column][vc_column_text]

1. The Rose Garland

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photo credit: Kroger

The official flower of the Kentucky Derby is the red rose. The Derby is often called the Run for the Roses after the red rose garland awarded to the winning thoroughbred. 7,500 stems of red roses are used to decorate racetrack events each year. In 1987 Carol Belser of the Kroger Floral Design Center in Louisville became the lead designer and spokesperson for Derby décor. Carol oversees the volunteers who use these roses to create the garland, the jockey’s bouquet and decorations for the Winner’s Circle of Churchill Downs.

Six dozen volunteers

Sixty-five to 80 volunteers spend a week constructing the garland of 465 roses, which weighs about 40 pounds. The crown, or middle section, represents the heart and holds another 17 to 23 roses, one for each thoroughbred racing. If a horse drops out of the race, a rose comes out of the crown. The garland's handstitched green satin backing features the Derby year and twin spires of Churchill Downs appliqued on one side with the seal of the Commonwealth of Kentucky on the other. It is gifted to the winning horse owner after the Derby. The winner’s circle is used only once a year for the presentation to the winning owner and thoroughbred. The rose team’s 15 members decorate it early on Derby day, rain or shine. “It usually rains!” laughs Carol.

Lilies for the Fillies

The Kentucky Oaks is a race for 3-year-old thoroughbred fillies held the Friday before the Derby. The winner has received a floral garland since 1916. Originally made of roses, the design now is formed of lilies and called “Lilies for the Fillies.” In 1991, the Stargazer lily was named the official flower and Kroger was commissioned to create the design. While Carol’s teams work on garlands, other designers are busy decorating Derby parties.

2. Private parties

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photo credit: John Kittinger AIFD

“We are on-call at a moment’s notice,” says John Kittinger AIFD, manager of The Best of Flowers in Lexington, Kentucky. Many private parties are planned well in advance, but there is a lot of impromptu work as well. “They suddenly decide to go to lunch at a favorite restaurant, and we get the ASAP call to get there first with a centerpiece!” says John. “We use OASIS® Standard Floral Foam for centerpieces and OASIS® Wreath Bases for fresh wreaths on the main house doors of the horse farms to keep the flowers well hydrated throughout the week,” John explains.

Decorating Derby week

“We set-up an area in the store for Derby gifts such as mint julep cups filled with red roses, horse related items and books,” says John. “Home interior colors are popular, but the best part of Derby week is using seasonal materials.” “We use local blooming branches, magnolia branches and lots of red roses.” Using the freshest product available in a tight stage allows the blooms to open throughout Derby weekend. “Don’t forget the trucks your friend Mike decorates,” John advised. Trucks?

3. Pickup trucks

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photo credit: Michael Gaddie AIFD

Men who love their trucks often think they’re beautiful. Michael Gaddie AIFD of Lloyd’s Florist in Louisville has the job of making sure the display trucks at Churchill Downs are! Dodge Ram trucks is an official sponsor of the Kentucky Derby. “We decorate the trucks with lilies and pink roses for Oaks Day,” says Mike. “Then on Derby Day everything is redone in red roses.” “Last year we ordered 21,000 roses and 1,000 stems of Stargazer lilies to decorate four Dodge Ram trucks and display cases,” says Mike. He and his team use RAQUETTES® Holders for their designs.

From fresh to faux

One year, instead of Stargazers, 1,000 bunches of tight and unopened white lilies arrived Monday for the Thursday delivery of finished arrangements. “We called every silk supplier we knew to obtain faux Stargazers we could fill in with for the day,” chuckles Mike. “You do what you have to do to make things happen! We had leftover fresh lilies opening in the shop for a month.” “Did you talk to Wayne?” asks Mike. “He’s our hat guy.”

4. Derby hats

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photo credit: Hey Lady Boutique

“OMG! She’s gonna wear that thing!” Wayne Esterle AIFD said in surprise the first time he sold a Derby hat more than 30 years ago. Wayne owns In Bloom Again in Louisville. “Our florist was in a hotel,” Wayne remembers. “I went to Value City and bought some straw hats to decorate a display. They sold. When the first one left the store, I couldn’t believe it. The next year I made and sold more.” Wayne has a ladies clothing boutique called Hey Lady Boutique in Louisville that enjoys a brisk race day business. He opens two Hey Lady Hat Boutiques in local hotels during Derby week.

Hats for sale

Working like a mad-hatter, Wayne and his staff sell 500 to 525 hats each year. Ninety percent are custom designed. Most sell the Thursday, Friday and Saturday morning of Derby weekend. “In today’s casual dress world, it’s hard to find hats in most cities. Ladies fly in for the weekend with their dresses,” Wayne says. “We’re prepared with decorated hats and a stock of basic forms, trims, etc., for hat personalization.” “The customer makes their selection and comes back in a few hours to pick up their hat,” says Wayne. “Spray paint is my best friend,” he adds. OASIS Decorative Accents can be helpful as well. The hat prices range from $150 to $500 with $250 being the average sale.

Opportunities all week long

While the actual race lasts only about two minutes, the sales opportunities last all week. How can you help Kentucky Derby fans in your area get on track with these fun celebratory ideas?[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row]

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