Horse racing is a wonderful spectacle. Beautiful, well-bred and highly tuned equine athletes in full flight; glamorous fashionistas sipping champagne at the trackside rails and of course the dazzling kaleidoscope of the jockeys' silks flowing over pristine emerald green turf in a multi-coloured tidal wave.
Silks come in a huge array of designs and colours and are certainly an important element of the glamour of the sport of Kings. Racing colours are not merely a decorative fashion statement but have a rich history dating right back to Roman times. In order to distinguish themselves from the competition, Roman charioteers wore colourful capes. In medieval times knights adopted distinctive colours, often incorporating their patron's crest, during jousting contests. This concept is used today in virtually all team sports.
Coloured silks made their first recorded appearance in early horse racing events in Italy during the Middle Ages; riders choosing brightly coloured outfits to distinguish themselves from their competitors. Horse racing first appeared in England circa 1750. At first all jockeys wore the same colour making them virtually indistinguishable to spectators watching from a distance. As betting on horse racing became more prevalent, jockeys were asked to wear different and unique silk jackets to make identification easier for those watching the race and the progress of their wager! It was even thought that certain designs and colours reflected the owner's social status, although this is no longer the case.
These days, racehorse owners are required to register their chosen design of silks with Weatherby's and the Jockey Club who will confirm that the design is unique and not already assigned to someone else. In addition to different colours and shades within them, shapes and patterns may also be used; checks, diamonds, cross-belts, crosses and circles are all regularly seen together with epaulets and braiding designs. The scope for unique design is therefore virtually infinite, and also includes the jockey's cap cover which may be either complementary or totally different from the body design. The jockey's breeches however must always be white.
Any horse belonging to that owner will run wearing his registered colours. If the owner has more than one horse running in the same race, the jockeys wear different coloured cap covers in order to distinguish horses from their stable mates. Modern horse racing is a multi-billion pound industry with every race being televised, mainly for betting purposes and an average of six race meetings take place every day of the week in the UK. As you can imagine, it would be virtually impossible for racecourse commentators to do their job if every jockey wore the same colours. I wouldn't fancy that job in a race of 30 runners with every jockey dressed in black!
In 2005 it was ruled acceptable for a small sponsor's advertisement to be displayed on jockeys' silks and also on their breeches. Nowadays, 'silks' are actually made from a synthetic fabric for ease of laundering.
Unique colours are also worn by competitors during the cross country phase of horse trials, hunter trials and team chase events; all of which have their origins in National Hunt racing.
So, next time you spend a day at the races and are unsure where to place your bet; you could always just pick the horse with the most eye-catching silks!