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Scott Allen
What’s in a (Horse) Name? No More Than 18 Characters
by Scott Allen - April 29, 2009 - 5:15 PM

kentucky-derby.jpgPicking a name for a newborn can be an agonizing process for parents, but it’s a whole lot easier than naming a racehorse. While Thoroughbred owners may not have to worry about the risk of subjecting their foals to ridicule on the playground, they must select names that sound good when shouted but that also meet strict guidelines. Here’s an overview of the naming process and an explanation behind the names of some of the horses in Saturday’s Kentucky Derby.

The Jockey Club

Since 1894, the Jockey Club has been charged with maintaining The American Stud Book, a registry of all Thoroughbreds foaled in the United States, Canada, and Puerto Rico, as well as Thoroughbreds imported into those countries. North American breeders register approximately 37,000 Thoroughbreds each year and the Jockey Club has an online database of more than 430,000 names in active use, all of which must first be approved by the organization’s censors.

One of the most common naming conventions is to combine the names of the foal’s sire and dam. For instance, 1995 Kentucky Derby winner Thunder Gulch was the son of Gulch and Line of Thunder. A cleverer example of this sort is the name Inside Information, which was derived from Private Account and Pure Profit. Of the roughly 60,000 name requests submitted annually, about one-third are rejected because they fall into one or more of the Jockey Club’s 15 classes of names that are strictly forbidden.

The Guidelines

jockey-club.jpgThe first rule of naming a horse is that a name may consist of no more than 18 letters, and spaces and punctuation marks count as letters. Eighteencharacters is acceptable (and is, in fact, a registered horse name) but Eighteen Characters is not. Other ineligible submissions include names consisting entirely of initials; names clearly having commercial, artistic, or creative significance; names that are suggestive or have a vulgar or obscene meaning; names considered in poor taste or names that may be offensive to religious, political or ethnic groups; and names of living persons unless written permission to use their name is on file with The Jockey Club.

In an interview with NPR, Jockey Club registrar Rick Bailey said he once received written permission on White House letterhead granting permission for an owner to register a horse named Barbara Bush. In 2005, the Jockey Club rejected an owner’s request to name his horse Sally Hemmings after Thomas Jefferson’s slave and reputed mistress. The owner claimed the name was meant to honor Hemmings and filed suit, but the Jockey Club’s decision was upheld by the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati. Today, there’s no shortage of political statements being made on the tracks, with registered horses named Obama’s Promises, George Dubya, Palin Power, and McCain. Names of horses that win major races are retired permanently, while all other names may be recycled over time.

Slipping Through the Cracks

With as many names as the Jockey Club reviews, it’s no surprise that some questionable names have found their way onto racing forms. Slate took an amusing look at some of the racier names that slipped past the Jockey Club’s reviewers. Among them: Blow Me (1945), Spank It (1985), Date More Minors (1998), Bodacious Tatas (1985), Sexual Harassment (1997), and – say it aloud – Hardawn (1937). “It’s difficult with the use of some words that meant something 20 years ago may mean something totally different with the MTV generation,” Bailey told NPR. There’s also Hoochiecoochiemama (1989), Panty Raid (2004), Thong Thong Thong (1989), Thong or Panties (2004), and, because the Jockey Club is an equal opportunity registry, Boxers or Briefs (2007). While it’s hardly dirty, a horse named Mental Floss was registered in 2001.

Fusaichi Who?

pegasus.jpgThe Jockey Club requires an explanation for names with meanings that are not self-evident. In the case of 2000 Kentucky Derby winner Fusaichi Pegasus, they could’ve also used a pronunciation guide. (That’s foo-sah-EE-chee.) The name proved so difficult to pronounce that some of the reporters covering the race for ABC referred to the horse simply as “Pegasus.” Owner Fusao Sekiguchi combined his first name with “ichi,” which means “one” in Japanese, and Pegasus, the winged horse of Greek mythology. Here are the stories behind the names of a few other famous horses:

• Big Brown: The 2008 Kentucky Derby winner was named after UPS, which allowed its trademark of the moniker to expire in 2005. Big Brown’s owner, Paul Pompa Jr., was a trucking company owner and said the horse’s name honored UPS’s renewal of a contract with his firm. UPS, in turn, agreed to a sponsorship deal and the value of the Derby exposure for the company was estimated at $4 million.

• Giacomo: The 2005 Kentucky Derby winner was named for the son of recording artist Sting, who worked with A&M records co-founder and Giacamo’s breeder Jerry Moss.

• Seattle Slew: The 1977 Triple Crown winner was named after his owners’ two hometowns, Seattle and a soggy area in Florida, where a swamp is often called a slew.

• Secretariat: Elizabeth Ham, the secretary for the stables where the 1973 Triple Crown winner was born, had submitted 10 names to the Jockey Club, all of which were denied. Ham’s 11th submission was finally approved.

