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The curious art of naming a racehorse

Published 4th November 2019
(AUSTRALIA OUT) Jockey J. Patton rides Maythehorsebewithu to victory in Race 5, Bitalli Handicap at Flemington Racecourse, Melbourne, 23 June 2001. THE AGE Picture by MARIO BORG (Photo by Fairfax Media via Getty Images/Fairfax Media via Getty Images via Getty Images)
Credit: The AGE/Fairfax Media/Fairfax Media via Getty Images
The curious art of naming a racehorse
Written by Emily Dixon, CNN
With horses hitting the racetrack bearing names like Horsey McHorseface and Maythehorsebewithu, you might imagine anything goes when it comes to naming a racehorse. In fact, the opposite is true: The odd and often comedic names called out by racing commentators are bound by strict rules upheld by international racing authorities, which force owners to get creative when it comes to naming their prized foals.
For one, no horse can have the same name as another horse currently racing. In fact, a breeding female horse a broodmare) holds exclusive rights to her name until she turns 30, or 10 years after the horse's death. A breeding male (a stallion) is allowed to maintain their name even longer, until the age of 35, or 15 years after his death.
Some names are given the gold-standard of protection. You won't encounter another Seabiscuit or Red Rum, no matter how many years have passed since their deaths. The International Federation of Horseracing Authorities maintains a list of permanently protected names, preventing new horses from trading off the fame of all-time greats.
The most recent list, released in April, includes 3,112 names, and added recent winners of major races like the dominant British Thoroughbred Enable, the double-winner of the Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe.
Pierre-Charles Boudot riding Waldgeist (red) and Frankie Dettori riding Enable.
Pierre-Charles Boudot riding Waldgeist (red) and Frankie Dettori riding Enable. Credit: Alan Crowhurst/Getty Images Europe/Getty Images
With so many new horses registered each year, quirky names are inevitable, said Nick Craven, communications director at Weatherbys, which performs administrative duties for the British Horseracing Authority. "There are about 15,000 Thoroughbred foals born each year, so you need a very high volume of names," he said.
Names can't be too lengthy, with a limit of 18 characters and seven syllables. "It's to make it easier on the commentators," Craven said. Figures and punctuation marks are out too, since, he explained, "A commentator can't verbalize that."
A name will be rejected if it's "suggestive or has a vulgar, obscene or insulting meaning," according to the British Horseracing Authority -- but that doesn't mean owners don't try. "People try to be quite smart with rude names -- we have to be cautious," Craven said. "Urban Dictionary comes in handy."
Political names are also forbidden -- you're unlikely to encounter a newly christened "Brexit" -- while a public figure must give consent before a horse is named after them. There are, however, "little things in the public domain that owners might latch onto," Craven said. A horse was recently named "Super Over" after a type of tie-breaker play-off in Cricket, which sealed the England cricket team's victory in the 2019 World Cup, he added.
Camelot ridden by jockey Joseph O'Brien.
Camelot ridden by jockey Joseph O'Brien. Credit: ADRIAN DENNIS/AFP/AFP via Getty Images
Weatherby's maintains a sizeable list of more specific rules, designed to ensure that names are not impossibly tongue-twisting, offensive to anyone, or likely to be confused any pre-existing public figure -- with four legs or two.
Craven gives little belief held by many superstitious racegoers that great names make champions, and poor names guarantee failure.
But he knows many owners feel differently. There is good news, he says, if you've thought up an especially lucky moniker or the next raceday comedy classic. Great names can be kept for the right horse to come along, as in the case of British colt Camelot, whose owners had reserved the name a decade before the horse was born, waiting for a racehorse they felt could match the mythic name.
"You can reserve a horse's name even if you don't have a horse to attach it to," said Craven. "[Owners or trainers] think of a great name and want to hang onto it for when they have a horse good enough."
Top image: Jockey J. Patton rides Maythehorsebewithu to victory in Melbourne in 2001.