LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- She's intently guarded for 24 hours by police. She's escorted by our esteemed military guards. She has designers poking and prodding her at 4 a.m. before her worldwide debut.
Her ensemble is embroidered with the highest standard of elegance, and she smells of a fresh, crisp morning in May. Thousands of people line up the night before her debut, just for a chance to see her up-close-and-personal.
She is the legendary Garland of Roses that has come to symbolize the prestigious and almost royal-esque atmosphere of the Kentucky Derby.
The 40-pound blanket of roses, crafted by floral designers at Kroger in Louisville, is treated with kingship during the road to the race. Before the world's focus turns to the Bluegrass state, a team of four work around the clock to ensure she's as beautiful as can be.
The Garland of Roses is Born
It's said roses were introduced at the Kentucky Derby as a gift for fashionable women attendees during the late 1800s. In 1896, a pink and white rose bouquet was given to Derby winner, Ben Brush. And from that began a century-long tradition.
In 1904, the red rose became the official flower of the Kentucky Derby. The tradition became well-known in 1925 when New York Evening Journal sports columnist Bill Corum coined the Kentucky Derby as the "Run for the Roses." He later became the president of Churchill Downs.
In the 20s, the roses were formed into a horseshoe and presented to the Derby winner. It wasn't until 1932 that the first official Garland of Roses was designed. Grace Walker, a local florist, was commissioned to create a garland by the then-official of the Derby, Samuel Culberston. She designed the "blanket" using 500 roses stitched to a green piece of material. This design was first showcased by the 1932 winner, Burgoo King.
The crafting of Garland of Roses was taken over by Kroger, headquartered in Cincinnati, in 1986; their first blanket appearing in 1987. The Louisville Kroger on Shelbyville Road is the select marketplace where the garland is created and displayed as part of a community tradition, year after year.
“The Garland of Roses has become such a worldwide recognized symbol of the Kentucky Derby that its very creation has become an integral part of the Derby tradition and an event in its own right,” said Calvin Kaufman, president of Kroger’s Louisville division.
“Kroger is very proud that Churchill Downs entrusts this important part of the Derby tradition to our team of floral designers. It’s a thrill to see their craftsmanship televised around the world on derby day.”
The 'energy is there' in Louisville
As we near the 140th Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs, the clock begins to tick for lead florist Carol Belser.
Dorothy "Carol" Belser has worked for the Kroger Company for 38 years; 27 of which has been with the floral department. As one of the few florists managing fresh cut flowers during the 1986 announcement of Kroger's venture, Belser became part of the essential design team. She's now the lead lady of the project.
Carol Belser, on the left, arranges the Garland of Roses for the Kentucky Derby The Kroger Company Photography
Months of planning come down to one crucial day of non-stop work for Belser, and her team of three, on the Friday before the Derby. Around 4 p.m. on May 2 at the Louisville Kroger location, Belser and her team will begin to assemble the garland. The team works throughout the night to complete the blanket.
Although there's only a team of four on project, they're not the only ones who are present on the night before the Derby. Last year, more than 6,000 people showed at the location to observe the team assemble her majesty.
The process of crafting the garland begins with more than 6,000 roses which the team needs to sift through in order to select only the brightest and best from the bunch. Whichever roses are left discarded are used to decorate the Winner's Circle. The red rose choice changed from the Classy rose to the Freedom rose in 2008.
The Freedom rose, grown and cultivated for its bloom size and foliage, is described as a "perfect patriotic red" and was dubbed with the title following the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001 in tribute to the victims, to those who responded that fateful day and those fought to protect our freedom at home and overseas.
From the 6,000 roses, around 450 are chosen for the garland. The stems are thorn-less and inserted into their own water vital which is hidden behind the garland. Each of the 450 roses are hand-sewn onto the backing and are framed with a hand-made border of boxwood, camelia and coffee leaves.
While Belser and her team have thousands of eyes focusing on them as they work delicately for hours, Belser said she experiences a certain... feeling.
"It's a natural high," Belser said. "Everyone is so excited." And that high-on-life feeling is what allows her to work vigilantly throughout the night, knowing she's creating
something that's "really big" for the state of Kentucky.
After about 12 hours of sewing the flowers in place, ribbons are attached and one special rose is placed in the center of the garland, facing upwards, to "symbolize the struggle and heart necessary to reach the Winner's Circle."
Once completed, the garland remains visible for the public to view before she makes her way to the races.
The garland is placed in what appears to be a coffin, but it's actually an acrylic, see-through case equipped with a golden frame. The garland is escorted by police to Churchill Downs.
Once she arrives at the track, along with the Jockey's Bouquet, military personnel take over at approximately 9:30 a.m. and move her to the Clubhouse Garden under the Jockey's Club Balcony so that attendees can admire her.
"The energy is there and you can feel it in the air," Belser said. The city is "flourishing" during this time of the year, encompassing the Derby Belser said.
She, the garland, waits patiently until the end of the race. She's given to the winning thoroughbred and jockey at the Winner's Circle.
The winner can chose to do with her what he pleases. Some will preserve the flowers and hang them at home, said Louisville Kroger Spokesperson Tim McGurk. Others may give the garland away or to the Kentucky Derby museum.
As for Belser, she can relax, knowing her job is complete -- until next year.
The 140th Kentucky Derby, "the greatest two minutes in sports," is scheduled on Saturday, May 3 at Churchill Downs.
Photos are courtesy of photographers of the Kroger Company.
Connect with Jane Andreasik on Twitter: @jandreasik