Susan Garrett’s Handiwork Takes On A Life Of Its Own At Saratoga

Susan Garrett remembers the exact moment that she set in motion what has become one of the most striking traditions of the summer meet at Saratoga Race Course.

The Wilton, New York resident had just watched Sea Hero triumph in the 1993 Travers, when during winner’s circle ceremony, she wondered why no floral blanket was draped over the winning horse’s back.

“It struck me that there was no floral blanket for the Travers, a race that certainly deserved one,” recalled Garrett, who owned a flower shop at the time. “I was looking at all the major stakes races in the country from the Kentucky Derby to the Preakness and the Belmont Stakes. They all had commemorative blankets. So, why didn’t we have one for a race as prestigious as the Travers?”

Garrett called officials at the New York Racing Association (NYRA) to ask why – and got an equally compelling question in return. “They asked, ‘Why don’t you make one?’” she recalled. So starting in 1994, Garrett did – kicking off a new tradition at Saratoga –which this summer, more than a quarter century later, will continue for the winner of the Grade 1, $1.25 million Runhappy Travers [on August 28], as well as those of 10 other graded stakes races at the Spa.

Those races are almost exclusively Grade 1 races, starting with the Diana – the meet’s first Grade 1 – and will include the Coaching Club American Oaks, Whitney, Longines Test, Saratoga Derby Invitational, Alabama, Resorts World Casino Sword Dancer, Flower Bowl and Jockey Club Gold Cup. Also earning a floral blanket will be the winner of the Grade 3, $700,000 Saratoga Oaks Invitational on August 8.

For Justify’s 2018 Triple Crown triumph, Garrett, now the proprietor of “Champion Floral Blankets by Susan,” expanded her business to Belmont Stakes Day. That year, she and a group of volunteer friends began putting together the commemorative blanket for the winner of the Belmont Stakes and another for the Secretariat statue in the Belmont Park paddock.

The blankets are works of art. Intricately designed and tightly packing anywhere from 400 to 800 flowers each, they add a dash of color and dose of glamor to the Saratoga summer. At America’s most iconic racetrack, Garrett’s floral blankets are worthy additions to venerable Spa-centric traditions such as the Travers canoe and winner’s circle bell.

To make the blanket for the winner of the 153rd edition of the Runhappy Travers, Garrett and her team will use mostly red carnations with white ones for the border — Saratoga colors. Carnations, Garrett said, are good flowers to use for the blankets because they’re hearty and able to withstand the summer heat.

For the $600,000 Alabama on August 21, the flower makers will use red and white carnations as well – but with a base of white carnations and a red border to resemble the design of the Alabama State Flag. Garrett has been creating the Alabama blanket since 2016 when Hall of Famer Mike Smith – also the jockey aboard Justify for his Triple Crown run – won the Grade 1 race for the nation’s top 3-year-old fillies on Songbird, whose silks were red and white as well.

“All that red and white made quite a picture,” said Garrett.

For the $1 million Whitney on August 7, Garrett and her team of volunteers will create a design using about 450 of the pink Mary Lou Whitney Roses – and follow the tried-and-true process they have to come to use in putting together all their blankets.

Each design begins several weeks out when Garrett designs and sews a lightweight blanket to which the flowers will be attached and adds an emblem embroidered by Walton’s Sports in Wilton. Dehn’s Flowers in Saratoga orders the flowers, which arrive at the Beekman Street shop two days before the team gathers to assemble the blanket.

The flowers are cut and placed in buckets of water until they open to the desired fullness and are then stored in coolers. The night prior to race day, the blanket team hand-sews each flower to the pre-made quilt. By the early morning of race day, they add the final touches and deliver the blankets to Saratoga Race Course, where it goes directly into refrigeration units behind the Shake Shack stand until post time. Timing for Belmont Stakes Day is a little different; the team finishes the night before and the blankets are driven in a refrigerated truck south to Belmont Park.

“We have the process down,” said Garrett.

Garrett said she takes pride in creating and building her unusual business and relishes the comradery of her friends who come together to help put together the blankets. That’s especially true this year with Saratoga Race Course set to return to full capacity.

“Like a lot of people in Saratoga, I can’t wait,” Garrett said. “We’re really looking to a great year.”

Garrett is part of what she called the “entrepreneurial spirit” of people who build businesses connected to the track. Garrett’s own family owns the Wishing Well restaurant, a longtime favorite of the racing crowd, which her parents, Bob and Brenda Lee, once ran; and Bob and Mary Alice Lee, Garrett’s brother and sister-in-law, now own. The family also owns the Brook Tavern, across Union Avenue from Saratoga Race Course.

What happens to the blankets that go home with the winners? The first Travers blanket, from Holy Bull’s win in 1994, went to the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame. Otherwise, they are usually hung in the winning stable’s shed row so the whole team can share the victory. Some blankets are even auctioned for charity, and from Garrett occasionally sees on social media, “people sometimes end up dancing with the blankets, all in good fun.” Still, others ask for silk replicas of their winning floral blankets.

“Those blankets take on a life of their own,” said Garrett. “As for me, making those blankets has become my little niche, my ’15 minutes of fame.’

“After all, there’s nothing better than seeing your handiwork on the back of a Champion,” she added. “It’s a really fun part of the Saratoga summer. I really enjoy it.”

The post Susan Garrett’s Handiwork Takes On A Life Of Its Own At Saratoga appeared first on Horse Racing News | Paulick Report.

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