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  • Writer's pictureJo O'Neill

The History of Colours

Updated: Nov 30, 2020

The History of Colours

The use of different colours to identify individual sportsmen goes as far back as knights, duals and jousting. Like these battle colours, jockeys have worn silks for generations. Nowadays, no real silk is used; just shiny polyester that can be thrown in the washing machine and put through at 40˚, yet the term “silks” stuck. “Colours” means exactly the same and is more prolifically used today.


In the 18th Century, horse racing became formalised and structured. The Thoroughbred was deliberately bred and Rules were created for every aspect of the sport, including the naming of racehorses and the registration of owners’ colours. Responsibility for these Rules was originally held by the Jockey Club and ultimately passed over to the British Horseracing Authority (BHA). Yet, the mediators of enforcement remain the same family firm founded in 1770, Wetherby’s.


It soon became mandatory for owners to register colours to “more easily...recognise the horses in races and even to prevent a result of not being able to identify the riders.” By 1762, the Jockey Club had recorded seventeen different silks.

Photo credit: CNN

Royal colours are as much a part of their history as their palaces – the Queen’s today are the same as Edward VII’s. Purple has been associated with royalty, power and wealth for centuries - deriving from the rarity and cost of the dye originally used in its production. The Duke of Devonshire’s ‘straw’ colours, first registered in 1762, are still in use today. In 1788, the 13th Earl of Derby chose his black silks with a white cap – these are still used today by the current Lord Derby and his family.

Firstly, a new owner choosing their colours have many factors to consider and their influences are truly personal; maybe it is simply their favourite colours. There are strict regulations for design and colours, which create exclusive combinations. There cannot be any duplicates. If an owner has more than one runner in a race, different colours have to be worn – registered second colours or different caps. It is stipulated that an owner can chose between one pattern on the chest, another on the sleeves and a third pattern on the cap. Stars, spots, stripes, diamonds, chevrons – a myriad of combinations that are all unique. There are twenty-six different body details, eleven for the arms and ten for the caps; along with twenty-three different colours to create new silks. ‘Cherished’ colours are rare and, to name a few, include sage, primrose, amber, burgundy and duck egg.


Photo credit: Racing Post

Yet, it remains most prestigious to race in ‘solid’ colours. There is a huge demand for the simplest of designs, which are auctioned off for vast sums. In 1996, dark blue colours were bought at Sotheby’s for £25,000 – Ruler Of The World was the latest Derby winner in these colours in 2013, preceded by Pour Moi and Galileo. Mrs J Magnier, of Coolmore, then paid £69,000 for the solid pink silks in 2000, which became her second colours. In 2005, the all-bronze set sold, again at Sotheby’s, for the starting bid of £60,000 and a year later, solid grey went for the same amount and solid mauve for £50,000. Trainer Jonjo O’Neill’s wife Jacqui owns the rights to solid purple and Lady Bamford’s horses, most popular on the Flat, run in solid burgundy. It goes without saying that Godolphin’s solid royal blue silks have hailed many a success on the Flat.

Photo credit: Racing TV

Quite the opposite of solid colours are the fabulous Crazy Quilt, first registered in the 1950s, which are the busiest and most colourful of designs. In 2008, these were sold for £24,000 to entertainments entrepreneur Howard Spooner. Tartans have been a familiar part of owners’ colours for over 160 years, yet sadly the varieties and numbers are diminishing as new tartan registrations are no longer accepted. Sea Pigeon, dual Champion Hurdle winner in 1980 and 1981, had light blue McIntyre tartan on the body of his winning silks, with red sleeves and a red cap.

Yet, times are changing and there has been a shift away from traditionalism. In September 2016, the BHA auctioned off six sets of brand new, distinctive patterns: a horseshoe, anchor, rainbow stripes, flames, multicoloured spots and checked shades of red. These exciting, innovative designs were introduced to encourage new ownership and to see if a greater flexibility in the design of colours would generate interest. Mr John Turner’s Pleasure Dome has won over in Ireland in one of these designs: solid purple with a silver horseshoe on the body.

After the successful reception of this initial BHA trial, the scheme was extended as nine owners registered bespoke new designs. The successful ones were a mixture of personal and corporate ideas, including one from Tom Joule, of the country-inspired clothing Joules. His floral design joined the other successful applications of an emerald lucky clover, bees, dog silhouette and paw prints, a Chinese dragon, sunflower and a “Ferrari” rearing horse. The only stipulations were that colours had to be easily distinguishable and describable by commentators. The registration fee for each individual creation is £5,000, with some of the proceeds going to charity.

In November 2017, the BHA sold three more sets of colours under this “liberalism” including a set of dartboard silks going for £8500 to a telephone bidder, a design modelled on the suits in a deck of cards went for £4600 but a jazzy pink set with blue and red thunderbolt and stars only made £1000. By now, it is commonplace to see these designs on racecourses and through them, the future of racing remains as brightly coloured as ever.

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