March 28, 2008

Racehorse Names

Stupid Question ™
Nov. 15, 2001
By John Ruch
© 2001

Q: Why are racehorse names traditionally so weird?
—Brown Eyes

A: Racehorse names certainly tend toward the unusual. Current Thoroughbred names on the books include Satan at Midnight, Danzig Times Two, Morning Bagel, Spice Jaws and—my personal favorite—Non Sequitur.

One reason for this weirdness is that, to keep breeding and racing records clear, racehorse names must be registered in the “stud book” of various national racing agencies. Duplicate names are not allowed, which encourages extreme originality.

The same thing happens with other pedigree breeds or registered names: dogs (a recent prizewinning schnauzer was Charisma Jailhouse Rock), yachts (Sail La Vie), even hybrid roses (Atombombe).

However, racehorse names were pretty weird even before there were stud books. There’s surely a psychological reason as well.

The anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss noted that animals typically get common, usually quasi-human, names only if they’re fully integrated into human society (such as pet dogs and cats). He said racehorses do not fit this bill, instead being “products of human industry” that are raised and used in a very restricted and largely commercial context.

Thus, they are usually given non-human names, and often ones with a secret meaning known only within the stud farm or racing industry. Contrast to police horses, which very frequently have human-style names, reflecting their more intimate relations with general human society. (The Boston City Park Rangers stable currently houses Sammy, Clyde, Jake, Gringo, Zeus and Diablo.)

Strange racehorse names may also relate to the former tradition of giving dray horses—the two-horse wagon-pulling teams—suitable twin names such as Thunder and Lightning or Pomp and Circumstance.

However, when racehorse breeding and betting got started in England, probably in the 1400s, the horse names were not very distinctive. They usually just described the horse and named the owner; the most famous early Thoroughbred studs include Place’s White Turk and Darley’s Arabian.
By the 1690s, horse names were getting more catchy and sometimes truly bizarre. There were a few common names—an Alfred, a Johnny—but “common” was already rare. British horses of the 1700s included Ancient Pistol, Pot-8-Os and Bloody Buttocks Arabian.

In 1752, the UK Jockey Club formed and started registering names in a stud book. The names have become stranger ever since. But they’re also more restricted, including an 18-character length limit, and no offensive or commercial names. (Similar rules govern the naming of Standardbred racehorses.)

Name inspirations today including current events (Dangling Chad, Infinite Justice) and sheer bravado (Makamegabuck). Obscure personal references have always been popular; Man o’ War was named for his war-veteran owner, and Secretariat for the stud farm’s office secretary.

Also widely used, often very cleverly, are puns based on the horse’s parents’ names. Native Dancer was the child of Polynesian and Geisha; Watamichoppedliver was the child of Chopper Charlie and Libber and Onions.

Similarly, Blondeinamotel was sired by Bates Motel, and Judge Smells spawned Odor in the Court.

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