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Kroger celebrates 30 years supplying Kentucky Derby’s Garland of Roses

When Always Dreaming won the 143rd Kentucky Derby on May 6, he was honored in the Winner’s Circle of Churchill Downs with a 40-pound blanket of red Freedom roses, crafted by florists at the Middletown Kroger in Louisville, KY. Since 1987, Cincinnati-headquartered Kroger Co. has provided the derby’s Garland of Roses, arguably the most famous floral arrangement in the USA.

“With the Garland of Roses being such an important part of the Kentucky Derby tradition, it is a true honor for our team of floral designers to be involved,” said Carol Belser, manager at Kroger’s Floral Design Center in Louisville, in a news release.

Passion Flowers produces the Rainforest Alliance-certified Freedom roses featured on the garland at its farm in Bogota, Colombia. The Freedom rose received its name after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist events. They were dubbed “the perfect patriotic red,” and were named as a tribute to the victims and their families, along with those serving in the armed forces.

“Our flowers in the Kentucky Derby is a real privilege for us,” said Jaime Peisach, co-founder at Passion Flowers, in a news release. “It’s a privilege that came to us through the Kroger Co.”

GARLAND-SEWERSKroger’s Allison Gousha and Carol Besser carefully hand-sew each of the red Freedom roses into the green satin lining of the 2017 Kentucky Derby’s Garland of Roses.Over 6,000 roses are transported directly from Colombia to Louisville, where Kroger staff begins the lengthy task of choosing the ones with just the right stage of openness, color and size for the garland. In addition to the blanket, Kroger’s derby project coordinator Allison Gousha told The Produce News that they also craft seven floral arrangements for the Winners Circle, 400 single roses wrapped with a bow and water pick for the Taste of Derby, two jockey bouquets, 200 boutonnieres for the Churchill Downs staff, flowers for the news crews and more.

“We started receiving the roses on Monday,” said Gousha. “And then the sorting and grading began. We have numerous people who are looking at them and they are looking for that perfect petal count, perfect height, and perfect size.”

Belser has personally worked on the garland for the past three decades.

“You want that center to be developed just right,” Belser said in the release. “It’s all by eye. We want to have the same stage of openness for all those roses into the garland. A rose actually makes a change day-to-day; you just have to pay attention and give it that quality inspection. I’ve had the honor and privilege to be a part of this project since day one. It takes a lot of man-hours, it takes a lot of heart, and I love every minute of it.”

The Derby Garland is 122 inches long, 22 inches wide and holds approximately 465 roses. Kroger invites the public each year to watch how the garland is made on the eve of the race. The process can take anywhere from 10-12 hours and more than 6,000 people came to observe the all-night event, according to Gousha.

“We’ve just never seen the derby blanket being made and we were driving by and thought it would be fun to stop,” said local resident Nancy Trent in the release. “It looks like a very intricate process to me. The ladies are really working hard on it.”

Each rose is inserted into a water vial and carefully hand-sewn into a green satin lining, which features the embroidered seal of the Commonwealth of Kentucky on one end and the Churchill Downs event mark on the other end. At the center of the garland is the “crown of roses,” containing another 17 to 23 roses, one for each thoroughbred running in the derby that year. If a horse drops out of the race, a rose comes out of the crown. A single rose pointing upward in the center symbolizes the “struggle and heart necessary to reach the Derby Winner’s Circle,” according to the derby’s website.

The garland is gifted to the winning horse owner after the derby and since 1996 some owners have chosen to freeze dry the roses for preservation so they can put the garland on display.Before 1996, they simply received a silk replica.

Cathy Slattery, floral merchandiser at Kroger Louisville, was one of the original garland designers in 1988. She still remembers the way she felt seeing the garland draped over that year’s derby winner, Winning Colors, one of only three fillies to ever win the Run for the Roses.

“When they put that blanket on that horse, I felt like I owned that horse,” said Slattery. “Just because, this is a true labor of love.”