Category: History

History of Jockey Silks

History of Jockey Silks

by Ryan Biddix

Jockeys wearing a variety of patterned and colored silks, racing to the finish line. Photographed by William Quarell.

One of the most intriguing aspects of a horse race is not just the high stakes of the race itself, it’s witnessing the colorful array of jockey uniforms speeding through the track like a technicolor dream. Jockey uniforms, referred to as jockey “silks” date back to Ancient Rome, like most contemporary sporting events.

Historians speculate that Ancient Romans used colored capes during chariot races to differentiate between drivers so that spectators could track their favorite player. Similarly, during the Medieval era, joust participants used a combination of patterns and colors along with a crest of the patron or patrons, similar to that of modern-day auto racing uniforms.

Variety of jockeys in their colorful, patterned silks racing over the poles. Photographed by John Carlos

The earliest record of horse racing events dates back as far as the 1100s, however, these events and their colorful silks were not popularized until the 17th and 18th centuries. During this period, horse racing events were primarily reserved for the aristocratic class, often referred to as the “Sport of Kings”.

By the mid-18th century, equestrian organizations such as The English Jockey Club were established to control and set standards for the majority of horse racing events in Great Britain. By 1762, The Jockey Club agreed to implement specific colors and designs, often in the design of the horse owner’s family crest.

The jockeys themselves do not choose the design of their silks, rather it’s up to the horse owner.  These silks change depending on the owner of the horse. The owners have to register the silks with The Jockey Club to ensure that there are not any duplicated designs. If two of the same   silks are seen, it means that both of the horses belong to a singular owner.

Three jockeys, one behind the other, racing to the finish line. Photographed by John Carlos

The rules of design are mandated by The Jockey Club. It costs $100 to register and is renewable on December 31st of the year. One of the most important design rules is that the design has to be identical on the front and back of the bodice. In addition, there can only be a maximum of four colors, two on the sleeves and two on the bodice.

Jockey silks were in fact made of silk, crafted from the many regions of Asia. As horse racing grew in popularity within the U.S., American jockeys still followed the rules and regulations of The Jockey Club. Even today, horse-race owners are required to register their “silks” with The Jockey Club.

It’s evident that tradition still stands strong. The only major change is that uniforms are now produced with synthetic fibers such as lycra and nylon to improve fit and mobility. The material may have changed, but the traditional designs and colors have retained their original, symbolic purpose.

Steeplechase of Charleston is no stranger to this tradition, jockeys and spectators alike are known to attend in lavishly flamboyant attire. Large ornate hats, colorful silks, and beautifully tailored linen suits are amongst the many sights at Steeplechase of Charleston, and there is no exception for this year’s event. If you wish to witness the fantastic spectacle of fashion and sport, make sure to purchase a ticket for Steeplechase of Charleston 2022! We hope to see you there, sporting your best threads that would turn heads even on King Street.


Several jockeys, in brightly colored silks, racing down the track. Photographed by John Carlos.

Race Day: Your ‘Need to Know’

Race Day: Your ‘Need to Know’

With the racing season in full-sprint, it’s time to start looking forward to the fall’s most anticipated horse-racing event in the South. On Nov. 13, the Steeplechase of Charleston will once again have the honor of hosting the final competition on the National Steeplechase Association© circuit at the beautiful Stono Ferry Track in Hollywood, SC.

While offering a myriad of activities–from simply spectating and reuniting, to the Merchant Market, ample food & drink vendors, fashion-watching, and more–the Steeplechase of Charleston promises a unique opportunity to discover history, meet new people, and build new relationships, all while providing a fresh venue to show off your finest digs. With horse racing being the focus of the day, though, here is some history about the sport that you need to know so that you’re on the right track with the other spectators.

Competitors hurdle one of many obstacles in the pursuit of victory.

  • Based on hundreds of years of tradition, the term “Steeplechase” comes literally from horse racing from church steeple to steeple over rugged terrain, with a riding style similar to that of which is required for hunting. A modern, American Steeplechase, or “jump race,” however, is a unique horse-racing event in which skilled jockeys navigate a tracked course of turns while executing 52-inch hurdles at high speed. The races, which range in length (typically 2-3 miles), push riders and the thoroughbred horses to the limits. Relying on their athleticism, strength, and speed, the jockey and horse depend deeply upon one another for their agility, quick decision making skills and sure-footedness.
  • Charleston, SC, is credited for establishing the first Jockey Club in America (1758). After its completion in 1792, Charleston hosted the first Jockey Club Purse at the Washington Course, now known as the circle around Hampton Park. William Washington (founder of the course, and a cousin of George) helped forge a deep-rooted culture of racing. The Washington Course was also the setting for the annual Race Week; a celebration, and week-long culmination of the racing and social elite in the South. With thoroughbreds imported from England, and riches to be won, horse breeding, betting, and racing quickly grew.
  • Although once home to a booming era for the sport, the Civil War decimated horse racing in Charleston and most of the South. With some courses being turned into Prisoner-of-War camps (such as the Washington Course and its club buildings), others were disbanded entirely, while many other tracks, members, and spectators simply lacked the wealth or ability to continue to participate.
  • Thomas Hitchcock, also known as “the father of American steeplechasing,” is largely credited for revitalizing the sport in South Carolina, in stride with F. Ambrose Clark, both of whom had large stables and training centers situated in Aiken in the late-1800s. While keeping traditions such as quality horses, excellent riders, and a place to exhibit the latest fashions–a new era of competition began.

