Middletown Kroger Florists Continue Tradition of Creating Oaks Garland & Garland of Roses for Derby Week

On the first Saturday of May the ‘most exciting two minutes in sports’—the Kentucky Derby — brings a certain buzz to the Blue Grass State. To the rest of the world, this event is a televised spectacle involving powerful thoroughbreds and jockeys racing at break-neck speeds around the track at Churchill Downs. But locals know there are other activities taking place — the Derby Festival, the Pegasus Parade, the Great Steamboat Race, the balloon glow and more.

There’s a lot happening in Middletown, especially at the local Kroger grocery store on Shelbyville Road.

If you want to witness history in the making, head to Kroger where you can watch their master florists assembling the opulent garlands that are presented to the winners of each race. Originally, the rose garland was produced by Kingsley Walker Florists, but then in 1987, Kroger took over the assembly process. Kroger began assembling the Oaks garland in 1991 at the request of Churchill Downs.

“They asked if we could make a garland for the fillies,” Allison Gousha, Kroger’s Derby Coordinator, explains. “Up until then they only had the red rose garland for Derby day.”

Kroger donates both garlands to Churchill Downs.

The process begins in January and involves construction of the backing for each garland. Both are assembled by Louisville resident Bev Fairfax. She and her mother worked together for years making them, but now Fairfax carries on the proud tradition alone. It takes months to construct the backings, ensuring they’re both ready to be received by Kroger by the time Derby week rolls around. Fairfax buys fabric from New York and sews the pieces together, leaving spaces where empty water vials are packed in. This is where the flowers are placed. The backing has the Kentucky crest embroidered on it as well as the logo for the current race. Once the backings are complete, greenery is added to the border at the beginning of Derby week and the final placement of flowers occurs the night before each race.

According to Gousha, 50 master florists from different stores in their district work on the garlands. In 2018, a florist from southern Illinois was selected to work on the pieces. There’s a long waiting list of Kroger florists who are eager to take part in this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

Customers can visit the store on Thursday night of Derby week, from 4 to 9, to see the Oaks garland or the ‘Lilies for the Fillies,’ being constructed. Approximately 500 Star Fighter lilies are shipped from California and 144 flowers are used for the garland. They are magnificent and flamboyant with purplish-red petals adorned with dark spots and white ruffled edges. When finished, the garland weighs 20 pounds and measures 18 inches wide by 118 inches long. The remaining lilies are used for the jockey’s bouquet and others are given to participants in the Kentucky Oaks Survivors Parade presented by Kroger. The garland is kept in a refrigeration unit until the next morning when it’s delivered to Churchill Downs accompanied by a police escort.

On the Friday before Derby, from 6 pm to 10 pm, the florists meticulously sew on approximately 465 flowers to the rose garland.  The flowers are selected from the 5,000 Freedom Roses shipped in from Ecuador. These roses are grown and cultivated specifically for Kroger.

“Freedom has a really nice color and size and that is what we’re looking for to use in the garland,” Gousha says. “They come from a sustainable farm and we really promote the process of how they’re grown and taken care of. When they are planted, we know those are the ones we’re going to use, so extra care is taken to make sure we get the right size and color. It’s an ongoing process to ensure perfection.”

Gousha explains that the number of roses used in the garland varies year to year. 

“It changes depending upon the number of horses that are racing and how large the roses are,” she says. “In the crown of the garland, we put in a rose for every horse that’s running, plus one extra at the top which represents the heart of the soul of the race and how hard the horses and jockeys work. It’s for good luck.”

When complete, the garland weighs 40 pounds and is 22 inches wide by 122 inches long. But the Kroger team still has a lot to do. Gousha and employees head out to Churchill Downs at 2 a.m. Saturday morning to prepare the roses for the winner’s circle, and at 9 am that day the Derby garland is escorted by police to the track.

Viewing the construction of the garlands is a sight to behold. Large work tables in the center of the store hold the garland base and supplies. Two lines form on either side of the work area allowing a steady flow of customers to easily observe the assembly process. Approximately 4,000 people come to see the Oaks garland and nearly 7,000 people visit on Friday to see the Derby garland. Guests are given commemorative goodies including pins and a small bag of rose petals on Friday. Live piano music is provided on Friday by pianist Linda Bader who donates her time for the evening. 

The remaining roses are used in a variety of ways. Kroger florists create 200 boutonnieres for track personnel and 1,350 roses are placed in the urns at the winner’s circle. They also present 500 single roses for Taste of Kentucky, plus roses are given to the car valets to place in spectators’ vehicles.

If you aren’t able to attend the garland festivities there’s still plenty happening during the week. You can watch artist Damon Farmer create a huge sand sculpture in Kroger’s parking lot.

“He starts on Monday with 10 tons of sand, and he finishes by the time we sew the first rose onto the garland,” Gousha says.

His work showcases iconic figures from the Derby, such as excited spectators and the twin spires of Churchill Downs. If you’re excited by bourbon, aficionados can meet distributors from Wild Turkey, Jim Beam and Woodford Reserve at Kroger’s wine and spirits shop.  Master distillers including Fred Noe, Jimmy Russell and Chris Morris are on hand to discuss their product and sign bourbon bottles.

Foodies will love that Kentucky Proud products from area vendors are available for sampling. Nosh on jams and jellies, beer cheese, barbecue sauce, Benedictine and country ham. If you’re lucky you’ll have a chance to witness backyard chefs compete in the Derby burger competition at the store. Thursday and Friday events include a meet and greet with the winner of the official Kentucky Derby poster, autograph sessions with the jockeys and an opportunity to view the actual Derby trophy.

All Derby week activities at the Middletown Kroger store are family friendly and a great way to participate in the celebration, especially if you can’t make it to the big race. The store is located at 12501 Shelbyville Road.

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