Louie Olah doesn't see the world as black and white. He sees it as the devil's red and blue hooped sleeves of legendary Calumet Farm. The dark gray and yellow braid of Rokeby Stable. And the royal blue and white checks of Meadow Stable, the colors Secretariat wore to victory.
These and 3,800 other jockey silks line the walls of a room far below the grandstand of New York's Belmont Park. From three rows of hooks hang billowing jackets, the vivid brushstrokes of horse racing history. Clutching a list of the next day's entries in the 1990 Breeders' Cup, Olah scans the room he has supervised for 25 years and wonders which of the silks will be ridden into the record books.
The 4'8" Olah, 63, dips between the rows of hooks, pulling silks that will be worn by the world's leading jockeys. He disappears amid a whirl of nylon and emerges minutes later with an armload of brilliant colors. Olah's search is periodically interrupted as chauffeurs and stable hands appear to deliver silks from Japan, Europe and Canada; more arrive from California, Maryland and Florida. Bundles for each of the seven championship races in the Breeders' Cup begin to form on the floor.
Olah is the track's color man, and his job is to remember. When Angel Cordero Jr. is tapped to ride for Ogden Phipps; it's up to Olah to pluck a black jacket and a cherry red cap from the thousands of silks in his collection.
Nearly 25,000 silks were registered last year in New York. Owners must select their "colors" (as the silks are known in racetrack parlance) from 29 available designs and 154 color combinations; no two sets are alike. Cap and sleeve designs also must conform to certain specifications. According to the Jockey Club, the organization that registers the colors, there are more than five million possible combinations, enough to daunt even the most accomplished trifecta player.
Keeping that much information straight would be easier if one used a computer, but most color men reject the idea, preferring to rely on their own megabyte memories. Few even use written notes.
In the accents of a man who has spent most of his life in Queens, N.Y., Olah, an ex-jockey, says he won't be replaced by a computer anytime soon. "Oh, they've talked about putting one in, but I know everything that's in this room," he says. "Maybe somebody could punch in the owner's name or horse's name or whatever, and up would come the colors, but he still wouldn't know what he was looking for." A horse's ownership changes frequently, either through claiming races or private sales, and any computer system would have to be updated almost on a daily basis.
"Louie's got amazing recall," says Tony Pellegrino, who oversees the jocks' room at Belmont and at Aqueduct and Saratoga, where Olah works as well. "Even if an owner hasn't raced here in years, he can just walk right in and pick out his colors, no problem."
"There's no system that can make the color room any easier for the man who's running it," says Frank Smothers, the dean emeritus of color men. For 28 years Smothers presided over 4,000 silks at Santa Anita, Del Mar and Hollywood Park in California. He retired in April 1990.
"You couldn't even use a file system in there," he says. "It takes too much time to flip a page or poke those numbers. It's one man, one memory."