Behind the scenes

Eye-catching colors

Jockey's silks show owner's quirks, enable them to follow their horses

May 18, 2008|By Jeff Barker | Jeff Barker,Sun Reporter

Up some narrow stairs and past the Pimlico Race Course jockeys' room is a wall of color.

This is a place most racing fans can't go - equivalent to backstage at a Broadway theater - called the silks room.

Its name is a misnomer. The hundreds of jockeys' tops hanging on racks here - in reds, blues, golds and other luminous colors and patterned with clovers, diamonds, stars and checks - are actually nylon. They were silk centuries ago in England, and the name stuck.

Although made of more mundane material today, the jackets - and the room in which they hang - still carry symbolic weight. It is a Preakness tradition that a weather vane is painted the colors of the winning horse's silks as soon as the race is complete.

The colors are used to identify the horses during the race, but the silks' multicolored designs also offer clues about the horse owners. They are signatures of a sort.

The colors "are about prestige," said J. Michael Hopkins, executive director of the Maryland Racing Commission.

Yesterday, the checks on Racecar Rhapsody's silks resembled the checkered flag of a car race, reflecting co-owner Jerry Carroll's operation of a Kentucky auto raceway. Big Brown's jockey, Kent Desormeaux, wore a United Parcel Service logo on his pants as part of a marketing deal with the Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner's owners.

Many owners choose colors with historical significance. Allen Murray, a Harford County owner-breeder who owns 1996 Preakness winner Louis Quatorze, said he uses colors and diamonds similar to those of Alfred Vanderbilt, who raised the famous thoroughbred Native Dancer near Baltimore.

Murray also says he chose a splashy pattern "because I wanted to be able to see it during the race."

The keeper of the silks, James Brigmon, 31, was overwhelmed when he arrived on the job eight months ago and saw about 1,000 jackets hanging on a dozen racks in a room only slightly larger than a walk-in closet. He organized them mostly by color, although the best-known horsemen "get their own sections."

Now, he says, he knows the room as if it were his own closet.

On race day, the jackets are transferred from the silks room to any of nine wooden rods in the jockeys' room - one for each race. Each row has 12 hooks - one for each horse.

Jockeys showing up at Pimlico without their silks risk a warning, followed by a $50 fine. They are given substitute colors of yellow and black with "Pimlico" on it.

The rules governing names and silks differ. Names must be approved by the Jockey Club, the North American breed registry. "Owners can submit up to six names at a time, and the Jockey Club checks the names in the order of preference," spokesman John Cooney said.

The names are run through phonetic software to ensure there is no similarity to the 450,000 names in active use.

Silks guidelines are less stringent. Maryland doesn't require owners to register them. "There's no need," Hopkins said.

New York requires that silks be registered with the Jockey Club if a horse is to run at its thoroughbred tracks. That way, the club says, an owner is guaranteed "exclusive use of the stable name and silks design when racing."

Sometimes, two jockeys arrive for their Pimlico race wearing similar silks - particularly if their horses share an owner.

The solution? They wear different-colored hats.

"Otherwise, it would confuse the announcer," said Adam Campola, the clerk of the scales.

jeff.barker@baltsun.com

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