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It’s all roses at Flemington

11 October 2022 Written by VRC

The Melbourne Cup Carnival is not only famous for its horses, fashion, and the glittering gold trophy – the roses and flowers featured all over Flemington are just as iconic.

It’s the first day of the Melbourne Cup Carnival and the gates open to an artist’s palette of colour and the heady scent of roses. Not a flower is out of place and the visual result is effortless elegance. Behind the scenes, however, Flemington’s gardeners have spent months in preparation and planning, growing, nurturing, cutting and creating.

When you think of foliage at the Carnival no flower is more iconic than the yellow rose but, interestingly, the connection with Spring Racing and the rose came about by accident.

Prior to the 1960s Flemington had its own nursery, where the Nursery Car Park is now. They used to grow annuals to plant in the grounds, and also a range of flowers for all the indoor areas. It was very labour-intensive – a seven-day-a-week job just to keep the boilers running in the cold weather.

Looking for an alternative, the VRC asked themselves what they could plant that would flower from spring to autumn, and someone suggested roses.

One bed was planted as a trial and the following year they closed the nursery down and planted 6000 rose plants. That number has since grown to 16,000. Due to roses being very hardy, it was a sensible decision for a country that experiences drought. And, as many of you know, if you’ve got an established rose in your garden it will pretty much look after itself.

Things don’t always go to plan, however, as evident by the spring many years ago when a colder-than-usual winter and sunless spring meant the famous roses didn’t bloom during the Melbourne Cup Carnival.

The roses had been pruned and pampered for six months, but the weather simply wouldn’t cooperate. When the media became aware of it in the weeks leading up to the Carnival, the VRC’s head gardener at the time, otherwise known as “keeper of the roses”, Terry Freeman was fielding phone calls from local news outlets as well as the BBC.

“It was during the Iraq war,” he said. “The lead story that night on the news was that the roses weren’t going to be out on Cup Day, and the second story was that the mayor of Baghdad had been killed in an explosion. It was absolutely strange.”

This level of media attention demonstrates how synonymous Flemington’s flowers are with the Melbourne Cup Carnival itself. It also highlights the meticulous work that goes into preparing the grounds for the Cup. The roses have never missed a Carnival before or since.

Since Freeman’s retirement in 2019, the coveted job has been handed to Mick Ryan, who has also been at Flemington for many years. Ryan and his gardening staff begin preparing the roses six months before the Carnival, in May, for a 15-week period.

This doesn’t mean the gardeners work their way from one end of the grounds to the other. Instead, they start tending to the slow-blooming varieties first, and the fast-blooming varieties closer to the Carnival.

The soil is tested to ensure pH levels are spot on, and the roses are checked for disfiguring pests and treated if required.

“In early September we give them a solid feed, where we throw the fertiliser down on the ground, and as soon as there’s any sign of buds we spray them with fish fertiliser,” said Ryan.

“About six weeks out from the event it will be obvious if you’ve got some dragging their feet and we spray them with potassium spray to give them a hurry-up.”

By the time the horses hit the track and the crowds flood through the gates, all 16,000 are in full bloom.

Ryan and his team work hard to make this magic, but are also humble about the famous blooms that spring to life like clockwork.

One of their secrets is that about 1000 out of 16,500 plants are replaced each year. “We keep them young because once they get to about 12-15 years old they start to lose their vigour.”

The hard work of Ryan and his team ensures that even with Melbourne’s game of weather roulette, preparations are always in full swing to ensure the roses look their best for Cup Week.

Did you know?

While the yellow rose of Lexus Melbourne Cup Day may be the best-known flower of the Melbourne Cup Carnival, each race day has its own official flower. Wear it in your hat or lapel, or use its colour as inspiration for your outfit.

  • Penfolds Victorian Derby Day: blue cornflower
  • Lexus Melbourne Cup Day: yellow rose
  • Kennedy Oaks Day: pink rose
  • TAB Champions Stakes Day: red rose