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Naming is a horse race

Posted by: Ilan Beesen on May 10, 2011

Why do we keep watching the Kentucky Derby year after year? For some it’s an excuse to discover or rediscover the southern charms of the mint julep. Maybe it’s the flamboyant creations from the world’s finest millineries. Others might be drawn to the simple thrill of the race or have a stake in the outcome. Whatever the reason, the Kentucky Derby has been attracting horse racing fans and non-fans alike since 1875. But Derby Day would be just another day in May if it weren’t for the true stars of the show: racing circuit legends like Super Saver, Mine That Bird, and the beloved Barbaro.

The regal and memorably named Thoroughbreds keep the world breathless during “the greatest two minutes in sports.” And for the naming enthusiast, it’s the clever – and sometimes perplexing – names that keep us coming back for more. Take Animal Kingdom, this year’s winner, for instance. His name is suggestive of a royalty usually reserved for the king of the jungle. It requires little stretch of the imagination to see this colt crossing the finish line ahead of the rest. This is a good name for drawing wagers from those who bet based on names.

Consider the anthropomorphized naming of Much Macho Man, Shackleford, and Uncle Mo. It’s hard not to imagine a masked Mexican wrestler, a butler, and Uncle Mo from up the block based on naming alone. Then there are names like Nehro, Santiva, and Soldat that don’t seem to provide any meaning at all.

While the names of the Kentucky Derby horses use a diversity of approaches – double entendres to coined words – all of them share two common denominators: Each name is a) memorable as an identifier and b) able to pass the registration process at the Jockey Club, “the breed registry for all Thoroughbred horses in North America.”

As a handle used at the racetrack, an unusual, memorable name is an obvious asset in a field of competitors who are all vying to be the best bet. Passing muster at The Jockey Club is another, more complicated story. The “American Stud Book Principal Rules and Requirements” is featured on The Jockey Club’s website and reads more like a legislative bill than a set of guidelines, which results in names like Pants On Fire or Comma to the Top. Each name must satisfy a litany of rules therein, particularly those listed under section 6F in order to make it onto the registry.

According to the rules, names cannot contain more than 18 letters (spaces and punctuation included), or be entirely composed of acronyms. If the name is coined, a meaning must be provided. Names can’t have a clear “commercial, artistic, or creative significance,” or be obscene or vulgar. The biggest hurdle may be the most obvious: Names cannot be identical or in some cases even similar to names that are currently active “either in racing or breeding.”

For those who are familiar with the difficulties of clearing a trademark for use, you may have some sympathy for horse owners. With approximately 450,000 thoroughbred names already registered and more than 30,000 foal registrations each year, the likelihood of duplication is obviously high. According to The Jockey Club, about 25 percent of names fail to pass the registration process. Due to the high drop off rate, the Club recommends applicants supply several names in order of preference, since their first and second choices have a good chance of failing.

It turns out that naming horses and commercial enterprises have more in common than you might have thought. Yet while memorability is desirable in both horse racing and business, I can’t think of many instances where Mucho Macho Man would be recommended as a corporate name, unless it was for a brand of nacho cheese.

*For a full list of rules and regulations for naming, click here and scroll down to Section V Rule 6
**For a full list of horses from the 2011 Kentucky Derby, click here.

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