Derby

Tomorrow at 6:24pm, 20 horses will line up at the track gates of Churchill Downs. Two minutes later, one of those horses will win the Kentucky Derby.

And when it does, there will be a tiny, nameless man in a brightly patterned jersey strapped to its back with a grin from ear to ear.

The ultimate second banana to the animals they ride, jockeys don’t get much of the glory for the big race. But what they’re often most remembered for are the flashy colors on their backs—uniforms known as “silks” that are steeped in sartorial tradition. So in honor of the weekend’s festivities, we’re taking a closer look at the mystery behind the race-day attire of these compact athletes.

With a brief history lesson and some iconic photos of the silks in action.

A Brief History of Silks:
Though thoroughbred horse racing has been around since ancient times (with less juleps and more chariots, of course), individual silk colors didn’t come into play until the 1500s and weren’t formally institutionalized until 1762. Presumably, this is when someone realized it was easier to differentiate bright patterns than horses (at least as they both fly by you at 40 mph). Good thinking, guys.

Colors and Patterns:
Each distinct silk is associated with the stable that owns the horse—so the jockey doesn’t really have a choice in the matter—hence the silks are a lot like a coat of arms. And with each new stable comes a new set of flamboyant colors and patterns. That said, as noted here, “Duplication of a set of silks is a virtual mathematical impossibility: there are 38 body patterns and 18 sleeve options to choose from, and the colors run into the hundreds.” Apparently, there’s a difference between “neon pink” and “shocking pink.” Who knew?

Also, some states, especially New York, have strict regulations on what can be depicted on silks. Particularly, no advertisements or copyrighted images are allowed. This isn’t NASCAR, after all.

Silk Sizing:
Only one choice here: jockey-sized. That is, as jockeys are obliged by the sport to weigh between 108 and 118 pounds, there’s not much in terms of size variation.

Notable Silks in History:
Secretariat’s blue-and-white checkered silks, on jockey Ron Turcotte.

Secretariat

Affirmed’s pink-with-black-and-white-sleeves silks, on jockey Steve Cauthen.

Affirmed

The silks worn by Queen Elizabeth II’s jockeys.

Queen Elizabeth II

—S.P.

CONTRIBUTORS

  • Stephen Praetorius