When Susan Garrett watches the 153rd Travers on Saturday, she’ll be zeroing in on one thing: Does the flower blanket look perfect?
Garrett, a florist and longtime Saratoga County resident, designs the intricate and hand-sewn floral pieces that adorn the winning horses at the Saratoga Race Course. Packed with hundreds of flowers, they’ve become track attractions in their own right over the last 28 years.
“I’m blessed to be able to make these pieces,” Garrett said.
She grew up around horse racing; her family owns The Wishing Well Restaurant, and her late-father was once the New York State Racing Commissioner. Early on in her career, she worked at Calder Race Course in Florida. While there, she went to school at night for floral design. It, in part, gave her the experience she needed to make the blankets, which she started doing in 1994 after she noticed that the Travers stakes didn’t have its own distinctive blanket.
“I wondered why because all the big stakes races had blankets,” said Garrett, who owned a local flower shop at the time. She brought it up to the New York Racing Association, who suggested she make one. After a bit of research, she took them up on the offer.
“The first one was this big monstrosity, [a] seven-foot by three-foot blanket. It had this huge white ‘T’ on it. It was not the prettiest, but it was a blanket and it was the first one. That was put on Holy Bull in 1994,” Garrett said.
Since then, she’s fine-tuned her designs and techniques and the number of blankets she makes per season has multiplied.
“I would say in the last probably eight years it’s grown a lot,” Garrett said. “We now do all Grade 1 stakes races for the New York Racing Association.”
For the Saratoga meet alone, Garrett had 10 more blankets to make when the Gazette spoke with her earlier this week. Then, she had a few others to work on that will be sent to Aqueduct Racetrack in South Ozone Park, Queens, in the coming weeks.
“Now I’m in demand. I flew down to Florida and I did the Pegasus World Cup and I do equestrian sashes for the USHJA (United States Hunter Jumper Association),” Garrett said.
“I didn’t realize how big it could get back in 1994,” she added.
Luckily, when it comes to the flower blankets, she has some help. Each summer season in Saratoga, a team of volunteers from around the area, and beyond, come out to help glue and hand-sew each of the hundreds of flowers on the blankets.
“They want to be a part of it. Either they’re people that are crafty or they’re people that are real horse people,” Garrett said. “It’s amazing to me because there’s no way in the world I could ever do this on my own. They come, they work hours and hours . . . I always say, I feel like Tom Sawyer painting a fence.”
The base of the blankets is made up of quilted layers of broadcloth cotton, batting and fleece. There’s usually an emblem, embroidered by Walton’s Sports in Wilton.
Dehn’s Flowers in Saratoga Springs orders the flowers and Garrett, along with her team of volunteers, set up a workstation at the Beekman Street shop. The day before a given race, her team is hard at work gluing and hand-sewing each flower to the blanket, which can take between four and six hours.
On race day, they add any last-minute touch-ups and then Garrett delivers the blanket to Saratoga Race Course.
Anywhere between 750-800 flowers are used in each blanket. Garrett tends to use carnations because of their hardiness and color variety, though she also uses roses for the Whitney Stakes, and other flowers depending on the race she’s designing for. On Saturday, the Travers blanket will feature Saratoga Race Course’s traditional red and white colors.
“Each blanket that I make is a different color, a different design,” Garrett said.
One of her favorite designs was from 2018, when Justify won the Triple Crown.
“We worked here for like three days straight and then I went down with my husband to Belmont. When we saw Justify win the race, that was pretty incredible and to see your work on the cover of Sports Illustrated . . . that was pretty impressive,” Garrett said.
She doesn’t often have the chance to watch the Saratoga races at the track, though she always catches them on television.
“It’s putting your art on display so you can imagine my hands every time a blanket goes on a horse or a sash goes on a horse, I’m always looking to make sure it looks perfect,” Garrett said. “It’s a lot of work, but it’s a lot of great times and I wouldn’t trade it for the world.”
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