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Where Do They Get Those Names?

Feb 10, 2008
Secretariat. Man O'War. Affirmed. Barbarino. Whirlaway.
Where, you may have wondered once or twice over the years, do racehorses get those crazy names?

The rules for naming and registering a racehorse are actually quite complicated. It starts with the Jockey Club, the organization responsible for overseeing all Thoroughbred horse racing in the United States. The Club gives all racehorses registered in a particular year an "official" birthdate of January 1 (thus keeping things simple for race organizers) - and any all horses must be registered within a year of the actual date of birth. Not only that, they must have their DNA typed; both parents' DNA must also be on file with the Jockey Club. Twins must be registered separately, and the Club's rules go into ickily graphic detail in stipulating that only foals created by "intromission" are eligible - horses bred through artificial insemination or embryo transfer need not apply. In this way the Jockey Club ensures that all Thoroughbreds really are Thoroughbred - that is, they're descendants either of horses recorded in the Club's official record, The American Stud Book, or of those horses recorded in other countries' Stud Books (which must in turn have been accepted by the Jockey Club). Only by such stringent regulations can the Jockey Club keep the Thoroughbred racing "club" as exclusive as is a European royal family.

(The Club's rules also say, somewhat superfluously, that "A dead horse is not eligible for registration." Nothing like covering all the bases.)

Of course, there are fees - at this writing, anywhere from $200-2000 depending on circumstances, with separate naming fees running from $75-100. (If you name and register your foal at the same time, you don't have to pay the naming fee.)

Speaking of naming, the Club has rules covering that too. Many rules. No name already issued to a living Thoroughbred under ten years of age is available, so you must list six options; the first available name will be assigned to your horse. (Thank goodness we don't name children like this.) The Club also maintains a "restricted list," which includes Hall of Fame members, Eclipse Awards winners, Kentucky Derby winners, and other Thoroughbred luminaries. Like Michael Jordan's jersey number, names like Seabiscuit and Secretariat are too special to give to rookies.

It gets more complicated from here. "An explanation," the Club's rules stipulate, "must accompany "coined" or "made-up" names that have no apparent meaning," and if you'd like to name your horse after a foreign phrase (like C'est la vie or Mutatis mutandis), you must provide a translation. The name must contain fewer than 18 characters, and they can't all be numbers. Names cannot end in "filly," "colt," "stud," "mare," "stallion" or other horsey terms, or with numbers: "the second," "the third," etc. You can't use the names of famous persons, "notorious" persons, or initials - so no naming your horse "Abe Lincoln," "John Dillinger," or "TCB." In fact, you can't use a person's name for your horse at all, unless the Jockey Club receives written permission from the name's human "owner." Racetrack names, trade names, book, film and song titles, and other copyrighted material are all verboten, as are names that too closely resemble any of the above. (Apparently Star Warz or Mikki Maus won't be winning Preakness next year.) Finally, the Jockey Club proscribes 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."

With all these restrictions, coming up with a good horse name requires a certain creativity. To make matters worse, nearly 60,000 name requests are submitted to the Club every year, according to a recent item by T.D. Thornton in the online magazine Slate. (Thornton also lists some examples of obscene names that somehow squeaked through; Menage a Trois and Sexual Harrassment are two of the more printable.) Luckily, the Jockey Club lists some currently-unavailable names at their web site.

So where do horse names come from? Some famous horses have family surnames (Barbarino); some names are designed to suggest speed (Whirlaway) or confidence (Affirmed). History can be a rich source, and so can personal biography - the name Secretariat was suggested by Meadow Stables secretary Elizabeth Ham after the first ten names she submitted were denied. Like many rock bands, horses are often named for reasons that in the end are both personal and arcane - Seabiscuit was named after his father, Hard Tack, a type of cracker often eaten by sailors, Seabiscuit being another name for, well, hardtack.
About the Author
TRP Services offers Thoroughbred horse racing and horse racing tips online for horse racing handicapping and those who love thoroughbred horses for the horse racing tracks.
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