For the vast, vast majority of us we cannot tell one racehorse from the next when they are of similar colour and going full tilt.
The way we distinguish one horse from another is by looking at the jockey’s silks. Those silks and hats worn by jockeys feature colours which are not randomly allocated, but which represent specific connections of the horse.
In greyhound racing, the colour and the cloth worn by the dogs represent which trap they come out of. In racing, the colours mean much more.
What Are Racing Colours Used For?
The colours help all of us watching to separate the horses. These colours are registered by the owner. Each set of colours represents an owner or an ownership group and has nothing to do with the jockey.
The only time that changes is when there is a one-off team meeting. On Racing League evenings or on Shergar Cup Day, the jockeys are placed into teams and so they carry the team colours. All other times, the colours represent the owner(s).
Who performs alongside who in racing has long confused those more used to football, rugby or Formula One.
A “team” could mean an ownership group, such as Godolphin. But Godolphin have horses with several different trainers.
A team could also therefore mean a training yard, such as that of John & Thady Gosden, Charlie Appleby or William Haggas. Again though, those trainers may all train horses for the same owner and will often use the same jockeys.
The ownership of a horse is the most important thing however, which is why horses run in their colours and, unlike the stable staff and grooms, don’t wear the colours or logo of the trainer.
Who knows how and when some famous racing silks seen around Britain were registered and how. We have long been used to seeing the colours of Juddmonte, Shadwell, the Aga Khan, Godolphin, Cheveley Park, Middleham Park and the various sets used by the Coolmore team in Ireland.
These days however, you get to attempt to choose your colours using the BHA’s ‘Racing Colours Builder’.
There are 18 basic colours available, with owners able to choose any of them within the body, sleeve and cap designs. When finished, the prospective owner can then check their design’s availability.
Within the body you can choose plain, seams, epaulets, stripe/stripes, braces, hoop/hoops, quarters, cross belts, chevrons, checks, diamonds, spots, stars, diamonds and more.
From there, sleeves can be chosen with another colour if desired along with more designs such as armlets, stripes, chevrons and more. The same can be said of the cap.
Also now allowed by the BHA is the application of one’s own colours, designed from scratch. If the design is approved, it will cost £5,000 + VAT to register. Animal prints, dartboards and other designs have been allowed.
Some vintage silks, registered for five years or more, are essentially put up for sale on the BHA website.
Clashes of Colours
Some owners have some pretty classic colours. The aforementioned Godolphin team likes to keep things simple and classy, with its all-blue colours very prominent on British racecourses.
Those colours, not surprisingly, weren’t available to Sheikh Mohammed’s enterprise in all racing territories. In Britain, Dubai and Australia, their colours are exactly the same.
However, in Ireland, the USA and France they have to change just a little, with some white added, to avoid clashes with other local owners.
Even when British-trained Godolphin horses race in America during the Breeders’ Cup or other meetings, jockeys must wear the local Godolphin colours.
What If the Owners Have More Than One Horse in a Race?
When it comes to Coolmore, Shadwell, Juddmonte, Godolphin, Cheveley Park, Middleham Park and a number of others, this is a regular occurrence.
To avoid clashes, owners must register second, third and even fourth colours. This doesn’t mean that the jockey silks actually change at all, though the cap must.
For example; it is very well known within the sport that the first-choice Godolphin runner carries the all-blue colours. The jockey riding the second choice runner wears a white cap and the third choice rider wears a red cap.
For Shadwell runners, formerly registered as those of Sheikh Hamdan Al Maktoum, the blue and white stripes of the silks are replicated on the cap, while the second-choice jockey wears a black cap.
How Important Are Racing Colours?
Very. That’s the short answer.
Not only do we use jockey silks to immediately be able to recognise a specific horse, but they invoke some wonderful memories too.
Unless we are the grooms looking after certain horses day in, day out, our eyes are not sophisticated enough to spot the exact colour markings, size, weight, muscle tone or movement of every different horse.
What we tend to remember when thinking back to a favourite horse winning a big race are the colours.
Much like a favourite football jersey from the 70’s, 80’s or 90’s, racehorse owner colours give us that instant romantic reminder of great times within the sport.
This has led to racing media outlets very often publishing photos of jockeys wearing certain silks and asking; “what horse do you think of when you see these silks?”
Some owners seem to choose their colours at random. Many do not. Choosing a “royal” colour would not be a coincidence for many an owner. Horses owned by people in and around Northumberland running in black and white colours is also not a mistake.