From the saddle to the sewing machine
JEANNE BROWN RARELY GOES to a horse race, but her custom-made jockey silks, helmet covers and blinkers go to races all over the U.S. and beyond, including the Kentucky Derby.
Her clients over the years could fill a winner’s circle of well-known riders, trainers and owners.
She pretty much grew up at the racetrack, learning the business firsthand from her father, who owned, trained and bred thoroughbreds in Seattle. She taught herself to sew while in her early teens and made her first set of jockey silks at 16. When she wasn’t sewing, she worked at nearly every job around the barns—as a hot walker, a groom, an exercise rider and, finally, a jockey.
At 21, she became one of the first female jockeys on the West Coast during the early 1970s, and she rode for two years before suffering a broken neck and other serious injuries when her horse fell during a race in 1973. Unable to ride, she resumed making silks full time.
Few others who made jockey silks had the experience of actually riding thoroughbreds in races and knowing the way silks needed to fit riders, or how blinkers should fit the horse.
“Making blinkers is a really difficult thing to do, because how you position the cup on the horse’s eyes is crucial,” she says. “I guess I’m the queen of making blinkers.”
In 1999, Jeanne and her then-husband, a racetrack veterinarian, relocated from Oklahoma to Kentucky to be nearer to the heart of thoroughbred racing. Today, she lives in Shelby County, where her sewing machines are powered by Shelby Energy. Her custom racing apparel, Pepper Wear, takes part of its name from one of her favorite dogs, a shepherd that was given to her by an uncle of Hall of Fame jockey Pat Day.
Breeders’ Cup winning jockey Brian Hernandez Jr., who lives nearby, sometimes drops by to pick up helmet covers, but she rarely sees most of her clients.
“I just take orders. This texting is pretty darn good. They just take a picture of whatever they want, and I can make it quickly.”
Jeanne’s “silks” nowadays are made from the more aerodynamic spandex fabric, and, while her daughter, Bobbie, still makes silks from nylon and satin, Jeanne knows no one who makes them from actual silk.
Her silks are popular with a couple of stores in New York, and she makes children’s silks for racing families, as well as satin pillows with appliqué replicas of racing silks. One special order was for a set of blue and white jockey silks for the University of Kentucky Wildcat mascot—whose height, she remembers, was 6 feet, 6 inches tall.
“He had his outfit on, and I asked him to take it off so I could measure, and he said, ‘Oh I can’t take it off!’ It was like the biggest secret on Earth. He finally said, ‘Okay, but you can’t tell anybody who I am.’”