The Colorful History of Racing Silks

The Stonestreet Stables silks boast a reverse burgundy chevron on gold

In ancient Rome, charioteers wore brightly colored capes and headbands to identify themselves in races. On the battlefield, knights carried banners and bore their coat of arms with honor. In the world of sports, the uniform is the symbol of pride for the players and fans. But what about the Sport of Kings? Enter racing silks.

The word “silks” refers to the colors that jockeys wear during races. They consist of a shirt that covers the rider’s safety equipment and a cap that covers his or her helmet. They represent the owner of the horse much like a uniform represents a team. In the case of owners who do not have their own silks, they can opt to use the “house silks”, which are set colors used by each individual racetrack. In the early days of racing, the jackets were actually constructed from silk, hence the term ‘silks’. In modern times, they are made of practical fabrics like nylon or lycra, which are more durable and aerodynamic.

Horses race wearing Rillito Park’s house silks

The practice of wearing silks originated in England. At the origins of the sport, there were far fewer participants in a given race, and distinguishing one horse from another was fairly easy. As racing’s popularity grew and the number of entries increased, it became necessary to set the runners apart. At a meeting in Newmarket in 1762, the English Jockey Club elected to require each owner to submit a design for their jacket and cap to ensure they were unique.

Owners racing in the United States should register with The Jockey Club in order to guarantee exclusive use of their design. There are around 30,000 designs registered with The Jockey Club today. In addition to a myriad of colors, designs often include checks, diamonds, crosses, and cross-belts. No copyrighted logos or inappropriate images are allowed. Owners can view some of the patterns available and submit an application here. If an owner has more than one horse running in a race, their jockeys will wear different color caps to distinguish themselves.

There can be hundreds of sets of silks in a racetrack’s silks room at a given time, and it is the valet’s job to ensure that the jockeys in their care are outfitted with the right colors. Valets (pronounced VAL-LET rather than VAL-LAY) manage the apparel and equipment for several jockeys at a given time. Valets prepare each set for the next race and have them waiting when their jockeys return from the previous race. Riders will quickly change silks after each race but wear white pants throughout the day.

Whether it’s the burgundy and gold of Stonestreet or the solid blue of Godolphin, each set of racing silks is uniquely suited to its stable. There is no greater thrill for an owner than to see their silks streaking across the finish line first.

Lady Aurelia and Frankie Dettori winning The Queen Mary Stakes