Racehorse naming is both an art and a science … and a lot of fun
Seattle Slew, Secretariat, Seabiscuit. These are racehorse names so iconic they’ve become part of not only the horse industry vernacular but also the American one. They were outstanding racehorses with superlative names.
“A good name is more desirable than great riches,” wrote Solomon, whom biblical scholars believe authored Proverbs 22. Racehorse owners seem to agree: Naming is important, and they put a lot of thought into it. After all, breeders who keep their foals to race have planned matings carefully and invested a lot of time, money and work into their foals. They hope the young racehorses represent their farm well and reach the top. Then there are the yearling buyers, who’ve made a financial investment and one of confidence in the animals’ pedigrees and potential.
But selecting a Thoroughbred’s name is more than painstakingly picking a moniker and — literally — running with it. It’s an official process that involves registry approvals, DNA testing and the like.
I’LL HAVE ANOTHER: The mechanics of naming
Thoroughbred owners must register a foal within a year of its birth. Sometimes that’s with a name, sometimes it’s just with a pedigree.
Rick Bailey, registrar for The Jockey Club, in Lexington, Kentucky, comes by his career in horse racing honestly. His dad, a longtime staff member of the Daily Racing Form with an office at Keeneland Race Course, taught him and his brother “to read the Racing Form before we learned to read Green Eggs and Ham.”
He joined the registry team in May 1988, working under former registrar Buddy Bishop for many years. Bailey was appointed registrar when Bishop retired at the end of 2003. In his role he approves an average of 25,000 names per year.
“Nearly all Thoroughbreds are named by the end of their 3-year-old year, with a little more than half named either in the weanling year or yearling year,” says Bailey. “Some people do submit names at the time of registration, but most folks send them through the (yearling) sales ring as unnamed. The pedigree is validated with a DNA type for all Thoroughbreds at the time of registration.”
Claiborne Farm, in Paris, Kentucky, has a more than 100-year tradition of breeding champions. Dell Hancock, part owner of the farm, often names its racehorses. “Generally, Claiborne names our horses in the fall of their yearling year — after the horses are sold that we are selling,” she says. “If there is a particular name that comes to mind, then (we) have at it earlier.”
Dede McGehee, DVM, owner of Heaven Trees Farm, also in Lexington, names only those she intends to keep and race. “I think people who buy yearlings always want to name them themselves,” she says. “I know I would.”
About 90 percent of names are submitted to the Registry Office online (registry.jockeyclub.com). “We check the names for availability, which includes a software check for similar names, then print a daily list,” says Bailey. “The list is then checked independently by two or three employees and sent to my office for a final check.”
On the registry site, owners (or anyone with a site sign-in) can click on the continuously updated Online Names Book to check if a name is available. In that section they can also find a 45-page rulebook for naming.
Why so many rules? Well, the registry intends to avoid duplicating names that are already in use or belong to horses that enjoyed distinguished racing or breeding careers (you’ll never see another American Pharoah). Also, it must assure requested names aren’t spelled or pronounced similarly to names already in use. This could cause confusion both at the track and during breeding careers.
Then there are names of people, living or posthumously, which are unavailable unless the requestor gets written permission from that person or their descendants. The names must be 18 characters or less, and off-limits are things like widely known trademarked names (think Prada, though Prada Shoes passed the test).
According to the registry website, these exclusions amount to approximately 450,000 unavailable names, “either because they are in current use or protected because of historical significance.”
And while it’s widely known that Derby winner I’ll Have Another’s name stems from a request for a second freshly baked cookie, it’s not uncommon to input a few names, only to have to go back and select another.
“However,” the registry website notes, “approximately 75% of first name choices submitted are approved by The Jockey Club.”
SWALE: The makings of a memorable racehorse name
“To me a great name is one that reflects both the dam and the sire, but at least one of them,” says Hancock. “My father loved the short names — as do we all. He thought a five-letter word was the best. For a colt, we like a good strong name. Sometimes we shy away from an effeminate name … and, likewise, the fillies shouldn’t have a masculine name.
“So, the best names to us are the names that help you remember the pedigree and are clever. Mama named Swale, perfect for a Seattle Slew (colt). Seth (Hancock’s brother) named Pulpit out of Preach.”
She recalls how the great Lure, a back-to-back winner of Breeders’ Cup Mile races in the early ’90s, got his handle.
“Lure was to me always a good name,” she says. “We had tried for several names and landed on that one, as he was by Alydar — I always heard Mrs. Markey named him for her friend, the Aly-khan, whom she called Aly darling — don’t know if it is true … and Lure was out of Endear. If you were trying to get a darling by endearing yourself, you would Lure him/her in.
“Long story — great horse.”
McGehee says she obsesses over naming, keeping a list of names on her smartphone to which she adds whenever she sees, thinks or hears a good one. She also puts a lot of stock into honoring the dam and/or sire.
