11/29/2012 1:26PM

Racing silks reflect the game's many personal styles

Barbara D. Livingston
From left, jockeys Kent Desormeaux, Joe Bravo, Emma-Jayne Wilson, Rajiv Maragh, and John Velazquez sport just a few of the thousands of silks designs in racing.

Jake Mullins estimates that there are 8,000 sets of racing silks, including duplicates, in what Santa Anita calls its Colors Room. It’s one of the most used rooms around a racetrack, even though at Santa Anita nothing is painted on the door. You’ve got to know the territory.

“There are 1,700 hooks, and each hook holds nine sets,” said Mullins, 61. “I didn’t count them, but the guy before me [Frank Smothers] did, and that’s what he told me. Not all the hooks are filled. But hell, we’ve got 500 sets in the ‘C’ row alone. Do the math.”

Mullins’s name won’t be found in the official program − Jay Cohen, the Santa Anita bugler, gets billing − just as you won’t find the name of Walter Arce in the programs at the New York tracks. Arce, 63, took over in 2008 when Louie Olah died after 40-plus years as the “color man” for the New York Racing Association.

Top 10 List: Bill Christine's most iconic silks »

Despite their anonymity, the show could not go on without racing’s “color men.” At Keeneland, they once called the colors job the “jockeys’ clothing coordinator,” but the name really never took. By any name or gender − in recent years, Keeneland has had two women who have worked the job − they are the ones who make sure jockeys are wearing the right silks and have the right cover for their safety helmets when they go out to the paddock to climb on their next horses. Alacrity is an asset. At Santa Anita, if a stable is racing twice on the same card and doesn’t furnish an extra set of silks, Mullins must wash the lone set after the first horse runs, throw them into the dryer, and have them ready for the jockey who needs them the second time.

These behind-the-scenes workers are the keepers of the closest thing horse racing has to a uniform. At the height of its success, Calumet Farm’s devil’s red-and-blue colors were just as familiar to a racing fan as the pinstripes of the New York Yankees or the two birds riding a bat of the St. Louis Cardinals would be to baseball followers.

In racing, some of these highly recognizable silks endure. The black-and-cherry-red colors of the Phipps family are eye-catching because of their simplicity. Secretariat could be spotted in a race for two reasons: his brilliance and the matching blue-and-white checkerboards on the blinkers and Ron Turcotte’s silks. On the other hand, relatively new stables on the block also can be inescapable. When a horseplayer sees a horse in a post parade with a jockey who appears to have Superman’s insignia on his outfit, he is sure to remember that stable next time.

Most states, such as California, don’t have a registration office, but stewards determine whether each of the silks are appropriate.

In New York, The Jockey Club registers silks according to owners for a $100 fee. Horses shipping in from other states are allowed to use their regular silks as long as they meet the approval of The Jockey Club steward on duty at the track. Silks that advertise commercial products or companies, silks that include copyrighted images, are verboten.

MORE: Bill Christine's top 10 most eclectic silks in racing history

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One brouhaha that occurred because of out-of-state silks preceded the 1991 Mother Goose Stakes at Belmont Park. Meadow Star and Lite Light, the two best fillies in the country, were entered. Lite Light, a California shipper, raced for MC Hammer, the star rapper. A couple of days before the race, which was run the day after the Belmont Stakes, The Jockey Club said Hammer’s black silks, which weren’t uniform on both sides of the upper back, wouldn’t do. The Hammer camp was adamant about running in the filly’s regular silks, and at one point in the discussion there was even mention about not running Lite Light unless they got their way. The Jockey Club waffled − with the proviso that the next time in with Lite Light, they wouldn’t be so lenient − but then Jerry Hollendorfer, the horse’s trainer, flew in from California after forgetting to throw the silks into his suitcase.

Refusing to confess to The Jockey Club that they had egg on their chin, the Hammer crew was referred to Antoinette Brocklebank and her sister, Anna Marie Miceli, whose silks “factory” (Brocklebank’s word) is located in Brocklebank’s Garden City home, four miles from Belmont Park.

“Boy, do I remember that one,” said Brocklebank, who is in her 40th year of making silks. “My sister and I worked together for about six hours doing that new set. We got them over to the track about 4 o’clock, about an hour before the race.”

Arce says he typically has about 5,000 sets of silks at Belmont. They would fill 20 full-sized trunks − Arce knows, because that’s what it took earlier this year to transport the silks from Belmont to Saratoga. He uses a ledger to record the owners but can usually find what he needs from memory. He keeps the most-used silks in a prominent place.

In California, Mullins uses an alphabetical system but also is like a bartender who can remember every regular customer’s favorite drink.

“If I can’t find a set of silks,” Mullins said, “it means that they aren’t there.”

Lee Weil, a former outrider who works for The Jockey Club out of an office at Belmont, said their registrations totaled 32,408. After the initial fee of $100, it costs an owner $25 to renew for a year, or five years at the bargain rate of $100. Duplication of a set of silks is a virtual mathematical impossibility: There are 38 body patterns and 18 sleeve options to choose from, and the colors run into the hundreds. You say cerise, I say pink. You say red, I say fuchsia. You say green, I say jade. Around the country, hues such as neon pink, shocking pink, hot pink, flame pink, cherry, rust, burgundy, lime green, and plum appear. Navy blue is a no-no in New York because it can too easily be confused with black.

According to Weil, the first U.S. silks − a solid scarlet jacket with a matching cap − were registered to John A. Morris in 1895. At least one member of the Henry Clark family, in Maryland, claimed their silks were older. The Clark silks are all blue with a white cap. The color of the jacket is not unlike Godolphin’s solid royal blue. Sheikh Mohammed of Dubai was advised to alter his silks early on in New York, so now they race with their familiar color, but with white chevrons added to the sleeves. In racing jurisdictions such as the United Kingdom, the sheikh, whose family owns an airline, has gone the way of all commerce and runs horses with “Fly Emirates” on the front of the jockey’s shirt. I asked Lee Weil. She said it wouldn’t fly in New York.