Inside the Jockey Club: A Horse by Any Other Name

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The deadline to submit names for Thoroughbred foals has just passed, and the registrar’s office at the Jockey Club is buzzing with phone calls and clacking keyboards.

Names specialist Kim Brixey enters requested names into specially-designed software that cues up phonetically or typographically similar names already in use. Brixey commands a three-screen labyrinth of databases, zooming in to cryptic handwriting on scanned applications and skimming dozens of search results. When she encounters a word or phrase she’s not sure about, the database provides her with shortcuts to Google, Wikipedia, Dictionary.com, FreeTranslation.com, or Urban Dictionary to get a sense of what an owner might be going for with a particular name.

The office processed 42,251 names last year, 71 percent of which were deemed acceptable per the registry’s 17-point checklist. About 70 percent of the submissions the Jockey Club receives come in electronically, either online or through the registry’s mobile app.

Some of the 17 rules are straightforward, such as the requirement that names be 18 characters or less (including spaces and punctuation) and may not consist only of initials or numbers. Others take a more human touch to interpret.

Certain otherwise innocuous names are rejected if they are too much like a name currently in use. Lil Wagon is rejected because Little Wagon is currently running in Texas.  Mark Up is a no-go because Marked Up was on the track as recently as 2010.

“The effort there is to avoid confusion in the industry. You don’t want two horses at the racetrack with really similar-sounding names,” said Rick Bailey, registrar at the Jockey Club. “When you’re booking a mare to be bred to a stallion, that often happens over a telephone and if you have two names that sound a lot alike, that can lead to problems. We’ve seen it from a registration standpoint in that a horse may get all the way to the phase of submitting a hair sample for DNA testing, and they may get a parentage verification exclusion, when the real issue was that they had a slightly different spelling of the mare’s name.”

This was by far the most common reason for name rejection in 2012, with 52 percent of vetoes handed down because names were too similar to those already in use.

The percentage of accepted names has reached an all-time high, in part due to rule changes

The percentage of accepted names has reached an all-time high, in part due to rule changes

Another requirement is that names not evoke a clear commercial, creative, or artistic significance — a rule Bailey admits is open to interpretation.

“What is your first impression? When you hear the phrase, do you think of the song that was popular 30 years ago, or a phrase that is common in everyday speech?” says Bailey. “We don’t necessarily want to turn down someone’s clever name selection because there happened to be a movie 45 years ago with the same title.”

In a similar vein, horses cannot intentionally be named for a person, living or dead, without written permission from that person or that person’s family. Over the years, the registry has taken some guff for this rule, since Barbara Bush, David Copperfield, and Hugh Hefner are not only celebrities but racehorses. In those cases however, owners really did get permission from the humans before naming their Thoroughbreds. Recent years have also seen many rejected attempts to name horses “Barack Obama”, “Tim Tebow” and “Tebowing.”

Pop culture references are acceptable if they are less overt than a title or brand name. Brixey processed lots of requests for Electoral College, No More Chads, Palm Beach Ballot, and Dangling Chad following the 2000 presidential election, some of which passed, and some of which were already in use. By far the favorite source for clever names over the years has been the television show Seinfield. Summer of George, Yada Yada Yada, Manhands, Puffy Shirt, and Hello Newman were all accepted names that referred to various jokes and episodes of the show.

Jockey Club naming software
Sometimes, name choices can serve a marketing purpose for racing. NASCAR fans Greg and Donna Griffith named their 2001 Carr de Naskra gelding Sherrillsfordposse after driver Michael Waltrip’s pit crew. Waltrip reached out to the Griffiths, saying he wanted to be involved in the horse’s career and learn more about the sport.

In 2010, a stretch battle between Thewifedoesntknow and Mywifenosevrything captured national media attention. Larry Collmus’s call for the seventh race at Monmouth Park Aug. 22, 2010, appeared on ESPN, the Today Show, and Good Morning America, and garnered over 640,000 views on YouTube.

Occasionally, names will be rejected for vulgar or insulting meanings, and while such attempts are usually well-publicized, as demonstrated in this clip from Britain’s The Graham Norton Show, the U.S. Jockey Club said they are in the minority, with only 1.71 percent of 2012 rejections being for “suggestive, poor taste, or offensive” name attempts. However, officials admit that the rare dirty joke does occasionally slip through.

