If you ever visit a racetrack or watch horseracing on TV, you’ve probably noticed that every jockey is wearing specific colors. Much like sports team uniforms, these colors and patterns on what’s known as the jockey silks have particular meanings. So what is the history of these colorful clothes in horse racing, and what do they mean? Let’s take a closer look.

A Long Story Short

The colorful shirts worn by jockeys have a long history. While horse racing dates back as far as the 10th century, the first mention of silks was in the 1500s during the reign of King Henry VIII. However, it became the norm for racing in the 18 and 1900s as races expanded and fields became more crowded. The colorful clothes were the best way to tell where each horse was at a glance.

Who Decides?

So who gets to pick the colors and patterns of the silks? Jockey silks are designed by the owner of each horse. That can mean that jockeys have to change their silks between races if they’re riding a different horse. And if two of the same silks are in a race, it means the same person owns both of those horses. Silks get registered with the jockey club to avoid repeat colors and patterns.

The Rules of Silks

There are some rules around creating and using silks for racing. It costs $100 each year to register your silk pattern with the Jockey Club. The front and the back of the jacket must be the same. You can choose any color except navy blue because the color looks too much like black at a distance. Each jacket can have up to two colors on the body and two on the sleeves, for a total of four colors. This children’s lesson plan from the Kentucky Derby Museum provides some genuinely helpful information about the silks.

Colors and Patterns

Even with those rules in place, silks can be very creative. They can use patterns like stars, chevrons, stripes, triangles, and more. These can be combined in unique ways to create something that stands out. Horse owners often draw inspiration from their lives to create a pattern that means something personal to them. At the Kentucky Derby Museum, you’ll see 13 banners representing the silk patterns of the 13 Triple Crown winners in American history.

Do you want to know more about the sport of racing?

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