The Steeplechase of Charleston seeks to follow these traditions, and boasts a day-long, family-friendly event of racing, camaraderie, and more, with the gates opening at 8:00 am. After arriving, there will be ample time to soak in the scenery, grab a bite, and check out the creative local artisans at the market before the opening ceremonies, which are scheduled to start at 12:30 pm. Immediately following, there will be five separate races starting between 1-4 pm. Each race will consist of the riders and thoroughbreds facing five different obstacles and four turns per lap, guaranteeing a challenge to the competitors and an exciting series to spectate as we witness the finale of this year’s National Steeplechase Association circuit.

A dressage rider and horse displaying after a performance.

With the option to purchase a Tailgating or General Admission ticket, or to upgrade to a VIP section, the seating availability caters to anyone’s needs and offers multiple viewing angles of the event. Gates close at 5:00 pm, allowing any spectator a great day to relax and marvel at the fashion and sport around them, all while enjoying excellent food, drinks, and the beauty of the Lowcountry.

We hope to see you at the race!


McPherson Trophy at The Gibbes is a Piece of Charleston History

In 1734, a group of landed gentry founded the South Carolina Jockey Club, still going strong as the SC Thoroughbred Owners and Breeders Association. The climate, geographic accessibility and copious open space made the Palmetto State a natural home to the industry.

Fifty-seven years later, with the Revolutionary War hero George Washington in his second year as President, 20 ‘sporting gentlemen’ of the club purchased a tract of land where Hampton Park now resides and developed it into America’s first horse racing track, the Washington Race Course, named in honor of the President. “The Father of Our Country” had visited the track the year before.

Following the 1802 running of the premier event at the racecourse, the Jockey Club Purse, General John McPherson, an officer in South Carolina’s Francis Marion Brigade in the Revolutionary War and a State Senator, commissioned the design of a trophy for the winner. One of the nation’s wealthiest men at the time, McPherson owned six plantations and nearly 500 slaves. He died, along with his daughter, four years later in a shipwreck.

The McPherson Cup was finished in London in 1803 and is described in auction information as a silver trophy featuring a “cat finial atop (a) leaf-decorated domed cover supported on (a) uniform body with (a) conforming design flanked by entwined serpent handles, adorned with applied plaquette depicting (a) racing scene, engraved with (the) McPherson crest and arms, raised on (a) pedestal base with ball feet.”

The trophy was engraved with the name of the 1802 race winner, Roxana and presented at the following year’s race in what was then called “Charlestown.” Hallmarks of the Wilson Fountain foundry can be found on the base of the pedestal.

That trophy is on display at the Gibbes Museum, on loan from John Rivers, a descendant of McPherson, who purchased the trophy to preserve Lowcountry history.

“I bought it at auction and it came through Wade Hampton and the Lowndes Family of Lowndes Grove fame,” Rivers said. “It belonged to my great grandmother, Caroline Hampton Lowndes Mullaley and other descendants of Arthur Middleton,” a signatory of the Declaration of Independence and son of Middleton Plantation’s namesake.

Rivers has been collecting artifacts of Charleston’s early days and now owns a collection with more than 250 historically significant items dating from the late 1600s. “I started my museum with the earliest known signed piece of furniture” a 1733 writing desk. “I said ‘wait a minute, that’s our history; what the heck is it doing in Winston Salem North Carolina? I felt we weren’t paying enough attention to our own history as we should have at the time,” he said.

Rivers also owns the only Charleston-made guns known to exist and a dressing table that crossed the Atlantic six times and survived three fires before returning to the Holy City, according to a 2015 article in

These centuries-old objects reflect a Charleston that teemed with the contrasting oppression of slavery and incomparable affluence of white landowners. “From 1740-1846 nine of the 10 wealthiest people in America lived in Charleston,” Rivers notes. “We lose sight of that and how important they were in helping shape the future of our country.”

The trophy is part of The Penkhus Collection of British Sporting Art, which includes homages to early steeplechase races, now on display at the Gibbes Museum.