Not all owners are understanding when they receive a name rejection. In 2007, Garrett Redmond sued The Jockey Club when he was told he could not name his filly by Banker’s Gold out of Jefferson’s Secret “Sally Hemings”.  He lost the suit when the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati ruled that the Jockey Club can legally veto any name it sees fit, as it is a private entity. The filly was named “Awaiting Justice” instead.

Electronic applications for Thoroughbred names are far more popular than paper these days

Electronic applications for Thoroughbred names are far more popular than paper these days

Contrary to popular belief, the identity of a horse’s owner has no pull with the registry when screening a name for approval, according to Rick Bailey. As the Jockey Club’s Kim Brixey flips through requested names and potential phonetic matches, the only application information visible to her is the horse’s year of birth, sire, and dams’ names.

After Brixey has screened requested names against the 17 rules, she prints a list of the name attempts — sometimes spanning several pages — twice a day and sends it to other registry employees for additional, independent review.

In situations where a horse is American-bred but residing abroad, the Jockey Club will typically check with the appropriate foreign stud book before approving a name to ensure a change would not be necessary if the horse were to start in that country. In general, Bailey says, there is a list of recommended guidelines that most registries around the world adhere to on an unofficial basis to avoid creating extra paperwork for each other when horses are imported or exported.

“Once every five years or so we’ll run into one where we have to say the name has to be changed before we can print the import certificate. It’s extremely rare,” said Bailey.

Australian racing authorities were stunned to find out that a 2-year-old colt named Black Caviar was scheduled to debut this week in South Africa.  Australian officials said they would take the necessary steps to ensure that the name was changed to protect the identity of the undefeated 7-year-old mare, Black Caviar.

For owners interested in avoiding any potential red tape, the U.S. Jockey Club provides a list of recently released names, which may be recycled. Released names are those of horses older than ten who have been inactive on the track or as a breeding animal in the last five years. Released names do not necessarily belong to horses who have died; although the Jockey Club does process death reports, these are voluntary and not reliably turned in.

Owners can also use the registry’s app, which includes a name generating tool, to come up with an available name that fits within the 17 naming rules. Users can enter letters or phrases that suggestions should contain and choose whether they’d like single-word names.

Whatever method owners use to create their horse’s name, it can be more than ink on foal registration papers and race programs. Historically significant names are retired, similar to basketball jerseys, ensuring that winners of major races and Hall of Fame inductees will live on beyond the history books and brass plaques.

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  • Glimmerglass

    I had to give sly props to Michael Wona as recently ‘You’re a Nation’ ran at GGF. When the horse began to wane while on the lead he quipped in his call the horse had reached a trickle. Good for a smile and I’m sure a chuckle at the track.

    • Tinky

      Many years ago, Wrona made this call at Arlington Park:

      “Little Dix poking up on the inside…”

      • Kris

        Thanks, Tinky, for sharing that and making me laugh.  I love Michael Wrona.

    • Sevencensstable

      10 yrs or more back John G Dooley had  simialr stretch call when Via Gras was winning by open lengths at AP -  “And Via Gras is pumped up today! Via Gras is NOT going to go down!!”

  • Glimmerglass

    The Jockey Club abides by the Int’l Federation of Horseracing Authorities list of “protected names?” Black Caviar didn’t win a race listed for automatic protected. It would appear the Aussies have not submitted a request for protection previously. By comparison Frankel was submitted (and granted) by the BHA.

    The complete list of ‘untouchable’ names, through Nov 2012, found here:

    http://www.horseracingintfed.com/racingDisplay.asp?section=17

    From Bold Forbes to Kellsboro’ Jack to Rachel Alexandra and Man O’War to Hoist The Flag they are listed.

  • Elizabeth

    In the early 90′s at Turf Paradise in Phoenix, there was a mare named Here Comes Kitty
    who went off at 99-1. On that day, she wired the field, but as she rounded the far turn the announcer said “and Here Comes Shitty – er – Kitty”  The clubhouse erupted in laughter!
    Nice payday for some people.

