DANVILLE — Jockeys, owners and trainers all dream of at least one Kentucky Derby victory, but Molly Jacobus has had a small role many times in "Run for the Roses" history.
Since 1996, her Danville floral shop, Molly's Flowers and Things, has often been called upon to preserve the rose garland that is draped over the winning horse. The shop has a freeze-drying machine big enough to handle the 10-foot-long, 40-pound blanket made by Kroger floral designers with more than 400 roses.
Friends and family tease Jacobus on Derby Day because, while they are concentrating on the race, she focuses on where the owner lives, and how she will get the preserved flowers to them.
"We love it if somebody in Kentucky wins, because we can drive it to Versailles or I can drive it to Lexington," Jacobus said. "But we've had to ship them to Tokyo one year, and we've shipped them to California a couple of times."
Jacobus bought the $20,000 freeze-drying machine in 1990. In 1994, thoroughbred breeder W.T. Young, who owned Overbrook Farm in Fayette County, had Jacobus preserve the white carnations that Tabasco Cat took at the Belmont Stakes.
In 1996, Young's colt Grindstone won the Kentucky Derby, and Young, who died in 2004, called on Jacobus again to preserve the roses.
Since then, every Derby winner, with four or five exceptions, has had the garland preserved by Molly's Flowers, said longtime employee Bruce Parker, who also is trained to use the freeze-drying machine.
"We never know if we're going to have it until after the Derby is over," Jacobus said. "The people at the Derby Museum call us and leave a message. ... They keep it in a refrigerator until Monday, and then we go up and get it."
Her shop has preserved garlands from Kentucky State Fair walking-horse shows and from The Breeders' Cup.
The freeze-drying apparatus is a big, round metal cylinder that resembles the iron-lung machines that once kept polio victims alive. The machine is primarily used to preserve wedding bouquets and funeral flowers.
"We will do a single rose that someone can keep as a memento from a funeral," Jacobus said. "Or we'll dry a wedding bouquet for the bride and either take it apart and put it in a shadow box or put in a (glass) dome for them to keep."
The refrigerated cylinder works like this: It flash-freezes the flowers to about 20 degrees below zero. A vacuum then removes the water from the flowers over six to eight weeks. The temperature inside the chamber gradually rises, and "as you raise the temperature, it's pulling more and more water out of the flowers," Jacobus said.
"If you hang-dry a flower, you get shrinkage. And these flowers stay the same size," she said.
"Each load takes about six to eight weeks to run. Every type of flower dries at a different speed, so we have to keep working with it until we know it has dried."
Once removed from the chamber, the flowers are sprayed with an acrylic sealant. They are remarkably supple and will not crumble, as barn-cured burley tobacco will.
"Darker flowers like red roses will turn darker. They will be more purplish red," Jacobus said. "And light flowers like pale pink roses or pale yellow flowers will turn a little bit lighter."
But some flowers aren't meant to be freeze-dried.
"Anything in the chrysanthemum family dries, but it just shatters," Jacobus said. Tulips, irises and orchids also don't dry well.
Jacobus declined to specify the cost to freeze-dry the Derby garland, but she acknowledged that the price is at least several hundred dollars. The cost varies, she said, depending on how many flowers have to be replaced and where the garland is shipped.
When she began preserving garlands, Jacobus had to replace hundreds of roses that had been picked from the blanket before it arrived at the store. In recent years, Churchill Downs tried to keep the garland away from prying hands so the Danville shop doesn't have to replace as many flowers.
Shipping the preserved flowers over long distances can complicate the process.
"It's a lot more involved then, because we have to use a shipping company that deals with museum artifacts, because your regular shipping sources aren't going to insure it," Jacobus said. "So you have to go to a place that crates it and then they can insure it."
In those instances, the crated garland is put into a climate-controlled truck, which takes the cargo to Atlanta, where it is re-crated and shipped to its ultimate destination.
Jacobus said she advises owners to put the finished garland under glass. Picture Perfect Custom Framing, a Lexington company, has made special viewing cases for Derby garlands, she said.
"It has to be under glass to protect it," Jacobus said. "If it sits out, you can't get the dust off once it's on there. It's not like a silk arrangement that you can wash."