Owning a racehorse is like owning your own sports team, but better. In addition to the glory, you get to make up your horse’s name and pick your own silks. Naming a racehorse is an exciting challenge in and of itself. But picking your silks is also a storied tradition that goes back hundreds of years, and it has affected brands in and out of horseracing ever since its inception.
While some cite Roman chariot races as the sport’s start, others believe that horse racing as we know it started in medieval England. British horse races were recorded for the first time in 1114. But individual silks weren’t recorded until Henry VIII’s reign, in 1515. They were instituted officially in the latter part of the 17th century during the reign of Charles II. As the sport became more popular, the field became more crowded. Observing and, indeed, judging was difficult when there were so many horses running and they all looked the same.
In 1762, the English Jockey Club requested that horse owners submit specific colors for jacket and cap, register them with the organization, and use them consistently to distinguish their riders. The first silk colors were solid shades topped with a black velvet cap. They were called silks because of their material, but now they’re made of nylon and other alternative fabrics. They are also called racing colors.
This tradition has its roots in a few others. In colosseum chariot races, Romans used colored capes that were either white, green, red, or blue. Some historians believe that jockey silks were informed by the heraldic traditions of Europe. During the feudal era, aristocratic families adopted coats of arms, passed on from one generation to the next. However jockey silks started, they are now a dominant image of not only the racing industry, but also the regions associated with racing.
As the sport has evolved over time, the registration and organization of silks has become complicated. Now, all racehorse owners are required to log their designs with their national Jockey Club. The Jockey Club designates a limited range of design options. Nothing can be produced outside of these bounds. Color choice is up to the owner, but they are limited to four colors total – two on the jacket and two on the sleeves. You can add small customizations, including emblems or initials, on specific design types. In short, it’s regimented.
Over time, jockey silks have taken on a more permanent cultural significance. They went beyond designating horse ownership. The jockey silk is used in racing programs to unify the literal jockey silk with the racehorse information reference. From there, the jockey silk is used as a graphic element in related businesses, often as a logo. Some businesses choose to include the traditional black cap, and some just go with the decapitated jockey upper body.
Jockey silks are used as logos and icons all over Lexington, Kentucky. From bloodstock agents to gas station windshield washer fluid, they stamp Horse Country on everything they touch. And when they’re used in apparel and dish-ware, they fly off the shelves. Imagine using a football jersey as your logo. That would look kind of stupid. But, when the jersey was used graphically in racing programs, the possibility for broader applications was unlocked.
You wouldn’t use a football jersey as your logo, but you might buy a knock-off of your favorite player’s jersey. Similarly, jockey silks came to stand for the storied horses that bore them. Despite the fact that the pattern and color choice is limited, certain combinations stand the test of time. Secretariat’s pattern is used often – most visibly as the side panel in University of Kentucky basketball uniforms.
In this way, jockey silks are a powerful and specific example of practical symbolism mutating beyond its original significance to mean so much more. Instead of signifying a racehorse owner’s stake, they now represent famous horses, the sport, and the region itself.