The South Carolina Jockey Club

A race course is… animated by one absorbing passion. Race horses, shrouded in all the covering of hood and body-clothes, are led on the ground by their faithful grooms. Jockey stands, filled to overflowing with spectators, in their holiday finery, gazing on the passing scene, with eager, happy, and expectant faces… are huddled together…”

With thrilling accuracy, the words from the original agenda of the South Carolina Jockey Club still ring true today. For almost 300 years, South Carolinians have been trend-setters in bringing horse racing to national attention. While today’s itinerary includes horse races across the country, each event can trace ties to these origins. 

The Club’s Beginnings

South Carolina helped to bring horse racing to the regional and the national maps. On February 1st, 1734, the South Carolina Jockey Club was established, superseding the English Jockey Club by 16 years.

The club boasted an elegant exclusivity and featured figurehead members like Daniel Ravenel, John Drayton, and William Moultrie. However, the Revolutionary War interrupted a growing excitement for the club; the South Carolina Jockey Club ceased its participation until the British evacuation in 1783. From there, membership flourished and thus began the “golden age of racing.”

Charleston’s Role

Charleston began hosting annual February races at the York Course in present day North Charleston. The renowned Washington Race Course was the highlight of 10 tracks in the tri-county area and the venue for Charleston’s Race Week. This event disbanded traditional stereotypes– all social classes ventured to participate in the city’s celebrations. Women attended the event, and even had a designated gallery at the Washington Race Course for their viewing pleasure. Four stone pillars adorned the entrance of the Washington Race Course; uniquely, those pillars are proudly featured at the entrance of Belmont Park in Elmont, New York.

The abundance of tourists Charleston sees began long before us; as the races grew in popularity during the 1850s, so did their attendees. New York City ships shuttled passengers to the Holy City, and breeders from across the region all wanted entry into the event. Businesses closed, schools dismissed students– daily life practices halted to direct attention to the tracks.

The galivanting regretfully ended with the onset of the Civil War. The war left the Jockey Club in shambles, forcing them to disband in 1899. When the charter ultimately revived in 1984, however, so did the longstanding values of southern honor and individual excellence. The practices and vitality from the original club gave life to the Stono Ferry Plantation. Today, the Steeplechase of Charleston thrives at these tracks and displays generations’ worth of love for horse racing.

Highlights: Steeplechase of Charleston 2020

November 15, 2020, starts with sunshine and smog rolling over the hills of the Stono Ferry Racetrack. Clouds pushing through bringing soft rain throughout the morning as people trickle into place. The skies open up and give way to miraculous sunshine just in time for the races, leading to a gorgeous fall day at Steeplechase of Charleston.

With amazing sponsors and numerous tailgaters, Steeplechase of Charleston 2020 is one for the books. 

The opening ceremonies kick off with a high note as Grammy award-winning artists Quiana Parler and Charlton Singleton from Ranky Tanky perform the National Anthem for Steeplechase of Charleston. All of which stream internationally on the National Steeplechase Association (NSA), Blood Horse, and Horse and Country TV! Click here to watch! 

As the riders begin to take off, Opening Ceremonies sponsor Hopkins Law Firm gave the first “Riders Up!” followed by Mark Peper of Peper Law Firm who also gave a “Riders Up!”

A Crowning Achievement!

Steeplechase of Charleston became the qualifier of NSA’s trainer and jockey of the year Hall of Fame 

trainer,  Jonathan Sheppard, and jockey, Gerard Galligan, who both left with winnings from 4 out of 5 of the races, a total of $50,000 in purse money. Read more about the winners here.

Another big winner? James Schelb winning the first-place raffle prize, a trip to Haig Point on Daufuskie Island! Charlie Black coming in second-place winning the raffle prize of a unique equestrian bottle of Blanton’s Bourbon. The raffle overall raising $2,100 for Hollings Cancer Center. Fun for a good cause!

Vendor Village

Between the races, guests enjoy the opportunity to explore the vendor village. Whether it was holiday shopping for designer boots at Charleston Shoe Co., handmade jewelry from Georgia Jewels, or boutique handbags from Darling Clutch Co., the most extravagant gifts were found!

Then, come time for a recharge, guests stop for a snack at Flight food truck or nitro cold brew from Pourly Grounded Coffee.

A popular destination throughout the day: LuXe Mobile Cigar Lounge.  Guests found an immersive cigar experience and a moment to take in all of Steeplechase.

Enjoyed By All!

Even Southern Charm star Madison LeCroy and The Righteous Gemstones actor Danny McBride are spotted taking in all the excitement of Steeplechase 2020!

The volunteers and Steeplechase team pulled off a wonderful, safe event. 

Thank You!

A huge thank you to all the vendors for providing both their time and their resources to enhance the Steeplechase experience. The day would not have been the same without these amazing businesses and organizations! View the full list of vendors and sponsors here