Inside the Jockey Club: A Horse by Any Other Name

by | 03.04.2013 | 1:33pm

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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