The Silks Room at Gulfstream Park in July 2012. (Photo courtesy of Eclipse Sportswire)
Go to the races a few times, eventually you’ll start noticing the same silks on jockeys over and over. These silks aren’t the jockey’s personal uniforms, but are actually representative of the owners of the horses in the race.
Every owner and stable provides the jockey with these silks before each race.
Some of the designs are iconic. Calumet Farms’ devil red with blue stripes on the sleeves is common at the top level of racing, as is the Phipps family’s all black with red cap. Or maybe you’ve seen the Parting Glass partnership’s silks on the track before, with its dartboard, violin and pint of beer.
Sometimes an owner may be new to racing, have only one horse, or perhaps is shipping in to a state for just one race. Sometimes these owners don’t have any of their own silks to provide to a jockey for the race. In those instances, jockeys are provided with “house silks.” House silks are generic uniforms provided by the racetrack. My father used to tell me that you never bet a horse when the jockey was wearing the house silks. He said that it meant a new owner or a cheapskate. One of my father’s racetrack buddies vehemently disagreed with him on that point, and said that house silks usually meant a quick shipper - and that meant an owner/trainer who was coming in to snatch up some purse money and leave, with no plans to stick around and try, try again.
In New York, my father and his friend’s strategies could be put to the test more efficiently. In New York, owners are required to register their silks with The Jockey Club. The silks must meet The Jockey Club’s requirements for design and the owner must pay $100 a year.
At most levels of racing, this meant that the cheapskate owners my dad was on the lookout for would choose house silks over ponying up the cash, even when they had their own silks. In those cases, his angle is probably a good one. Why bet on an owner who is chintzing out on a hundred bucks? That’s like one day’s worth of trainer fees!
However, at the stakes level in New York, the rule is waived, which means that if you see house silks in a stakes race, it could mean that my dad’s buddy was right - an owner doesn’t want to bother with registering the silks since they just plan to stay for the big race and get gone.
What’s more likely is that the owner’s silks don’t meet The Jockey Club’s requirements, which aren’t simple:
- Front and back of silks must be identical, except for seam design.
- Colors must be registered in the name of one person only; NOT a stable name or Mr. & Mrs. (example: Mary E. Jones).
- Designs are limited to those on the reverse side of this form.
- Navy blue is NOT an available color.
- A maximum of two colors is allowed on the jacket and two on the sleeves for a maximum of four colors.
- These colors will be renewable on December 31st of the year they are registered.
- You may have an acceptable emblem or up to three initials on the ball, yoke, circle or braces design. You may have one initial on the opposite shoulder of the sash design, the box frame, or the diamond.
Case in point: the 1991 Mother Goose Stakes at Belmont Park. The favorite in that race was going to be the Kentucky Oaks winner, Lite Light, who was owned by the rapper MC Hammer. Just as MC Hammer had a pretty outlandish and trend-setting style, Hammer’s stable, Oaktown Stables, had a very unique silk design. Needless to say it did not pass The Jockey Club’s muster. So hundred bucks or no, they told Hammer he’d need to put their jockey in Belmont’s house silks.
Hammer wasn’t trying to hear that. He threatened to pull Lite Light from the race unless the horse could run in Oaktown’s normal silks. The Jockey Club and Belmont relented and agreed to Hammer’s demands.
According to Bill Christine in the Daily Racing Form, the story didn’t stop there. Lite Light’s trainer, Jerry Hollendorfer, then forgot to pack the controversial silks when he made the trip from California, so they were going to need to ask for the house silks anyway. Too proud and too dug in at that point, Hammer and Oaktown instead chose to pay a local seamstress to make a set of Oaktown Stables silks from scratch hours before the race. They were delivered at 4 p.m. and the race was off at 5.
If Lite Light had run in those house silks and my dad and his friend bet their respective angles, my dad would have made out the better. Lite Light lost in an unforgettable race.
1991 MOTHER GOOSE STAKES
Either way, the angle is a sucker play. Especially at smaller tracks where lots of owners choose to use house silks rather than provide their own. Rather than looking out for house silks, keep your eye out for the silks of winning barns. And when you see a new set of silks you’ve never seen before, look and see who it is. Chances are, it’s an out of town outfit shipping in and worth a closer look.
RACING 101: THE SILKS ROOM