“Fillies that I hope to keep as broodmares are the hardest because I want a name that will live on through the naming of the foals out of her,” she says. “St. John’s River (the longest river in Florida) is one of those. I grew up on the St. John’s, and I have a huge list of possibilities out of her — places and things from my childhood memories.”
An avid horticulturalist, McGehee named one of her mares Throughthegardengate. “When her weanling … cleared a 5-foot fence one day, she became Overthegardengate.”
Bailey says he also appreciates names that work well with the horse’s pedigree. Among his favorites are Friendly Reminder out of Note To Self; That’s All Folks by Comic Strip; Crop Circle by Perfect Circle out of Lost in the Weeds; and Urban Sombrero by Hat Trick.
URBAN SOMBRERO: and other pop culture/world event references
If that name sounds familiar, “Seinfeld” character Elaine used it to describe a hat she featured on the J. Peterman catalog cover. “It combines the spirit of old Mexico with a little big city panache,” she said in an episode.
McGehee has often leaned on pop culture for her names. She considers calling foals related to a mare she raced, Love Shack Baby — after the song — the most fun. “There is Bangbangonthedoor, Atlanta Highway, Shimmy Shack, Glitteronthehiway, Jukebox Money, and finally, this year a red colt who is supposed to be Tin Roof Rusted, but it appears someone poached my name! I’m getting close to running out of options.”
What’s going on in the world often translates to an uptick in related names. At the turn of the century, for example, quite a few horses had “Millennium” in their names. A quick search produces names like Katrina’s Fury (2004), Obama Girl (2007), Sully’s Landing (2007), Twitterverse (2011), Trump (2016), Whip N Nay Nay (2013), Google It (2017) — all clearly nods to news events or pop culture phenomena at naming time.
Bailey says reserving names in the immediate wake of events is common. “Earlier this year the name Minneapolismiracle was submitted and granted for a gentleman from Minnesota shortly after the final play of the playoff game between the Vikings and Saints,” he says.
FLIPPERS: Ever-clever names
Then there are the clever names. “My best name was probably the name Flippers — by Coastal out of Moccasin, who was named by my father,” says Hancock. “She was out of Rough Shod.
“My sister, Clay, was big on crossword puzzles and came up with some great names, as well,” she says.
Among RRP Thoroughbred Makeover veterans are many clever names. Youmightbearedneck earned his name “because from a very early age his motto was, ‘Here, hold my beer,’ ” says his trainer, Michelle Craig.
The name StormoftheCentury, by Stormy Atlantic, might not be as clever as what his rider, Jen Ruberto, almost named him: Fiftysevenfifty, based on his private purchase price. But it causes many people to recall the Stephen King miniseries.
And Erin Pittman, of Dodon Farm, in Maryland, has Makeover graduate Where’s My Tail — a mare aptly named because she was born tailless — boarded at her farm.
Many times, owners name their horses with the vision they have for their future. “I can think of ones that didn’t pan out and hated to think we wasted a good name,” says Hancock. “But perhaps those are going on and have second careers and someone is enjoying the horse as well as the name.”
Indeed, while not a Claiborne horse, Will He Passum is a good example of a good name that, perhaps, didn’t quite fit him as a racehorse. “Nope, he did not (pass ‘em),” says Craig of her one-time-grand prix jumper who won $6,039 in 13 starts. But “he won all over the country and Canada with me!”
Keeping it Tasteful
Occasionally people submit names The Jockey Club and members of the public might deem a bit … well, off-color.
Rick Bailey, registrar for The Jockey Club, in Lexington, Kentucky, says 99.9% of owners do good work in submitting names that are appropriate.
“We catch and reject the vast majority of the names that are inappropriate but occasionally miss one,” he says. “And, yes, folks will remind us of such names. I talked to an owner this week that referenced the name Bodacious Tatas, a good race mare born in 1985.”
Dede McGehee, DVM, owner of Heaven Trees Farm, also in Lexington, gets creative with her Thoroughbred naming and says she’s had a few of her names rejected. “I did get on a strip club jag for a bit, and there was Seductivelyelegant — from a sign — Pink Pony South and Cafe Risqué. But it was hard getting those names accepted, and I finally decided it would be easier to name one ‘Lewd, Inappropriate or Suggestive,’ which is (the response) I kept getting back from The Jockey Club.”
FRANK HOUSER: Namesakes and pet names
Lots of owners consider naming a racehorse an opportunity to honor a loved one. Smarty Jones, winner of the 2004 Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes, for example, is named after racing co-owner Pat Chapman’s late mother, Milly “Smarty Jones” McNair. The strong-willed horse and woman share a birthday.
McGehee named her Adelia after her mom and Traude after her dad’s “amazing assistant of 55 years, who immigrated here from Germany after the war at 18 years old,” she says.
Naming horses after people can sometimes create confusion but, yet, breed camaraderie among racing fans. “I named one Frank Houser after my favorite uncle,” says McGehee. “When he was racing I got a call one day from a woman in Vegas who told me, ‘Hi, I’m Frank Houser’s daughter and I saw your horse run.’
