The Thoroughbred name game

by | 11.14.2011 | 8:57am

When I first noticed a horse named Thomas Jefferson in the entries at Keeneland last month I wondered how Jockey Club members Robert Clay and Tracy Farmer were allowed to name a horse after the third president of the United States a few years after Garrett Redmond, who surely will never be elected a member of the Jockey Club, was not allowed to name a horse after Jefferson's slave, a woman named Sally Hemings. Historians now agree that Hemings was more than a personal servant to the Virginian who was the principal author of the Declaration of Independence: she also bore six children by Jefferson.


Redmond thought he'd come up with a clever name for a filly he bred by Banker's Gold out of Jefferson's Secret, by Colonial Affair. The Jockey Club denied the name, however, first saying Redmond would need to get Sally Heming's approval (she died in 1835) and later saying, in a letter from chairman Ogden Mills “Dinny” Phipps, that “naming a thoroughbred horse 'Sally Hemings' may be offensive to persons of African descent and other ethnic groups.” Redmond sued The Jockey Club but ultimately lost, not because the court agreed that the name might be offensive but because The Jockey Club is a private organization designated by the state of Kentucky to approve horse names and can set its own rules, provided they are not discriminatory.

Turns out, all Redmond might have needed to do is find a living Sally Hemings and name the horse after her instead of the historical figure.

That's what Clay and Farmer did when The Jockey Club questioned them about the 2-year-old colt by Mr. Greeley out of Milago, by Danzig. “The Jockey Club said we needed written consent from Thomas Jefferson,” said Robert Clay's son, Case Clay, president of Three Chimneys Farm in Midway, Ky. “So Mom (Blythe Clay) got out the phone book and called someone named Thomas Jefferson and asked if he would mind giving us written approval for the name.”

The current version of The Jockey Club's rules relating to the naming of a horse (click here), changed several years ago, making no reference to whether a person was famous or of historical significance or deceased. The current rules simply require a written explanation between the breeder and The Jockey Club. That written explanation is considered private, according to registrar Rick Bailey.

The difference between naming a horse Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings was further explained to me by Bob Curran Jr., vice president of corporate communications for The Jockey Club. “By observing the Principal Rules and Requirements of The American Stud Book, and in particular Section V, Rule 6 (“Naming”), the name Thomas Jefferson was eligible for use,” Curran wrote in response to a question about the name. “The name Sally Hemings, when submitted for a filly by Banker's Gold out of Jefferson's Secret, by Colonial Affair, was denied as a name that may be suggestive or have a vulgar or obscene meaning; a name considered in poor taste; or a name that may be offensive to religious, political or ethnic groups.”

I could bring up previously approved names like Bodacious Tatas, Lov Guv, Junkinthetrunk, Tit'n Your Girdle, Hard Like a Rock, Isitingood, Lewinsky (by Dangerous Lady), Go Down (by Service), or Uncle Remus, but the response from The Jockey Club would be that a few wrongs don't make a right, and that its staff has to look at and interpret hundreds of thousands of names and that a handful of inappropriate names slip through. There have been occasions when those approved names are later changed.

One thing Thomas Jefferson and the wannabe Sally Hemings (who was finally named Awaiting Justice) have in common: they are still maidens. Awaiting Justice went 0-for-10 and raced over hurdles most of her career, while Thomas Jefferson is 0-for-3, having finished last of 12 runners on the Churchill Downs turf on Sunday.

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