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Neither Susans nor daisies

Horse RacingPreakness StakesThe Jockey Club IncorporatedPrice DayNBCPimlico Race CourseSusan G. Komen for the Cure

The story has been told so many times it's taken on a life of its own: Black-eyed Susans don't bloom in time for the Preakness, so the winning horse is instead draped with a blanket of yellow daisies whose centers have been painted so they look like Maryland's state flower.

The New York Times and NBC are just two of the media outlets that have repeated the tale. It's in the Preakness media guide every year, including this year.

Trouble is, no flowers are actually being painted — and they haven't been for maybe 15 years.

It's not that Pimlico has a found a way to make the tardy black-eyed Susan bloom early. The viking pom, a member of the chrysanthemum family, has become its stand-in.

The flower's center is brown, not black. But the winning horse has never noticed the difference.

Neither have the humans, apparently. This is from the description of the making of the black-eyed Susan blanket in the 2014 Preakness media guide:

"Upon completion, the center of the daisies are daubed with black lacquer to recreate the appearance of a Black-Eyed Susan."

Kathleen Marvel works at Giant Food and has been weaving Preakness floral blankets for five years. Mary Pat Walbrecher has been doing it for 10. And Mark Loughner has been doing it for more than 12 years.

None has ever painted a daisy, they said.

They were working behind a booth decorated for the Preakness at the Giant on York Road near Northern Parkway on Thursday morning so customers could see the process. It would take them most of their eight-hour shift to weave the blanket for the Black-Eyed Susan Stakes for fillies on Friday. It requires about 2,000 blooms.

They will spend Friday making the winner's blanket for the Preakness Stakes. It is much larger — about 10 feet long — and takes 4,200 blooms. The blankets are sprayed with water and refrigerated overnight. Someone from Pimlico Race Course picks them up in the morning.

"I've never painted any daisies," said Loughner, an assistant manager. "I think they stopped doing that when they closed the [Giant] warehouse, which is where we used to do this. That's maybe 10, 15 years ago."

"This appears to be a communication issue, simple as that," said Mike Gathagan, vice president for communications with the Maryland Jockey Club, which sponsors the Preakness.

Gathagan said that page of the media guide has not been updated since 2001. The Jockey Club removed the reference to painted daisies from the website on Thursday, he said.

The black-eyed Susan was chosen to take the place of roses in the winner's blanket, according to The Sun's archives, in the late 1930s. In 1939 the Sun described what it said was a blanket of black-eyed Susans gracing the neck of Preakness winner Challedon. Racing writer Jesse Linthicum said the change gave the race "a real Maryland flavor."

The black-eyed Susan was declared the state flower in 1918 by the state legislature. Its yellow and black colors echo the yellow and black in the state flag. Its 13 petals also paid tribute to the original 13 colonies, of which Maryland is one.

It was Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter Price Day, writing in The Sun in 1946, who revealed that florist and devoted horse lover George Cook had been painting the center of yellow daisies with shoe black for years. He'd made every blanket from 1928 to 1953, and he died just days before the 1954 race.

Black-eyed Susans aren't in bloom until late June, so none could be had in time for the Preakness in May. In any case, they are a wild flower, not a commercial bloom, and not hardy enough to be woven into a blanket and kept fresh for a couple of days. Cook improvised. A picture of him holding a daisy and a wand from a bottle of black shoe polish accompanies Day's story.

Beginning at 7 a.m. Thursday, Marvel and Walbrecher worked steadily to weave the flowers — whose stems have been supplemented with wire — into the rubber mat. They did so over a layer of Italian ruscus, a leafy green branch that peeks up between the flowers, adding color.

The work is tedious and the women said they envied the blanket-makers of the distant past, who one year used only a handful of flowers to decorate an entire blanket of greens. They've seen the pictures.

"It's like needlepoint with flowers," Walbrecher said.

Felt is hand-sewn on the back of the mat so the wires will not poke the horse. The blanket for the Black-Eyed Susan Stakes, sponsored by Susan G. Komen for the Cure, will have a pink ribbon around the border to raise awareness of breast cancer.

"It is amazing," said Marvel. "All the work that goes into it and you see it for two seconds on TV."

None of the florists have been to a Preakness, but they admitted to making a special point of trying to catch the race on TV. "To see my handiwork," said first-year blanket-maker Trish Stroh.

Marvel contracts with Falcon Farms in Virginia for all the viking poms she needs — 34 boxes of 10 bunches each — after a scare in 2010.

Spring floods wiped out the supplies from the various farms she worked with, and she was only able to get a few bunches — enough for the corners of the blankets. She had to fill in the rest with white daisies.

She didn't paint the daisies that year, either.


Sun researcher Paul McCardell contributed to this article.

sreimer@baltsun.com

@SusanReimer on Twitter.com

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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