Derby winner Animal Kingdom gets his name from his sire, Leroidesanimaux,… (Travis Lindquist, Getty…)
Secretariat. Man O' War. Citation. Maybe, if he manages to win a couple more races in the next few weeks, Animal Kingdom.
These are the names of some of the greatest thoroughbreds ever, horses that ran to glory on tracks like Pimlico, Churchill Downs and Belmont Park. Their names have deservedly gone down in history and become part of popular culture.
But what about names like Jail Bait, Comply or Die, Onoitsmymothernlaw and the oughtta-be-immortal Yakahickamickadola. In a sport where the names of horses are often wonders to behold (much less to pronounce), shouldn't there be a hall of fame somewhere for thoroughbreds whose accomplishments are few, but whose names are marvelous?
A horse named Flat Fleet Feet? Who cares if he's the slowest thing on four hooves? Give that horse a prize.
Oddball names "sometimes make it a lot of fun," says Pimlico track announcer Dave Rodman, who, in 20 years of calling races at Old Hilltop, has had his tongue twisted and his sensibilities challenged in every imaginable way. "It makes it more interesting, makes it almost a challenge."
Even the Preakness, that most noble of stakes races (Kegasus notwithstanding), is not immune from such frivolity. Not when one of the favorites is a horse named Mucho Macho Man.
"The poor announcers at the track, they have to announce all those names," says Maryland trainer Jim Steele.
All these names have been officially sanctioned by the Jockey Club, which not only registers, but has to approve, every name proposed for every horse running in America. In 2010, the organization received some 51,000 name applications. Most are pretty mundane, often including reference to both the horse's sire and dam (mom and dad, in human parlance). Derby winner Animal Kingdom, for instance, is the son of Leroidesanimaux, which is French for "king of the animals." Twice the Appeal, another Derby contender likely to run in the Preakness, is the son of Successful Appeal and Double Boarded.
Other names are picked because they describe the horse to which they're attached: the owner of Dialed In, Robert LaPenta is said to have named his horse, a likely Preakness contender, to reflect its focus.
The rules for naming a thoroughbred are fairly simple, outlined in 15 steps by the Jockey Club. Names have a maximum of 18 letters (which is why owners sometimes string words together without spaces). They cannot be made entirely of numbers or initials, cannot end in a "horse-related" term like Filly or Colt and cannot use the name of a living person without written permission from that person.
They also can't be in current use by any other horse, include the name of a track or have been previously used by a select group of prized horses that include Preakness, Kentucky Derby or Belmont Stakes winners (which, sadly, means we'll literally never see another Bee Bee Bee, the Maryland-bred colt that won the 1972 Preakness).
And, of course, the name can't be pornographic or vulgar or designedly insulting to another person. That, however, is a prohibition that owners and trainers are constantly trying to get around, with some success. Most of the names that have seen the light of day despite the Jockey Club's best efforts can't be printed in a family newspaper; suffice to say that someone must have been asleep at the switch back in 1985 when "Bodacious Tatas" got approved.
"The good news is that an overwhelming majority of owners and breeders take immense pride in the name they give their horses," says Jockey Club spokesman John Cooney. "Unfortunately, there are always a few owners out there who seem to like trying to slip one past the Jockey Club. Occasionally, they are successful. … When you do anything on a scale of checking 51,000 names a year, one or two are bound to slip through."
The Jockey Club, which likes a good joke as much as the next guy, even runs all submissions through phonetic software, designed to ensure sound-alike names don't slip through. Which means, hopefully, we'll never see a Preakness contender named Secret Harriet.
"I can't say there's anything that really surprises me anymore," says Burton DeWitt, who writes for the online Bleacher Report and once compiled a list of the 15 "Best/Funniest/Strangest/Most Insulting" names in horse-racing history. "There definitely is an art to coming up with a name. Sometimes, they're just trying to get the announcer to mess up, as mean as that sounds."
Perhaps no one succeeded better at that than the owner who came up with the tongue-twisting Yakahickamickadola, a name that so vexed veteran announcer Tom Durkin during a 1989 race in Florida that he pretty-much gave up, pronouncing it differently each time and devolving into a chain of nonsense syllables by the end.
"That may be the greatest name ever, for the sole reason of the Tom Durkin call of that race," DeWitt says with a laugh.