Formula 1 cars. Soccer teams. Corporations. Everyone’s got identifying colours today. But the tradition of colours may be the oldest in horse racing. Racing authorities require that every horse owner registers a unique colour-and-pattern combination, called silks. It’s a tradition that was started more than a hundred years ago, and that goes back all the way to the knights.
IIn horse racing, all owners design their own unique silks, which are then worn by the jockeys riding their horses. You make up a colour and pattern, submit your silks for approval with the horse racing federation and wait for approval. If the silks aren’t already being used, you are normally approved and can have the silks sewn up.
You can have one pattern on the chest, another on the arms and a third on the cap. Stars, stripes, rhombi, polka dots and other patterns in different colours. The combinations are endless.
The most desirable are the single-coloured, distinguished silks, especially in the sport’s home country, England. In the UK (where there are auctions for sought after license plates!) there are auctions for the privilege to ride in certain silks in horse racing.
There are those who are willing to go far to get silks in the colours they really want their jockeys to ride in.
Susan Magnier, of the family behind the world’s leading breeding empire, Coolmore, is one of them. In 2000 at a Sothebys auction, she paid 69 000 pounds for the right to race in all pink silks!
Bear in mind that this wasn’t Ms Magnier’s first silks: she already had all-dark blue silks registered. The new pink silks are used only when she has two horses in race – a couple of times per year.
In 2005 the British Horse Racing Authority put bronze-coloured silks up for auction at Sotheby’s. The starting bid was GBP 60 000, and Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum’s sons were willing to pay. The next year, all-grey silks were up for auction for the same amount, GBP60 000.
The auctioneer, Graham Budd, said: ”Each time single-coloured silks are on the market, the request is big. Some of the large horse owners have them, and it’s seen as prestigious to race in them.”
All this began in the early 1760’s, when it became mandatory to register your silks. In 1762 the Jockey Club in England registered 17 different silks, “to more easily be able to recognise the horses in races and even to prevent disputes to begin as a result of not be able to identify the riders.”
In 1766 the use of silks spread to “the Colonies” (now the U.S.A.), when the Philadelphia Jockey Club first registered silks.
Some of the silks in the world have their own history.
In 1875 the Royal Silks were registered by Queen Victoria: purple jacket with red arms, golden strings on the chest and a black velvet cap with a golden tassel (the golden tassel Her Majesty’s idea). The silks are still seen often, as Queen Elizabeth II is a majoir horse racing enthusiast and owner.
In 1788 the 13th Earl of Derby (called Lord Derby) chose his black silks with a white hat. These are still used by the Derby family. The silks actually are not only a black jacket with a white cap, but black with a white button and a white cap. Those details are not registered, but the button has a good story behind it: In 1924 Tommy Weston rode the Lord Derby’s (The 17th Earl of Derby) horse to victory in the English Derby. In that race he wore what appeared to be a white button on Lord Derby’s black silks: in a hurry, Weston had accidentally buttoned the jacket with his white scarf covering one of the buttons. Since that day, the button has always been part of the silks.
Horse racing had its western beginnings in the military: in that sense, uniforms were the de facto first silks.
In Sweden horse racing from its beginning was a sport for officers, and the riders wore their uniforms. By the late 1800s, special jockey silks began to appear and even here some where Royal. All black and a silver tassel on the cap belonged to Prince Gustaf Adolf, father to the current King Carl XVI Gustaf, during the 1920s and 30s, when he successfully rode jump races on his own horses. Prince Gustaf Adolf was actually the second-best amateur rider in 1930, with five victories in jump races!
Who has silks?
All horse owners must have a unique colour combination on their silks. And a combination of owners is considered a new owner. If, for example, Mrs Smith owns a horse, she has her own silks. If she owns a horse with her cousin Mr Jones, and the horse is registered with “Mrs Smith & Mr Jones” as owner then that “stable” must have its own silks, even if it’s only the colour on the cap that is different.
Designing silks is fun. Is a horse owned by a company that has a graphic profile? Are there any symbols or colours that have a special meaning to you? Are the colours you consider visible?
From a long distance, it can be difficult to see the difference between dark green, burgundy or marine blue. But pink and yellow might not suit everyone…
The combinations are plenty, even though there is now a European agreement that prevents too much creativity in the patterns. There’s still some variety: for coloured jackets, 25 different body details are available, plus 10 different patterns for the arms and eight different for the caps. You are also allowed to use any of 23 different colours in the creation of new silks.
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