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A Derby tradition: The art of horse naming

By on April 25, 2011

By Baylee Pulliam

Man O’ War, Secretariat, Barbaro, Seabiscuit – thoroughbred horse breeders have always taken great care in naming their foals.

“There’s a pretty big superstition in horse naming,” said Terri Burch, senior program coordinator for the University of Louisville College of Business Equine Industry Program. “A good solid name will bring a horse good luck. If you give it a silly name, it’ll wash up the track.”

According to Burch, there are other superstitions involved in the process.

“One thing you never do is name a horse after a family member,” said Burch. “The horse could turn out to be a dud and then what? Your mother or father or whoever might get offended.”

Tim Capps, a professor and expert-in-residence in the Equine Industry Program, said that many horse breeders name their foals to pay homage to the horse’s pedigree.

“A foal might have a name that sounds like or relates back to its mother or father’s name in some way,” said Capps. “Another way to do it is to choose something funny, clever or cute.”

According to Capps, some horse breeders might also choose a name that relates to a meaningful event in their own lives or an inside joke.

“Almost everyone goes about it differently,” said Capps. “Some just pick a name that sounds good – one that makes it sound like a winner.”

Of course, a winning name won’t guarantee a winning horse.

For example, a 1986 Kentucky Derby contender was named The Winner. The Winner did not win. In fact, he finished second to last in The Derby.

However, finding a good name is only half the battle.

Capps said horse owners must submit their colt or filly’s name to The Jockey Club for approval before they can officially claim it.

The Jockey Club’s rules limit name length to 18 characters, forbid names that sound like or are spelled like the names of horses already competing, and do not allow names entirely made up of numbers.

“There are around 15 rules in all,” said Burch. “One thing they forbid is using retired names – the names of famous winners like Seabiscuit or Man O’ War.”

The Jockey Club also has rules against vulgarity.

“Names that are suggestive or have a vulgar or obscene meaning [are forbidden],” reads The Jockey Club’s rules for horse naming. “Names considered in poor taste; or names that may be offensive to religious, political or ethnic groups.”

However, according to Capps, some breeders have managed to sidestep this rule.

“It happens sometimes,” said Capps. “I know some people who have cheated the system. I know of one horse named Bodacious Ta-Tas, and that’s not the worst of them.”

While some look for loopholes, Burch said The Jockey Club rules are important to horse racing.

“The rules are in place for a reason,” said Burch. “They make sure that no one has a duplicate name and that it will sound decent when it’s said over the loudspeaker.”

According to Burch, the important thing is for breeders to choose a name they like.

“You should really pick something that suits you and suits the horse,” said Burch. “If it wins, that’s just icing.”

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