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The Thoroughbred Name Game

Heart to Heart wins 2014 Jefferson Cup
Photo: Churchill Downs/Reed Palmer Photography
Early winter is the time that owners of two-year-old thoroughbreds have to start coming up with names for their horses, however that task is much easier said than done.  The Jockey Club has a list of 17 rules that tell the owners what they cannot do as they try and select names for their horses.

Let me use some history and some whimsy to guide you through the thoroughbred name game. The numbers you see below correspond to the Jockey Club rules. If you would like to see the actual wording of those rules you can click here.

1) If you are like me, you have wondered why the name of the 2009 Kentucky Derby second place finisher is Pioneerof the Nile and not spelled correctly as Pioneer of the Nile. This rule states that all names have no more than 18 characters including spaces and punctuation. Thus, I am tormented by the joining of ‘Pioneer’ and ‘of’ because Pioneer of the Nile has one too many characters.

2) There are plenty of owners who love New York City, so certainly a horse named N.Y.C. U.S.A would be desirable. The reason that we have never seen it is because names made up of initials only are not allowed.

3) A very confident owner might want to show off by naming their horse, Fabulous Filly or Champion Colt, but alas horse related terms like filly, colt, mare, and stallion are not permitted.

4) Forget about naming your horse Twenty-three as a tribute to Michael Jordan because numbers can only be used if they are above 30 and if they are completely spelled out.

5) What if I wanted to name my horse, Zipse the 2nd , after my editor? It would get vetoed because cardinal numbers are not permitted either in number form or spelled out. I guess that would be tough on the race callers, imagine “Going in to the first turn Zipse the Second is in first …”

6) If instead I wanted to name him, Brian Zipse, I would have to get written permission from my friend and have that document on file with the Jockey Club.

7) It is a bit easier to pay tribute to a person from the past like the Hall of Fame jockey George Woolf, because you don’t need permission, but you still have to provide a satisfactory explanation.

8) All owners want to win the Run for the Roses, so why not just go for it and name your horse, Kentucky Derby? If your favorite track is at the Jersey Shore then Monmouth Park would be fitting, but alas racetracks and graded stakes may not be used.

9) An enterprising individual might want to promote their favorite site and name their horse,, but names with commercial designation are prohibited.

10, 11) New York thoroughbred owner, Caesar Kimmel was well known for his disdain for rule 10 as he was frequently able to slip names like Peony’s Envy or Shiny City Shoes past the censors at the Jockey Club. Kimmel came up with names that when said quickly could make track announcers cringe.  Fortunately for the Jockey Club staffers who missed those two, neither of those horses made it to the big stage.  Rule 10 forbids names that are “Suggestive or have a vulgar or obscene meaning or names considered in poor taste.”

12) Don’t get any ideas about naming your horse War Front, Delta Princess, or Kitten’s Joy as no names that are active in breeding or racing can be used.

13) If you are a big fan of the circus you might want Three Ring as a name. However, unless you are Who Am I ??? genius Chris Miskell you probably wouldn’t remember that Three Ring won the 1999 Acorn Stakes. The names of all grade one winners are off limits for 25 years.

14) If I owned a thoroughbred I would want him to be Secretariat, but the list of rules saying why that isn’t going to happen is pretty long. Secretariat is a “permanent” name and he got the designation for almost every reason that is listed.

15) Also, you can’t get around all the rules that identify the above “permanent” names by trying something like Roughian.

16, 17) The final two rules make it hard use the full name of pedigree relatives for the new horse.

Today the Jockey Club has a database that is available for owners to use to check if a name is available. In the old days the process usually required several attempts through the US Postal Service. Remember Secretariat was not the first choice of the Meadow Stable, but actually sixth after Scepter, Royal Line, SomethingSpecial, Games of Chance, and Deo Volente. 


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Meet Matt Shifman

Matt Shifman has been on the Horse Racing Nation staff since 2011 and currently serves as Assistant Editor. Matt covers Aqueduct, Belmont Park, Monmouth Park, and Saratoga in his two HRN blogs, Racing at the Jersey Shore and New York State of Racing.

Since 2012, Matt has been a voter in the NTRA weekly polls for the Top Thoroughbred and Top Three-Year-Old.

Recently, Matt helped launch Derby Day Racing, a new 2-year-old racing partnership, that just purchased a promising Lookin At Lucky filly named Sooner Schooner.

You may also know Matt by his Twitter, Facebook, and HRN screen nameAndyScoggin.

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