The unmistakable patterning of jockey silks, known as racing silks, is one of the oldest traditions in Thoroughbred racing. A jockey’s racing helmet and saddle blanket are often patterned in the same color and design as the silks. The tradition of using colors to distinguish contestants actually predates the Thoroughbred breed – Roman charioteers may have been the first to use hats and capes of different colors in races, according to an article on SarahMarr.com.
In Thoroughbred racing, the tradition of using silks in different colors dates to 1762, when 19 members of the English Jockey Club registered their colors at Newmarket “for the greater convenience of distinguishing the horses in running,” according to an article on the Belmont Stakes website. The patterns and colors used originally referenced the coats of arms associated with noble English houses. Today, approximately 28,000 silks are registered with the Jockey Club.
The original purpose of jockey silks, to allow observers and judges to distinguish between racers on a far-off track. PA systems, video cameras, and blanket numbers help serve the same functions today. But the classic style of racing silks appeals to the Thoroughbred audience, and the colors of various stables and owners serve almost as a branding tool. To the initiated, the “branding” in racing silks is as obvious as corporate names plastered across the side of a race car, but rendered in a style suitable to the tradition of the Thoroughbred track.
Today’s silks are a mixture of classic style and modern function. Considering the importance of a jockey’s low weight in the racing world, it is absolutely essential that all his or her gear be ultra-lightweight and precision-engineered for racing.
Though originally silk, today the shirts are most often nylon or lycra, and “aerodynamic” racing silks are becoming the new trend as jockeys seek that tiny edge to push their horse over the top to a win. The protective caps (riding helmets) are made of space-age, lightweight protective materials with ventilated cooling technology. The signature high riding boots are classically made in high-quality leather and rubber, but designed to be sleek, lightweight, and to mold perfectly to the rider’s foot and leg. Even the knee-length jodhpur pant is high-tech, designed for the conditions of the day. Summertime pants are usually polyester and wintertime pants are insulated nylon. Riders can even buy “mud pants” designed to keep the rider warm, dry, and at the top of their game in adverse conditions.
The modern racing world is a sleek mixture of age-old tradition and modern technology, where old-school pageantry and muscle meet cutting-edge training methods and sports medicine. Jockey Silks are one of many cases in which tradition and technology merge to create a phenomenon that belongs uniquely to the 21st Century.
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