It is interesting to see how many of the key names and traditions of modern horse racing date back to the second half of the eighteenth century. Think Jockey Club (founded 1750); think Tattersall’s (bloodstock auctioneers, founded by Richard Tattersall with headquarters off Hyde Park in 1766) ; think thoroughbred stud books (John Weatherby produced the first one in 1791 and it has been maintained ever since by the Weatherby family/company, meticulously recording every thoroughbred birth in England and Ireland). Add to these the fact that the Oaks was first raced in 1779 and the Derby in 1780.
The period also saw the introduction of racing colours, known now as silks, in 1762. Their use was adopted by the Jockey Club with the record as follows:
“For the greater conveniency of distinguishing the horses 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 stewards therefore hope, in the name of the Jockey Club, that the named gentlemen will take care that the riders be provided with dresses accordingly”
Nineteen owners were listed: seven Dukes, one Marquis, four Earls. one Viscount, one Lord, two Baronets, and three commoners.
The Duke of Cumberland chose: “purple”
The Duke of Grafton chose: “sky blue”
The Duke of Devonshire chose: “straw”
The Duke of Northumberland chose: “yellow”
The Duke of Kingston chose “crimson”
The Duke of Ancaster chose: “buff”
The Duke of Bridgewater chose: “garter blue”
The Earl of Waldegrave chose: “deep red”
The Earl of Oxford chose: “purple and white”
The Earl of March chose: “white”
The Earl of Gower chose: “blue”
Viscount Bolingbroke chose: “black”
Lord Grosvenor chose: “orange”
Sir John Moore chose: “darkest green”
Sir James Lowther chose: “orange”
Mr. R. Vernon chose: “white”
The Hon. Mr. Greville chose “brown trimmed with yellow”
Mr. Jenison Shafto chose: “pink”
Sir J Lowther proved indecisive and failed to make his mind up in time…
Originally, a black velvet huntsman’s cap was the only type used by the riders and was more or less associated with the colours listed above, but this gave way to caps varied in colour as we know them today. Of those listed, one family have kept the same set of colours throughout the ensuing two and a half centuries – the Duke of Devonshire with his straw colours.
Both William Douglas (1725-1810) who later became known as ‘Old Q’ once he became the 4th Duke of Queensbury, and the Honourable Richard Vernon of Newmarket chose White. In fact ‘Old Q’ reverted to using his black and red racing colours for an astonishing 57 consecutive years of racing between 1748 and 1805. He was an infamous old roué but a great supporter of Racing and a devoted gambler. No mean amateur jockey himself, on one occasion his chosen jockey informed him that bookmakers were offering him money to throw a race. The Duke advised him to take the money – and then on the day of the race inspected his horse in the parade ring before announcing that it was such a fine horse that he would ride it himself – and promptly removed his great coat to reveal his red and black silks underneath. He won the race.
An all-black strip has been associated with some of the great names of the horse racing world – first with Viscount Bolingbroke. Frederick St John, 2nd Viscount Bolingbroke (1732-1787) kept a stable of some twenty racehorses. He owned several famous horses including Gimcrack, who was painted by George Stubbs with the jockey in black colours. He also owned the great racehorse (and later great stud) Highflyer – who was undefeated in fourteen race starts. Highflyer had to be sold during his racing career because Lord Bolingbroke had racked up a huge gambling debt. The purchaser, paying £2,500, was Richard Tattersall, who made at least £15,000 a year out of stud fees for the heroic animal (enough to pay for the building of a fine mansion for Tattersall, appropriately called Highflyer Hall
Gimcrack on Newmarket Heath, painted by Stubbs in 1765
The black colours then passed to the Duke of Grafton before being adopted by the 9th Duke of Hamilton (1740 – 1819). Jockeys wearing his famous black silks won seven St Leger wins in the period between 1786 and 1814. A later all-black owner, John Bowes, won the Derby on no fewer than four occasions between 1835 and 1853.
In 1787 the then Lord Derby changed his colours from “green and white stripes” to the famous “black with white cap” which is still used by his successors today. Due to a superstition which followed Lord Derby’s Sansovino win in the 1924 Derby the jacket always has one white button amongst the black.
In 1799 the Grosvenor family dropped the all-orange and adopted “yellow with a black cap” colours which have been used by the Dukes of Westminster ever since.
For many years there was a free-for-all with horse owners choosing all manner of colours and combinations. Finally in 1971 the Jockey Club laid down a list of just 18 permitted colours. This means that in accordance with the rules of the International Federation of Horseracing Authorities there are 18 colours, 25 body designs, and 12 sleeve designs. This gives a huge number of permutations (Weatherby’s have over 19,000 combinations registered).Oddly you do not even have to own a horse to own a set of colours – some are bought as an investment – yes, there are people who buy ‘cherished’ colours as an alternative investment particularly if these have a particular historical connection. If any of the original ‘pure’ colours comes up for auction, expect to pay tens of thousands of pounds as with the plain emerald green strip sold in Ireland (for charity) in 1995. For a time these cherished colours were sold “under the counter” and so in 1996 the British Horseracing Board introduced a sale of currently unregistered colours. There were a dozen of them, and the sale fetched just under £130,000 with the highest figure (£28,750 ) going to a plain dark-blue set of silks. That is dwarfed by the £69,000 paid by stable owner John Fretwell for his plain lime-green colours or by the plain pink set bought by Mrs Sue Magnier. Mr Shafto, who had the registration for plain pink back in 1762, would have been amazed (and no, his jockeys didn’t wear silver buckles at their knees – that’s a different Shafto altogether…).
The Battenberg The Chocolatier
The Obama The Traffic Cone
The Cruella de Vil The Lighthouse
Pictures courtesy of the British Horse Racing Authority site at http://www.britishhorseracing.com/goracing/racing/racingcolours/default.asp showing racing silks supplied by Allerton & Co.