An inside look at how the Derby and Oaks winners’ garlands are created
By Laura Ross
Allison Gousha doesn’t sleep much the first week of May. As Kroger’s long-time Derby Event Coordinator, she clocks hundreds of hours leading up to Derby so that the Oaks and Derby-winning horses’ personal “trophies” – the respective garlands of lilies and roses – are perfect in every way.
“I dedicate three full weeks just to garland time,” she explained. “It takes that long to put it all together, from working on the garlands, the sewing, the greenery, and of course, the flowers. Once the flowers arrive, I never leave their side. I monitor them, nurture them, check the temperature, water them and make sure they are safe. From the time the garland is made, it is always me and an armed security guard watching over it. On race day, we have 30 Marines join us to keep the garland safe. It’s unlike any other trophy for any other sporting event.”
The Kroger Corporation began crafting the Kentucky Derby garland of roses in 1987 and added the garland of lilies for the Kentucky Oaks in 1991. Gousha, who works in grocery pick up the rest of the year for Kroger, landed her Derby assignment in 2010 and has reveled in it since. Gousha and her team begin planning for Derby week in October. Two long-time seamstresses begin making the backing which must be ready by March. The greenery in the garlands arrives from Driesbach Wholesale Florists the week before Derby. “The greenery bouquets take about ten people more than 80 hours to craft for the roses, and about 60 hours to make for the lilies,” said Gousha.
The Derby garland of roses measures 122 inches long and 22 inches wide and weighs 40 pounds. The garland includes 465 Freedom roses, which are chosen for their color and size. Freedom roses were selected after the tragedy of 9/11 and represent both freedom and the heart and soul it takes to get to the Winner’s Circle at the Derby.
The rose garland features a crown on top that holds a rose for each horse racing in the Derby. One extra rose is then added for the spirit needed to win. “I stay with the garland all day on Derby day, so if a horse scratches, I pull a rose out,” adds Gousha.
The Oaks garland of lilies is “more feminine” said Gousha, and is a bit smaller at 116 inches long, 20 inches wide and weighs in at 20 pounds. It features 144 Starfighter lilies wrapped in tulle, chosen for their vibrant pink and sweet fragrance.
Each lily, in its own water vial, is tied on with white yarn, which is then triple knotted. The roses, also in their own water vials, are sewn with a green thread, triple knotted and then hooked into the garland with a hook resembling an upholstery needle.
Gousha’s nimble-fingered team includes people who have worked on the garlands for more than 20 years. “It’s a coveted assignment,” she said. “It’s tedious work, but such an honor and everyone loves it so much.”
Traditionally, the public could watch the bulk of their final touches live at Kroger. Fans and families lined up around the store to watch the garlands come to life. However, the COVID-19 pandemic changed all of that. Not only was Derby postponed until the autumn, pandemic rules and precautions took the process out of the store completely in 2020. Churchill Downs stepped up and provided a venue to craft the garlands, and for the first time, live-streamed the event world-wide.
“It was sad to not be able to interact with the customers, but social distancing had to be followed,” explained Gousha. “Even so, last year was awesome to do it at Churchill Downs because all of the workers like the kitchen staff and backside employees got to see it for the first time. Even the owners and trainers visited us and that never would have happened before.”
The live-stream was a new touch as well in 2020, which introduced viewers from across the globe to the garlands’ creation.
Originally, the 2021 Derby and Oaks plan called for returning the flowers to Churchill Downs, but given an improving pandemic environment and vaccine availability, the garland creation was moved back to the Kroger in Middletown. “It will be socially distanced, and all precautions continue, but we will have the chance to show the public our work again,” said Gousha, adding that the live-stream event will also continue this year.
On Derby and Oaks Days, it’s game on for Gousha. “I don’t leave the flowers and I don’t sleep for about 72 hours, and that’s just fine,” she laughed. “Weather is always on my mind. We have buckets of extra flowers in case something wilts, and we’re constantly spritzing the flowers and touching up the garlands. We also do the seven large flower urns in the Winner’s Circle, so those need love and attention too.”
While the fans hope for 75 degrees and blue, sunny skies, Gousha actually prefers a misty, cloudy day. “Last year was hotter than Hades and the garlands were right in the sun, so we spritzed quite a bit,” Gousha said. “Two years ago, we got decent rain, which the roses love. My perfect Oaks or Derby day is cool and rainy, but I shouldn’t say that to the spectators.”
“Last year, I missed the fans,” she admitted. “That hurt personally. I missed seeing the kids and families I see every year who come through and watch the garlands being made. It just wasn’t the same. I live in Kentucky because of this one week. The rest of my family lives elsewhere. A few flowers have kept me here.”
Her reward is seeing how happy everyone is after the race. Extra perks include receiving thanks and calls from the owners, jockeys, trainers and fans across the world. She always plucks a rose, thread and needle from each year’s garland for her personal mementos.
“To me, the Derby is as big as Christmas,” she mused. “I love being a part of this. The best part is when I’m really tired, and I just made it home or I’m ready to leave the track and I see them throw that garland over the horse and you see how excited everyone is. That’s all our hard work for another year. I can’t help but cheer and think, we did it!”