  • Pml601

    In the past couple months, I have noticed a broodmare named ‘HaRVe de Grace’ listed in the DRF breeding line in past performances.  Imagine the fun when ‘HaVRe de Grace’ starts showing up.

  • Kris

    Once-upon-a-time, there was a running joke that if a ‘no-name’ owner wanted to get their first choice (this was pre-internet) then they would write that name selection on the last line, with their least favorite choice going into the number one choice.  Rumor was that the JC made sure to give the best names to the top owners.  I don’t remember how many choices were allowed (five?) but when I named my two yearlings I did place my first choice names last…….and got the names I wanted.  True story!  :)

  • Don Reed

    Joe Palmer, on this subject:

    “There was once a time when an owner could name his horse anything he pleased.  It was not a very good time, because… some of the names in the early volumes of the
    English racing calendar are not adaptable to mixed company unless it is of an
    unusually intimate sort. 

    “Sometimes not even then.”

    “On the score of good taste…the Jockey Club… registrar tries to hit all curve balls thrown at him, but he misses some… I can remember… when a New York delegation to Pimlico [racetrack] made a moderate killing on one of Mr. Vanderbilt’s horses, False Front. 

    “The plunge was taken partly because we were drinking martinis on the clubhouse porch, but largely because we admired the subtlety of the name.  The dam’s name was Superficial.”

  • Quilla

    Epic failure: Harve de Grace, b. f. 2000 by Boston Harbor (dam of sire Concord Point) and Havre de Grace, b. f. 2007 by Saint Liam (HOY and Eclipse Champion 2011).  Just sayin’

    • Kris

      Quilla,
      The JC also screwed up when they allowed another horse to be named Apollo!

      • Quilla

         Heh.  The name of a 1879 colt who won Kentucky Derby should probably not be re-purposed in 1952 and 1988.  Next time they’ll ask us, Kris.

  • Thunderrun

    I know the Jockey Club does have a tremendous task with names, and as stated, similar sounding names do slip through. A few years ago I had two geldings in my barn with very similar names. One was Escalate and the other was Excalate. This did pose quite a headache on entry day.

  • MemoriesofPuchi

    We once named a filly for a French Royal historical character. The Jockey Club initially rejected the name (submitted with explanation) saying: have you asked permission? We wrote back saying no, that was a litte tough - pointing out that the name was from the late 17th century, and the French revolution killed the Royal Family . . . the name was accepted!

    • Don Reed

      “This is Louis XIV.  I approve this message.”

  • Bymany

    Saw a filly run at Turfway Park one night named Hall Lass.  It didn’t hit me a strange until I heard Mike Battaglia calling “Haul Ass gaining on the outside”.

    My favorite clever name was a first time starter I saw at Churchill Downs named… Itwasdarkiwasyoung.

  • Dusty

    Tebowing wasn’t rejected, ran last month at Santa Anita

    http://www.equibase.com/profiles/Results.cfm?type=Horse&refno=9162100&registry=T

    • Don Reed

      Did the Jets claim the horse?

  • Elizabeth

    Several more great names – Animalgotnewshoes(TB) ran at Remington Park and won at high odds after switching trainers, and Haulin Grass(QH) ran at Ruidoso Downs.

  • http://twitter.com/Kaydee815 Kim R

    There’s a half sister to Ginger Punch whose name got through the Jockey Club.  She never won a race, but I’m sure if she had, the track announcer would’ve said “And this race goes to Helena Handbasket!”  She’s since become a broodmare and has a 2YO Awesome Again colt named Helena Hurry….are we SURE the Jockey Club checks these names?!?  http://www.pedigreequery.com/helena+handbasket

  • Sandra Warren

    Looking at the Seinfeld names, I guess the JC must have denied “Spongeworthy.”

  • Ida Lee

    My favorite “weird” horse name is Fusaici Pegasus, the 2000 Kentucky Derby winner. By the time I learned to pronounce his name, he was retired. Beautiful boy though and a handful from what I understand. If I’m ever lucky enough to have a horse, I’ll come him “Lance Stardust”. 

    • Ida Lee

      Correction: I’ll “call” him…(sorry just had cataract surgery…can’t see a damn thing)

  • Davek137

    Years ago there was one that slipped thru the “backdoor”….Wrecked Em

  • Betty_Ward

    Funny but that one is a q horse

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