Gardening Secrets of the Kentucky Derby

Why Churchill Downs looks so stunning on the big day

Photo: Josh Merideth

Sure, we all recognize certain familiar things about the Kentucky Derby (the horses! the juleps! the hats! the seersucker!), even if we’ve only ever watched the Run for the Roses through a television or tablet. But part of the pageantry of the day also comes from the majestic architecture of Churchill Downs and the unending sea of flowers in and around every event leading up to the most famous two minutes in sports.

Director of horticulture Matt Bizzell is the man behind it all. For months, he and his team quietly tend thousands of specimens for planting in nearby greenhouses. And then the rollout begins: Five thousand burgundy lace tulips in the Aristides Garden (named after the first Derby winner), a giant four-panel living wall at the track, not to mention all the hanging baskets, planters, and beds that can be found throughout the grounds. 

Once the flowers are installed, the biggest issues are trampled plants and foul weather. “It’s our most difficult obstacle,” Bizzell says. “We have to plant 15,000 to 17,000 plants for opening night the Saturday before Derby, so we are really pushing our luck, and this year we had an inch of snow that damaged some of our plantings and set us back.” Thanks to the relentless work of his team of nine men and women, they somehow pulled it off. “Most of them have spent their whole career caring for this property and love and nurture it like it’s their own.”

photo: Josh Merideth
Bizzell in the Aristides Garden.
photo: Josh Merideth
Petunias as far as the eye can see in the greenhouses before planting.
photo: Josh Merideth
Members of Bizzell’s team hard at work.

On the eve of this year’s race, the mood at the track is hopeful as the world begins opening up post-pandemic. “It’s still very different than a normal year because we are limiting our admission,” he says, “but the excitement to be among other race fans is palpable.” 

Plant-wise, Bizzell is particularly excited about the introduction of new varieties such as Senecio candicans, known as Angel Wings; Eupatorium, or Elegant Feathers, Begonia Glory Bicolor; Celosia, Sol Gekko Green; and Streptocarpus Lady Slippers Deep Blue Vein. But his favorite spot is always the Winner’s Circle, where two Swiss stone pines bookend the presentation stand, and hundreds of bright red geraniums fill the horseshoe-shaped flower bed. “All of Churchill feels like sacred ground, but this small Winner’s Circle is truly hallowed,” Bizzell says.

photo: Josh Merideth
Bizzell putting the finishing touches on the Winner’s Circle.

When all the guests are gone, and Bizzell and his team replace any bruised and battered blooms, a familiar quiet descends on the place—and that’s just how Bizzell likes it. “I definitely love the energy and excitement of Derby,” he says. “But the calm days here are my favorite.”