The Kentucky Derby has been held at Churchill Downs since fifteen jockeys and their horses assembled for the inaugural race all the way back in 1875, and the event is steeped in history thanks to no small part to the many traditions associated with it.
The spectators who gather at the racetrack each year typically don flashy suits and oversized hats while sipping mint juleps and eagerly awaiting the moment “My Old Kentucky Home” echoes throughout the storied venue as the entrants make their way to the starting gate ahead of the event known as “The Most Exciting Two Minutes in Sports.”
That’s not the only nickname associated with the Kentucky Derby, as the storied race is also widely referred to as “The Run for the Roses” thanks to the blanket (or, if we’re being technical, “garland”) of red flowers draped over the horse that crosses the finish line ahead of the rest of the field.
There’s a very good chance you’ve witnessed that particular spectacle without really giving it any second thought.
However, there’s obviously some reason those roses (554 of them, to be exact) are at the center of the postrace celebration each year—and if you’re curious about the origins of that particular tradition, you’ve come to the right place.
Why are roses presented to the winner of the Kentucky Derby?
You might think roses are prominently featured at the Kentucky Derby as some sort of nod to the agricultural history of the Louisville area or the state as a whole.
Farms in Kentucky do grow plenty of the corn and other grains that fuel its iconic bourbon industry, but roses aren’t exactly a cash crop (if you’re curious, Texas is responsible for producing around a third of America’s annual supply, with California, Florida, Washington, and Oregon contributing the bulk of the rest).
So how exactly did roses become the flower of choice?
Well, we can thank Evander Berry Kane, a New York City socialite who once earned what is possibly the coolest nickname ever handed out: King of the Dudes.
The story goes Kane attempted to endear himself to women at a party during a trip to Louisville in 1883 by presenting them with a bouquet of roses.
The gesture of goodwill was witnessed by Meriwether Lewis Clark Jr. (the grandson of William Clark of “Lewis and Clark” fame), who was raised by the Churchill family that donated the land where the racetrack that hosts the Kentucky Derby was built.
Clark oversaw the construction of what was originally known as the Louisville Jockey Club and eventually floated the idea of presenting roses to the winner of the race. A bouquet was presented for the first time in 1896, and eight years later, they were named the Official Flower of the Kentucky Derby.
In 1925, Bill Corum of The New York Evening Journal became the first person to refer to the event as “The Run for the Roses,” and in 1932, the rose garland we’re familiar with today was presented for the first time after Burgoo King won the 58th running of the Kentucky Derby.
The rest, as they say, is history.