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A look in Churchill's vault to find out why we run for roses

Down the carpeted stairs into the freshly renovated basement of the Churchill Downs Museum, beyond the curator's office and past locked doors, there are boxes and boxes of secrets waiting.

But even Chris Goodlett, curator of The Kentucky Derby Museum, is a tad flummoxed by what we're looking for. We want to know the answer to the quintessential Derby mystery: "Why roses?"

You have to ask this because not a single variety of roses is blooming without significant human interference in early May in Kentucky. Not a one. Not now. Not ever.

So who had this great idea that Derby horses should be crowned with hot house flowers from some greenhouse in some alien state to be shipped to the commonwealth and fashioned into a drape for picture-taking purposes? And who figured the jockey had to get a bouquet, too? Such grand gestures. So regal. But, still, you could do that with lilies of the valley, daffodils, tulips or sweet peas.

Seriously, inquiring minds want to know, why are we not Running for the Forget Me Nots today?

In search of answers, Goodlett started opening boxes with white gloves and high hope.

But Churchill's bowels are not the only place to look.

The oldest florist still doing business today in Louisville is Nanz and Kraft, which started in 1850. Owner Eddie Kraft, 46, explained that the esteemed florist and nursery "never had the privilege" of doing Churchill Downs Derby Day garland-making business, even though they owned 60 greenhouses on Breckinridge Lane since way back when.

"We could have cut fresh flowers to them that morning," said Kraft.

But alas.

Same sad story applies to Lexington's Michler's Florist and Greenhouses which were in place by 1902. John Michler's family could have put freshly pinched flowers on trains and made any deadline, says the horticulturists in charge there now.

But greenhouses also existed in nearby Ohio and Indiana in the late 1880s that could have easily provided the roses for Derby Day consumption.

Michler explains that everyone had the technology to make roses bloom in May. "Roses were forced year-round with heat generated by coal. Red roses were a big deal for Christmas Eve in Lexington. My grandfather would run the trucks late to make deliveries."

The forcing market was huge because there were no flowers that could survive the trip from South America or Europe and there were no refrigerated rail trucks yet to bring anything from California. It was all regional work.

Pictures of early Derby winners 1906's Sir Huon, 1907's Pink Star and 1914's Old Rosebud are produced for Michler to look at. He admires the garlands on each and speculates that a different florist crafted each floral festoon because of the radically different designs.

Still, he says, with pleasure in his voice, "The roses are blown. They're off-gassing. They would have opened quickly. I bet these horses were just overwhelmed with scent."

Michler explains that as roses have long since been hybridized to last for days they've also managed to lose a great deal of their scent in the process. The quick-opening that allows that intensity of perfume, and is natural to them, has been shown by horticulturists to shorten their lifespan.

But, as these photographs show, on Derby Day at the turn of the century, triumphant jockeys would have been rewarded not only with the win but with a fresh whiff of God's perfume.

Back at the Derby Museum, the first thing that comes out is the "roses" file in a thin manila folder. Inside are newspaper clippings, Kroger brochures, some earlier public relations efforts, but not a thing about why.

Some facts, however, do seem set in stone.

It was 1884 when Churchill Downs president Col. M. Lewis Clark decided he'd feature the rose as the official flower for that Derby. But he might have gotten that idea from the wealthy and always extravagantly dressed New York race fan, E. Berry Wall, who'd given out roses at his lavish Derby party a year before.

It was 1896 when Ben Brush got pink and white roses, though in horseshoe-collar form. It was the first instance of anyone throwing any roses over the withers of the champion equine after its glorious win. Nobody is sure whose idea that was or if anyone sanctioned it or who paid the floral bill.

There's a famous story that two years later, a horse's owner was all set to lay the most expensive rose blanket ever made in town on her stallion when Plaudit pulled the upset and the other horse's less-than-generous owner threw the whole kit and kaboodle away rather than put it on Plaudit's neck.

Another story has it that, in 1902, Alan-a-Dale got carnations and ferns.

In 1906, the Derby started taking pictures of its winners and they all are adorned with the familiar roses then and thereafter.

In 1907, the tradition is so established that Charles Elwood Durnell decided to push it a little further. Mrs. Durnell, the first woman to own a Derby winner, watched from the grandstand and, according to a report at the time: "Her gaze was centered far up the track, where her husband and the mite of a boy who was responsible for the victory were hurrying up to her side. They came with a garland of American beauties (roses) and a pair of arms full of lilies which they tossed at this woman's feet. Then, womanlike, she embraced both and sat down and cried."

Mrs. Durnell had received the colt as a wedding gift.

It was 1925 when Bill Corum, a New York sports columnist, called the enterprise "The Run for the Roses" and no one made the carnation mistake again.

A small suburban Louisville florist named Grace Walker, who owned one of the town's oldest shops, Kingsley Walker Florist, got the job of designing the Derby winner's garland in 1932. She took the job to heart. She promptly took herself to Churchill Downs, took out a measuring tape and sized up a Thoroughbred's height and shoulder width. She then set to work figuring out how to do two things: 1) make sure no horse would ever feel a prick from that garland's wire or a rose's thorns and 2) make sure no rose ever fell off.

She cut and designed a garland of plain-weave cotton lined with a soft protective pad and topped with a green background of thick, wide, flat green leaves.

She selected 500 matched deep-red roses, broke the stems to the right length, wired each rose individually by pushing the wire into the stem, and sewed each to the cotton by hand. A rose leaf was placed on every other flower and each rose was sewed three times, using green button-hole thread. The finished product measured 14 inches wide by 21/2 yards long. Every wire in the wreath was protectively covered with floral tape.

After the first year, Walker came up with the ingenious idea of rigging a wrought iron frame — similar to those used for quilting — for just this one task. Her six employees, her daughter and her granddaughters eventually all pitched in.

In the 1930s, the rose Walker preferred was named Happiness. But Happiness didn't last. Never did American Beauty or Forever Yours. She told Sports Illustrated in 1986 that every five or six years, she had to change the strain of rose she used because the strain tended to lose its umph and go purple, then pink.

Not on her garland.

Walker always ordered flowers in January from her hand-picked Indiana grower, who delivered matched roses early on Derby Eve. Work started around 2 p.m. and ended around midnight. Their work was displayed at the shop until around noon, then ceremoniously trucked to the Downs.

Walker made sure the five or six dozen roses for the jockey's bouquet also matched his horse's garland — she hated the use of any other term for the thing she created — and trimmed it in 10 yards of silk ribbon.

The most she ever charged Churchill Downs was $3,600 and that includes flowers, labor and delivery for the garland, bouquet and every single one of those tall vases of winner's circle roses, too.

The final year for the Kingsley Walker roses was 1986. After that, Kroger took over. They don't charge.

Back at the museum, the pristine white boxes labeled with the name of Charles F. Price, the Racing Secretary for Churchill Downs in the late 19th and early 20th century, contain hand-written letters about horses on fancy hotel stationery, menus from Parisian restaurants, some receipts but no lost piece of poetry that bespeaks why, why, why a cadre of horses runs this week for the pleasure of wearing a royal robe of unimaginable petaled grandeur.

"We tried," says Goodlett. "You know, sometimes, things just morph into traditions for no reason. Maybe roses were just a good idea at the time."

So good, it just bore repeating.