The power of the flower

29 October 2023 Written by Jane Rocca

Flowers, especially the famous Flemington roses, are synonymous with the Melbourne Cup Carnival. Discover how you can incorporate the tradition into your race day, and some of the changes that are coming to this year’s florals for very good – and charitable – reasons.

Each day of Cup Week at Flemington pays tribute to a signature flower – traditionally it has been a blue cornflower worn on Penfolds Victoria Derby Day, a yellow rose on Lexus Melbourne Cup Day, a pink rose on Kennedy Oaks Day and a red rose for TAB Champions Stakes Day. Racegoers either show off their trackside knowledge by pinning one to their lapel, or adding a nod to the colour du jour through their outfit or millinery instead.

In 2023, two flowers will be swapped for new ones, all in the name of charity. The pink rose on Kennedy Oaks Day will be replaced with a purple rose, to align with the colour of the Good Friday Appeal as the organisation unites with the VRC to raise awareness for the much-loved Appeal.

Penfolds Victoria Derby Day

Penfolds Victoria Derby Day

Traditional cornflower

Lexus Melbourne Cup Day

Lexus Melbourne Cup Day

Traditional yellow rose

It is hoped that Flemington will be awash with purple, as racing participants don purple breeches and form a reverse guard of honour in the mounting yard for the arrival of special guests from the Good Friday Appeal community, in what will be a heart-warming moment on the day.

Racegoers are encouraged to elevate their racewear with a touch of purple, which could be through the purple rose, and take the opportunity to donate to the Appeal.

Similarly, the lapels of racegoers on TAB Champions Stakes Day will look slightly different, too, as the traditional red rose is replaced this year with a red poppy. With the race day falling on the same date as Remembrance Day (11 November), the VRC is proud to support the RSL’s Annual Poppy Appeal. The club will join forces with RSL Victoria and raise funds for Australian veterans and their families. The Annual Poppy Appeal has been delivering life-changing support for more than 100 years.

Racegoers will have the opportunity to contribute to the Poppy Appeal by purchasing a red poppy lapel pin, with prices ranging from $2 to $50 from on-course RSL Victoria volunteers.

Kennedy Oaks Day

Kennedy Oaks Day

Purpl aligns with the colour of the Good Friday Appeal as the organisation unites with the VRC to raise awareness for the much-loved Appeal.

TAB Champions Stakes Day

TAB Champions Stakes Day

The traditional red rose is replaced this year with a red poppy to acknowledge Remembrance Day. . The club will join forces with RSL Victoria and raise funds for Australian veterans and their families. 

Where did the flower tradition start?

Flemington’s spectacular rose gardens are lovingly tended to all year round by Mick Ryan. It’s the largest rose garden you’ll find in the Southern Hemisphere and was first planted in the 1960s.

The elegant-coloured hues we see in bloom on each race day also nod to the colours you can wear each day. You’ll spot red roses at the entrance from Epsom Road, yellow at the Members’ Lawn and plenty of pink and coconut ice on the front lawns.

There are more than 16,500 roses in full bloom come October, requiring daily maintenance by Ryan and his team at Flemington.

Ryan has been working at Flemington as a gardener for 34 years, and attending just as many Melbourne Cups, too – ever watchful over the roses as they put their best petals forward for all to admire.

Pruning certainly can’t be done in a day or few weeks either. Ryan begins at the end of April and completes the pruning process by the second week of August and is monitoring their every blooming move until Cup Week arrives. 

“It’s an intensive 17-week program to get the flowers blooming at the same time,” says Mick Ryan.

“It all comes down to the trained eye. We walk around and see what is early or late to bloom and change the day we do the pruning the following year. There’s an art and precision to it,” he says.

“The more work you put in, the more the roses will flower and give you a much better display. As tough as they are, they appreciate love and care and reward you with more flowers,” Ryan says. 

Word has it that several committee member wives came up with the yellow rose tradition for Melbourne Cup when they suggested it to their husbands. The trend took off and remains in place today. While it’s not compulsory to wear one in your lapel, it’s a big day for florists who pin their hopes on selling plenty during race week. They are also sold trackside on each day.

“We’ve held onto the trend and more and more people started following it. It’s a nice touch for the day because flowers are a great conversation starter too,” Ryan says. “They look very elegant in a lapel.”

When Ryan started working at Flemington under the now retired gardener Terry Freeman there were 6000 roses on site. That has grown dramatically over the years, with Ryan hoping to plant a few thousand more in the next two years.

There are plenty of other ways to embrace the traditional rose and flower colours for each day at the races this year, too. If you’re hosting family and friends in the carparks or having a picnic on the front lawns, why not curate your décor with cornflower blue napery on Derby Day, a hint of red for Stakes Day and soft purple hues on Oaks Day. Or have some lapels in customary colours ready to go to get the celebration started.

Did you know?

The VRC is also generous with the floral arrangements used for decorations throughout the restaurants and hospitality venues at Flemington Racecourse. During the Melbourne Cup Carnival, these are donated to the nearby Royal Melbourne Hospital, with BlueCross also benefitting from the donated arrangements from other race days across the season.