“Now, my Frank has only sons, so I laughed out loud,” she adds. “Turns out her dad was a professor who was retired and 85. She thought I probably had been one of his students. I sent him a win photo, which he loved.”
Finally, there are the affectionate names that arise in the barn and simply stick. McGehee has a mare called Quiet Lucky. “Through the years her pet name evolved from Quiet Lucky to Lucky Ducky to The Duck. So, of course, her last foal would have to be The Duck.”
On the Cutting Room Floor
You can see what names didn’t make the cut for any current or former racehorse.
Go to registry.jockeyclub.com, and select “Registration Status.” Enter the horse’s name, then select “Search.” Under Recent Registration Activity toward the bottom of the page, select “See Detailed Naming Information.”
For the 2006 gelding It Happened Again, for example, the name “Quiet Lucy,” a variation of his dam, “Quiet Lucky,” was rejected with this reason: Identical to name in use — see rule 6F12 (Quiet Lucy).
Incidentally, It Happened Again’s great-great-grandsire, Secretariat, had a few rejected names, as well. In Secretariat, author Timothy T. Capps writes that these names included “Scepter, Royal Line, SomethingSpecial, Games of Chance and Deo Volente (a Latin term for ‘God willing.’)”
Ultimately, Elizabeth Ham, secretary at The Meadows, in Doswell, Virginia, Secretariat’s birthplace, named the colt based on a “previous career association.”
WICKED STRONG: All names, all the time
While Bailey won’t necessarily call name approval “fun,” he says it’s an interesting part of his job. People whose names don’t get approved generally don’t get upset, but he and his colleagues do get the occasional appeal. “It’s similar to an NFL coach throwing the red flag to ask for further review,” he says.
For those retired racehorse owners puzzling over Jockey Club names and wondering if they should change them, keep in mind that the horses’ racing connections won’t be able to recognize their horses as easily in show results from their post-racing careers.
But don’t stress if you really want to change a name. The superstitious warn against it, saying it’s bad luck. But multiple graded-stakes winner Hoppertunity was already on his second name by the time he began racing in 2014 (his first was Anyway U Way, after Journey and Revelationary were rejected). He turned out more than OK, amassing over $4 million in winnings.
“I don’t give that old wives’ tale much weight, as I’ve seen a good number of cases where a name change was completed and the horse went on to race at the highest level,” says Bailey. “(Grade-1-winning millionaire) Wicked Strong and (2014 Breeders’ Cup Classic Winner) Bayern are two in recent years that come to mind.”
A racehorse’s name can have ripple effects on his legacy. A famous runner will go down in history books; a successful sire or dam’s namesake will carry on for generations. A particularly clever or sentimental name might amass bets at the track or fans in the show ring. Regardless of whether your OTTB’s registered moniker makes sense to you, know someone probably put a lot of thought into it.
Notable Names From Makeover Trainers
Responding to a request for great names and naming stories, RRP Makeover trainers recalled Thoroughbreds current and past. Here are some examples:
Dr. Nefario, “after the scientist in the Despicable Me movies. The one who made the minions and the cookie-bots.”
Hill Four Eleven, “named after a Vietnam war battle. There is a foundation called the Hill 4-11 Association, and all the members are veterans and followed the horse all through his racing career and now in his future.”
Eddy’s Empañadas “was born and raised on my farm. We named him after an employee who moved back home who always made us empañadas! He went on to an eventing career.”
Midnight Medic and Chief Complaint were names of a doctor’s racehorses.
Honest Lawyer, by which the commenter included a winking emoji.
Kulik Lodge is Barbara Banke’s, breeder/owner of Stonestreet Farm, “favorite hunting lodge in Alaska.”
Sackett “Evidently his breeder liked Westerns. The Sackett family was featured in several Louis L’Amour novels and a made-for-TV movie that included Tom Selleck playing Orrin Sackett.”
Im Tellingeveryone is out of Secretssafe Withme and by Confide. Her owner calls her “Tattle.”
Lakeview Drive “We literally tried 20 names and got rejected, so we used my father-in-law’s street name … and bingo.”
Fire Marshall Bill was “named after the ‘In Living Color’ character that made Jim Carey famous! True to his name, that horse was such a character.”
Triple Sleet “because he was by Seattle Sleet and out of a mare who only had foals on Feb. 28. He was the third. I didn’t love his name so I called him 3 Sleets to the Wind. Kept the spirit of it.”
Moslikelytosucceed “They named him that because his daddy was Two Smart. They had to drop the ‘T’ because it had too many letters.”
Don’thitonme “I used to gallop (this) filly … . Wee little bay opinionated thing, very appropriately named, you really couldn’t use your whip unless you held on tight first!”
This article was originally published in the Spring 2018 issue of Off-Track Thoroughbred Magazine, the only publication dedicated to the Thoroughbred ex-racehorse in second careers. Want four information-packed issues a year delivered to your door or your favorite digital device? Subscribe now!