The Name Game

A peek into the highly-regulated, fairly-complicated and deeply-rooted method to finding a horse’s identity

Secretariat, Seattle Slew, American Pharoah* and Seabiscuit; these are just a few of the most well-known horses in history. The names of the mounts in Thoroughbred racing are some of the most creative and mystifying found in any sport, but don’t be fooled; they are not inspired by mere whimsy. Choosing a name for a horse is not as simple as it sounds. An average of 30 per cent of all names submitted to The Jockey Club, horse racing’s main governing body, are rejected for breaking at least one of their 17 strict naming rules. The Jockey Club also reserves the right to refuse any name they see fit.

So, what can an owner do to ensure their name will get official approval? One of the safest bets, is to turn the horses’ pedigree. Like people, some horses are named after one of their parents, while others find a creative mash-up to name the horse after both their sire (father) and dam (mother). Elope followed this naming method, after his parents Gone West and Proposal.

Sometimes, family names are kept in reserve by The Jockey Club as in the example of the name Fella. The name was granted to the horse Pacific Fella due to the fact that he inherited the name from his sire, Cam Fella, who had received his name from the grandsire Most Happy Fella. If another horse, not related to the Fella family applied for that name, they would most likely be rejected.

Many names are rejected due to being too similar in spelling or pronunciation to an active horse’s name or to a ‘permanent’ name. The Jockey Club grants permanent status to a name if the horse was well known following a very successful career.

Overall, very few horses ever achieve permanent status. For those who do not, their name is released and available for use after the horse has turned 10 years old and has not raced or bred during the preceding five years. Well-known thoroughbreds who have achieved permanent status include Secretariat, Man o’ War and California Chrome.

Once an owner submits a name, the Club begins its approval process. The name is entered into a computer system and run through a check of phonetics to make sure that no other horse has been registered with the same, or similar, name.

Besides being unique, there is a slate of other requirements that a name has to meet according to the rulebook. Here are a few of the 17 restrictions that must be followed:

  • A name cannot exceed 18 characters (including spaces and punctuation)
  • The word “horse” isn’t allowed in a name, so Horsey McHorseface is out
  • Names may not consist entirely of initials or numbers
  • They may not end in filly, colt, stud, mare, stallion or any similar horse-related term
  • Horse’s may not be named after living people without written permission on-file with The Jockey Club
  • Owners may not re-use the name of a racehorse that is in the Hall of Fame or been voted as Horse of the Year, which puts the name in the permanent rights category, the racing equivalent to having your jersey number retired
  • Names cannot be suggestive, offensive, designed to harass, have a vulgar or obscene meaning or be considered in poor taste