• Seabiscuit: A sea biscuit is the name of a type of cracker eaten by sailors known as hardtack. Seabiscuit’s father was named Hard Tack.

• War Admiral: The 1937 Triple Crown winner was the offspring of Man ‘o War and Brushup.

• Burgoo King: Foaled near Lexington, Ky., the 1932 Kentucky Derby winner was named for a local grocer who was famous for his burgoo stew.

The 2009 Kentucky Derby Field

While Saturday’s Kentucky Derby field doesn’t include any names that are likely to make you blush, there are some good stories behind some of these monikers. Papa Clem, one of the favorites, is named after owner Bo Hirsch’s late father, Clement Hirsch, a legendary owner in California until his death in 2000. West Side Bernie, a son of the stallion Bernstein, is named after West Side Story composer Leonard Bernstein. Mr. Hot Stuff’s name was inspired by the owner’s son-in-law, who once wore a flamboyant ski outfit that included a pink hat that read, “Hot Stuff.” The outfit could make an appearance at Churchill Downs this weekend. Mine That Bird is the son of Birdstone and Mining My Own. And finally, Chocolate Candy’s breeder is none other than diet guru Jenny Craig.

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Comments (15)
  1. That was a neat one! I always wondered where they got some of those names.
    My favorite has to be Hoof Hearted, not because it’s cute but because of the hilarity that ensued when his name was called by the announcer during the race… youtube that to see what I mean.

  2. Excellent article! As for me, the first name that sprung to my mind was… Beetlebohm. Yeah, I’m old.

  3. Here is Australia, the best ‘omen bet’ horses have been waikickamoocow and maythehorsebewithu.
    The all time best has to have been Brew, who won the Melbourne Cup, billed as ‘the race that stops the nation’. Every man and his dog were on that horse, and it still paid ok in the end!

  4. love this article! and i’m glad to know that so far, no one has named their racehorses the names i’ve reserved for my own, should i ever own them: Boom Shanker, and Svenghali

  5. When I was a kid, we had purebred Arabian horses. My horse was Chessman’s Steele, but we also had a few weird ones… DNA Russe, Phlaming Desire, Yorktown Gambler, Magnum PI, Amadeus Mozart, Broken Window, Blues Traveler, and my favorite LickaLicka.

  6. If you want to take a stab at naming a horse without the expense (and dung removal issues) of actually having one, check out http://www.horsenamegame.com . Owners solicit suggestions on names for their foals, giving information on sire and dam.

  7. I love horses, and racing, and finding out the details behind the names every year. It’s always fun to see the inventive ones.

    And as eyebrow-raising a name as it is, Panty Raid was actually a really good racehorse! She was a graded stakes winner, which is the highest level of horse racing.

  8. Back in my riding days (hunter/jumper) my last horse was named Eight Asterisk, a holdover from his racing days. (The ‘loser’ racehorses are sometimes fortunate enough to be reincarnated into ‘regular’ riding horses–although many end up in a much less fortunate way.) A horse with no name is entered into the system as an 8*, so, he became Eight Asterisk written out, or, the horse with no name. I always found it clever, whomever it was that originally thought of it, thanks. I loved Risky dearly.

  9. P- I somehow came across this post… I ended up with a horse who I later found out was named Eight Asterisk aka Risky and never knew much about his history. I showed him in the childrens hunters and then moved to the children’s jumpers with him. Can you tell me more about the horse you had? Bay gelding about 15.3 hands with a small star-stripe-snip by any chance??

  10. Robyn:

    I don’t know if you’ll see this, but that is a very precise description of Risky or a bizarre concidence of a horse with the same name and nickname and description. I showed him in children’s hunter/jumper as well until I was sixteen, mostly in the midwest. He had a white circle on the middle of the right side of his neck, possibly from a healed wound, no socks or any other marks on any legs. I’m in complete shock as I am fairly sure that we are dealing with the same horse through a very odd twist of fate. Please email me at eightasterisks@gmail.com (yes, that’s my e-mail!) and I can give you names, photographs, anything you want to know, as I know his story from the very beginning. (We were separated in a bit of a hard way and I would do anything to know what came of him.) Please, e-mail me if you see this, Robyn!

  11. …and Seabiscuit’s mother was Teabiscuit.

    I’m a bit surprised yo didn’t mentiont he recent Rock Hard Ten, evenif they did make up a stupid cover story about his name.

  12. Poor taste, yeah, but I always wanted to name a horse Dog Food.

  13. My favorite was always ‘Hoof Hearted’

    Say it out loud!

  14. My favorite is “Load a Chronic”

  15. one of my favorites….Ring For Nurse-Beware Below. The foal was named “Bed Pan”

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