One of the most colorful sights at a horse race – the kaleidoscopic whirl of vivid colors worn by jockeys – is a tradition dating back to ancient times.
Historians conjecture that Roman charioteers may have been the first to sport specific colors during a race. Their colorful capes helped to differentiate one driver from another, allowing spectators to follow the progress of their favorites. During Medieval times, participants in jousts displayed distinctive colors and patterns, sometimes emblazoned with the crests of their patrons. The first recorded occurrence of riders wearing brightly colored silk shirts during a race took place in Italy during the Middle Ages.
In Thoroughbred racing’s early days, only one or two races were held during a meet, and there were only several horses in the running, so it was no great difficulty to tell the runners apart. But by the 18th century, racing had become much more popular, attracting more owners, horses and spectators. Disputes began to arise when it became harder for judges to tell the horses apart and declare the clear winner of a race. Therefore, it became necessary to find a way to easily differentiate between the horses on the track.
At Newmarket, England, in 1762, the Jockey Club made a recommendation that owners choose a specific color that would always be worn by their jockeys. Furthermore, all owners would be required to register their chosen color with the Jockey Club. The resulting “Newmarket resolution” stated that it was enacted “for the greater convenience of distinguishing the horses in running, and also for the prevention of disputes arising from not knowing the colors of each rider.”
Today, every racehorse owner in America registers his silks with The Jockey Club. The first silks registered in America were the scarlet colors of John A. Morris, which were registered in 1895.
Perhaps the most famous silks in America are the blue and white checkerboard of the Meadow Stable, home of legendary Riva Ridge and Secretariat.
While jockeys did originally wear silk shirts, today’s silks are made of synthetic materials, such as nylon, helping to improve the fit and making them more aerodynamic.