Why do they call the Kentucky Derby the “Run for the Roses” and what is the related history of this nickname?
If you are like most fans, you have wondered why the Kentucky Derby is called the “Run for the Roses.”
In fact, there is an expansive history behind the “Run for the Roses” nickname that many born in the Bluegrass State may not be aware of. Although we cannot go back in time and find all of the opinions on why the rose is so important, we can glean from the past how this flower, phrase, and moniker became the center point of Kentucky Derby victory.
A ‘Run for the Roses’ may have prevented anxiety
At KentuckyDerby.com, we learn that the idea for a rose garland for winning horses arose from the tradition of giving ladies this flower when they attended the race. That lends to the question of why ladies in that time period needed roses in the first place. Sadly, we learn that, in the past, people may have had a very good reason to “Run for the Roses” — or anything that did not smell like 1800s body odor.
Today, we are accustomed to the lack of smell that a crowded racetrack has. Regardless, in the times before deodorant, a busy place without fans or air conditioning needed some help due to all of the sweaty bodies.
Probable cause for using a rose specifically
Thankfully, the way that most people solved this intense body odor issue was by rubbing scented oils under their nose — or smelling a flower. In the “Rose Book” by Maggie Oster, we learn that in the Edwardian Era, the rich and poor used a small bouquet called a nosegay.
According to Oster’s book, “The nosegay was originally used to ward off bad smells and diseases. Taken to their glorious height in the Victorian and Edwardian Eras [when Churchill Downs first opened], nosegays had a perfect rose as the central flower.”
In other words, roses were considered one of the most special flowers by the people of the late 1800s. Therefore, it may have made sense to early Kentucky Derby organizers that a premiere race deserved the most popular flower to represent it.
The first “Run for the Roses” reference
Although roses were likely a part of the first Kentucky Derby crowd in 1875, they were not around the neck of the winning horse until much later. The Kentucky Derby website states that pink and white roses were first used as a garland in 1896, the red rose was official in 1904, and 1925 was the first year the Derby was referred to as the “Run for the Roses.”
One other important fact they list is, “The garland as it exists today was first introduced in 1932 for the 58th [Kentucky Derby] running won by Burgoo King.”
Pop culture references to “Run for the Roses”
Online, one of the biggest searches on May 5, 2012 is for the Kentucky Derby and several keywords associated with “Run for the Roses.” In particular, most people are looking for the official ‘Run for the Roses’ song by Dan Fogelberg that was released in 1981. Other associated searches are for “Run for the Roses” lyrics, chords, and the version by Jerry Garcia.
Over time, this moniker is now another way to say “Kentucky Derby.” For this reason, if you see a Run for the Roses basketball tournament, contest, or marathon, be sure to grab a nosegay and join in on Derby Fever (old school style).