Behind horse silks of another color

Choosing designs, hues for horse, jockey apparel not just fashion statement

May 18, 2002|By Sandra McKee | Sandra McKee,SUN STAFF

It was 1898 and the Earl of Durham, whose family held one of the original racing silk colors among royalty in England, was in financial difficulty because of over spending on racehorses. At the same time, William C. Whitney wanted one of those plain colors that were held by racing's elite.

Durham's colors were Eton blue, and Whitney had heard of his financial woes.

"W.C. Whitney was my husband's grandfather," said Marylou Whitney, the owner of Straight Gin, who will run in today's Preakness. "He went up to the Earl and said, `Hey, sir, I'd like to buy your racing silks. I understand you're in need of a little money and I'm in need of your silks.' The Earl said, `You can have them. They've been no luck to me!' "

Those colors were handed down in the Whitney family. Eventually, they reached Marylou Whitney's late husband, Cornelius "Sonny" Vanderbilt Whitney.

"CV didn't have a son interested in racing, so he gave the colors to his nephew, Leveritt Miller, and suggested I use the Eton Blue, too, but add a light brown cap and a brown hoop around the chest," Marylou said.

When Straight Gin displays Marylou Whitney's silks for the first time in the Preakness today, the owner said she will be overcome with excitement.

"I've lived with that blue silk for so many years, I can see it a mile away," she said. "I don't need binoculars. And I know Sonny is looking down and smiling. I just feel very good about those silks."

The silks are part of the romance and grace of thoroughbred racing. There are stories behind many of the silks that will be worn today in the Preakness.

Here are some of the best:

War Emblem: Trainer Bob Baffert said owner Prince Ahmed bin Salman's favorite color is green.

But there is a little more to it than that, said Richard Mulhall, Racing Manager for The Thoroughbred Corp., explaining the design of those white silks with the green stripes and three narrow green stripes on the sleeves.

"The Prince called me and told me to turn the television on, that there was a soccer game on and he wanted his silks exactly like those of one of the teams," Mulhall said. "I don't remember the name of the team. It wasn't his favorite team. It was just a soccer team with blue and white jerseys that he liked. He said, `I want my silks exactly like that, except in green.' So I taped the game and took the tape to the silks maker and said, `Make the design exactly like this - but in green."

Equality: Josephine Abercrombie chose the gray and blue colors of her school, Rice University. "I remember it was 1949, and my father and uncle and I were in the business at the time and they asked me to choose the colors of our silks. It was very thrilling and still is - especially to see your horse coming down the track on top."

Harlan's Holiday: Jack and Laurie Wolf also chose school colors. He went to Murray State. She went to McNeese State. Both schools' colors were blue and gold. "Isn't that weird?" Jack Wolf said.

Menacing Dennis: Owner Dennis Narlinger had been in the racing business a year and was tired of not being able to pick his horses out of the pack. "My wife, Jeanne, and I decided to change our colors to yellow and black because they were easiest to see," he said.

Booklet: John C. Oxley got into racing shortly after Secretariat won the Triple Crown.

"I had just bought my first horse, Port Everglade," Oxley said. "He was training well and I was a big fan of Secretariat. I made my silks powder blue and gold blocks with a white stripe on the sleeve."

Secretariat's silks were royal blue and white blocks.

Crimson Hero: Just before going to their first race, Tracy and Carol Farmer realized they had no silks. They quickly researched their newly purchased Kentucky farm, discovering its old silks. "They're black with white diamonds and white bands on the sleeves and my husband likes them very much," she said.

Magic Weisner: Maryland's Nancy Alberts bought an old racehorse named Benediction who was about to be given to the hounds for meat and decided to take him fox hunting. "I was very young, in my teens, I guess, and I was told I just couldn't show up with this horse, that I had to have colors," she said. "They asked what my favorite colors were and I said, `Oh, red and white,' and the National Steeple Chase and Hunt Association designed them."

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