Anyone who has ever witnessed a horse race will undoubtedly recall the riot of color and pattern displayed by the jockeys on their jackets and caps. Although this flamboyant wardrobe, known as racing colours, adds to the cachet of the sport, the colors and designs serve an important function in the racing world. Each is unique to a specific horse owner and this “livery” allows judges, announcers, and spectators to more readily tell the horses apart.
While reports of color being employed in horse or even chariot races go as far back as ancient Greece and Rome, the racing colours we are familiar with today have their origin in Great Britain in the mid 1700’s. Up until then races were much longer, up to 4 miles, and usually had relatively few entrants. This made it easy to tell the horses apart as the small field would tend to get strung out over the long distance of the race. But as the popularity of racing grew so did the number of horses entered. Additionally races began to be run over shorter distances at courses. Both trends resulted in confusing clusters of horses and disputes over which horse had won. Initial attempts at adding colored jackets were unsuccessful as multiple owners used the same colors or individual owners changed colors frequently. By 1762 it became clear that something had to be done.
On October 4, 1762, the members of the English Jockey Club requested that owners submit specific colors for jacket and cap. To register their colors and to use them consistently in an attempt to distinguish riders among a field of horses or to settle disputes that might arise. This resulted the famous Newmarket resolution:
“For the greater conveniency of distinguishing the horses in running, as also for the prevention of disputes arising from not knowing the colours worn by each rider, the underwritten gentlemen have come to the resolution and agreement of having the colours annexed to the following names, worn by their respective riders…”
The document goes on to list 19 owners and the color assigned to each. Once an owner had chosen and declared a jacket of a particular color, it became his property. He was only permitted to run his horses under that color, and no other owner could run their horses under the same color. However, after the passage of several years, ownership of the colours could be resigned and a new owner could obtain those colours as their own. The Duke of Devonshire’s Straw-Colour is still in the same ownership today making them the oldest in continuous use.
After quite a few false starts the racing community in American eventually followed suit and the Jockey Club began registering racing colours in 1895. The first registered set was the scarlet jacket and cap belonging to John A. Morris. Although registered in 1895, it is said these colours were in use at the Metairie Track in New Orleans in the mid 1850’s.
Over time patterned design elements for the sleeves and body of the jacket, and the cap have been added to the permitted colors allowing for a great deal of creativity. Today there are over 28,000 registered colours.
The rules for design of racing colours continue to develop. In the United States owners may choose to have an emblem or up to three initials on certain designs. While in Great Britain bespoke designs that don’t have to adhere to the traditional rules can be created and registered for a large fee.
What would you choose? A simple, elegant, single color, or something wild with several colors and design elements? Try creating your own colours and see if they are available for registration here.
Erica Libhart has served as the Mars Technical Services Librarian at the National Sporting Library & Museum (NSLM) since early 2016. The focus of her position is collection services, working to increase accessibility to NSLM’s collection of books, periodicals, and archival materials. The NSLM collections span over 350 years of the history of equestrian sport, as well as fly fishing, wing shooting, and other field sports. Have a question? Contact Erica by e-mail