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History of Racing Silks

Silks (or colors) are the colorful jackets worn by a jockey during a race. The origin of the modern jockey silks comes from England. Like coats of arms, the distinctive colors and designs on shirts and caps are a way to identify horse and rider.
In ancient Rome, chariot drivers may have been the first to sport "racing colors." They wore capes and headbands in bright colors to identify themselves.

Although horse-racing meets are recorded as far back as 1114, individual silk colors are first mentioned in 1515 when Henry VIII occupied the throne. The costume itself was established in the latter part of the 17th and early 18th centuries during the reign of Charles II and Queen Anne.

In the early days or racing, runners were few and matches were very popular. The matches which often consisted of only one race a day of two, three or four-mile heats. Therefore, the need for distinguishing in colors was not a serious problem. Close finishes were rare, and it did not seem to matter much if the Jockey's jackets were of similar color.

During the 1700's, as the owners list increased, confusion resulted from the duplicity of entries which arose. It became absolutely necessary to vary color and design for positive identification.

Both judges and spectators began to complain of the confusion caused when sportsmen frequently changed the livery of their jockeys. The difficulty of telling the horse apart in a race became their drivers wore no identifying marks became a topic of discussion at a meeting of the Jockey Club at Newmarket, England.

At Newmarket in 1762, the English Jockey Club requested that the owners submit specific colors for jacket and cap. To register their colors and to use them consistently in an attempt to distinguish riders among a field of horses or to settle disputes that might arise. This resulted the famous Newmarket resolution.

During the Fall meet at Newmarket, on October 4, 1762, the duly elected member of the Jockey Cub met at the Coffee House and adopted the following resolution which staged colors were to be annexed by the respective owners and worn by the riders. It was then recorded in Jockey Club minutes:

"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, the under-mentioned gentleman have come to the resolution and agreement of having the colors annexed to their names, worn by their respective riders:"

From the Duke of Cumberland's purple to Mr. Jenison Shafto's pin, the first silk colors were all solid shades and topped with the black velvet cap. The "Straw" registered by the Duke of Devonshire is still used by the family’s racing stable and must be considered the oldest racing colors in existence.

Certainly no other sport in America enjoys a more notable heritage or any finer traditions than horseracing. Racing silks have become an inherent part of the sporting traditions which we inherited in the British legacy of horseracing. The oldest American racing colors in continuous use today are the "Scarlet" racing silks of Mrs. John A. Morris, believed to be used first at the Metairie Track in New Orleans during the 1850's.

Today every American race horse owner registers his "silks" with The Jockey Club, the sport's registry and ruling body.

More trivia... "Take Down Purse"
In the early days of horseracing, a silk purse was used to hold the prize money. The purse was strung up near the finish line. When the horse won, the purse was taken down. First called the "take down purse," it was eventually shortened to "purse" a term still in use today.

A special thanks to Gayle C. Herbert author of "A History of Racing Silks"

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