The Science of Naming a Racehorse

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How do thoroughbred horses get their colorful — and sometimes inscrutable — names? On Kentucky Derby Day, Jockey Club registrar Rick Bailey lets Jennifer Ludden in on the secret.

JENNIFER LUDDEN, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Jennifer Ludden.

A horse named Giacomo has beaten 50:1 odds to win this year's Kentucky Derby. He pulled ahead in the last seconds of the race. Just behind were Closing Argument and Afleet Alex. Giacomo had lost all three of his races this year before today's triumph for jockey Mike Smith. The win means no other Thoroughbred will ever bear the name Giacomo again. That's just one of the rules governing the naming of racehorses. We wondered this week how they get their colorful names, so we turned to Rick Bailey. He's the registrar of the Jockey Club and the person who says yea or nay to some 37,000 Thoroughbred names a year.

Welcome.

Mr. RICK BAILEY (Registrar, Jockey Club): Well, thank you, Jennifer. I appreciate your time.

LUDDEN: I understand these rules are somewhat complicated. Can you lay out the basics for us?

Mr. BAILEY: What we do here at the Jockey Club is we have an approval process whereby the owners of the Thoroughbreds will submit the names to us, and we enter those names into a computer system and run them through a check of the phonetics of the name.

LUDDEN: The phonetics because...

Mr. BAILEY: Yeah. You don't want two Thoroughbreds out there racing at the same time with very similar-sounding names. You know, as an example, there's a very prominent racehorse from several years back named Easy Goer, spelled E-A-S-Y, as you might imagine, and you wouldn't want to allow the name Eazy, spelled E-A-Z-Y. So I try to be careful to, you know, actually say them out loud before it gets approved, just to avoid that confusion.

LUDDEN: You might be cheering for the wrong one there.

Mr. BAILEY: Yeah. You don't want to bet on the wrong horse or, perhaps even worse, buy the wrong horse. Our interest here is the integrity of the stud book.

LUDDEN: Now there are certain no-nos.

Mr. BAILEY: There are. We have a limitation of exactly 18 characters, and there are some special permissions that you have to get, for example, so that if you wanted to name a horse after a person, you would need to seek written permission from that person. One of the best ones that I remember in my 17 years here at the Jockey Club is, several years back, we had a filly named Barbara Bush when Mrs. Bush was still first lady at the time. We received a letter of permission on White House letterhead. So that was pretty exciting.

LUDDEN: How many horse names are registered with your club?

Mr. BAILEY: At any one given time, we'll have about 450,000 what we call active names.

LUDDEN: So this is why people have to get so creative, and there's these very strange names that we see every year. But do they actually use them? I mean, I'm looking at today's Kentucky Derby list. I mean, I can't imagine in training, you know, `Whoa, Andromeda's Hero. Come here, Bellamy Road.'

Mr. BAILEY: Yeah, a lot of times you'll hear nicknames for the Thoroughbreds, you know, around the barn. It's often a shorter version of the actual name.

LUDDEN: Have people tried to sneak by some naughty names before?

Mr. BAILEY: Oh, yeah. There's a history of several folks that do that. Fortunately, they are few and far between. It can be difficult to draw the line, and basically you have to look at what's best for the horse. And, you know, some people may think a name is clever, and if they were able to slip the name by, we have seen instances in the past where the horse could get all the way to the racetrack, be ready to race, and could perhaps even be owned by a different owner, and we've seen cases where the name caused the stewards at the racetrack to actually scratch the horse.

LUDDEN: You've got a hard job. I mean, it sounds amusing at times, but it's difficult to screen.

Mr. BAILEY: It can be, and it's difficult with--you know, the use of some words that meant something 20 years ago may mean, you know, something totally different with the MTV generation.

LUDDEN: What's your favorite name?

Mr. BAILEY: I've got a list of several that I like. I like the folks that use both sides of the pedigree in their names. For example, the name Inside Information was a racehorse by Private Account and out of the mare Pure Profit. Sticky GI(ph) is a foal by Lost Soldier and out of Super Glued.

LUDDEN: So they're taking these names from the name of the father of the horse and the mother of the horse, and they're joining them together in a pun, in a way.

Mr. BAILEY: Absolutely. And that's probably the most common approach. There are other farms, or other owners that have their own style. There was a John Ed Anthony that used to name all of his horses after towns in Arkansas. Claiborne Farm here in central Kentucky is noted for short, one-word names, such as Swale, that won the Kentucky Derby back in the '80s.

LUDDEN: Rick Bailey is the registrar for the Jockey Club, and he spoke with us from Lexington, Kentucky. Thanks so much.

Mr. BAILEY: Thank you, Jennifer.

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