This article appears in the March 2011 issue of LouisvilleMagazine. To subscribe, please visit loumag.com.
Just before dawn on the first Saturday in May, Carol Belser adorns the Churchill Downs winner’s circle with roses. She appreciates this early-morning moment as the only part of her day that is almost completely silent. During the rest of her hectic weekend there is little time for reflection. That’s because, for the past 24 years, Belser has made the garland of roses that is draped over the winning Kentucky Derby horse.
Belser, 56, is a master florist at Kroger — the official Derby florist since 1987 — and she and her team craft the garland the Friday evening before the race. (This year’s event will take place at the Hubbards Lane Kroger.) “About 75 to 80 people contribute,” Belser says. Seamstresses create the garland’s green satin backing that’s embroidered with the commonwealth seal and the Twin Spires, a souvenir for the champion’s owner. Florists spend a week examining the color and shape of the roses, which are shipped in from Ecuador. Friday at 4 p.m. the team begins the six- to eight-hour endeavor of sewing on the roses. “We’re so hyped-up, adrenaline going, we just don’t want to stop,” Belser says.
Once all 554 roses are in place, Belser accompanies the 43-pound garland to the track, where it spends part of the day on display in the paddock. Three times throughout her career, Belser has been invited into the winner’s circle. That’s where she was in 2004 with Smarty Jones. “We were looking at all the spectators,” she says, “and I felt like the queen.”
“It’s such a wonderful feeling to be a part of making the garland,” Belser adds. “When I see the blanket draped over the winning horse, I’m very weak at heart.”
Photo: John Nation