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How Do Racehorses Get Their Names?

Updated on May 11, 2011

Once a year on the first Saturday in May, our entire nation becomes interested in horse racing. As people tune in to the Kentucky Derby, they will surely notice the unusual names of the horses. You won't see a Fred or a Spot in the line-up. All the horses' names will be unique and that's no accident. The Jockey Club, which is the breed registry for Thoroughbreds, has a long list of rules about how a horse can be named.

The name can be no more than 18 letters and the name cannot be composed entirely of initials, such as F.O.B. The name cannot contain a horse-related term, such as stallion or filly. No stakes race or racetrack can be referenced, so you couldn't name your horse "Belmont Beauty" or "Pretty Preakness." The name also cannot have any commercial significance, meaning you can't use your racehorse to advertise your company. You won't see a horse named "Birkenstock" or "Nathan's Hot Dogs."

The name also cannot be vulgar and cannot be offensive to any religious or political group. "George Bush Is A Moron" wouldn't pass muster with the Jockey Club. Neither would "Death to the Taliban." No living person can be referenced, unless the person provides written consent to the Jockey Club. The recently successful filly "Rachel Alexandra" was named after her breeder's oldest granddaughter, who is living and happily consented. If you want to name your racehorse after a deceased person, you must provide written explanation to the Jockey Club as to the significance of the name.

Additionally, breeders/owners are required to submit five names to the Jockey Club and the Club chooses the winning name. Secretariat's owners submitted 5 names, which were all rejected, before they submitted Secretariat and had it approved. The five names which were rejected were Scepter, Royal Line, Something Special, Games of Chance and Deo Volante. The farm secretary, Elizabeth Ham, came up with the name Secretariat. She had worked for an American diplomat and liked the sound of the word and its association with the United Nations.

When naming new foals, many owners like to reference the sire and dam's names, especially if the foal has an enviable bloodline. For example, Storm Cat's ancestors often have the word "Cat" in their names. I own a former racehorse whose racing name is Storm Ballad. His dam was Storm Threat and his sire was Concerto, so they took the storm element and the musical element and combined them.

Racehorses are only called by their race names in written publications and on race day. In the barn with their trainers, owners and grooms, they are called by their "barn names." Man O' War's barn name was Red. When my horse was at the track, he was known as Chip, short for Chipmunk Cheeks, because he has very round, full cheeks.

Thousands of Thoroughbred racehorses are born each year and their owners continue to come up with catchy, creative names. It's a heavy responsibility to name the babies; they could be choosing a name for the next great racehorse!


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    • Ruth Williams profile image

      Ruth Williams 5 years ago

      Great hub, I find it fascinating how horses get their names.

    • Barbsbitsnpieces profile image

      Barbara Anne Helberg 6 years ago from Napoleon, Henry County, Ohio, USA

      @juliaeverheart...Nice job on the horse name game! Interesting note on the "barn" names; that's much like the names for champion show dogs having nicknames out of the ring.