12/20/2012 4:55PM

By Any Other Name


Call it the cringe factor, and thank goodness it still exists, for without it there would be no saving the species.

In the immediate wake of the victory of Violence, a son of Medaglia d'Oro, in the Dec. 15 CashCall Futurity, there were those who were loathe to utter the name of the colt aloud lest they be considered insensitive. After all, it had been barely 24 hours since the gun killings of 26 children, teachers and staff at an elementary school in Newtown, Conn. During those 24 hours the word "violence" had been heard and read countless times across the broad spectrum of mass media and social networks, spoken and written in a context so appalling as to trigger helpless wailing and the gushing of tears. My daughter is 7 and goes to a neighborhood school like Sandy Hook. Enough said.

But now here was Thoroughbred horse racing -- of late a favorite whipping boy of animal rights extremists, opportunistic politicians and latter-day drug abstainers -- once again appearing to be tone deaf in all its glory, elevating a horse named Violence to the short list of Kentucky Derby contenders at the very moment the broader culture was reeling from the most violent possible domestic trauma.

It did not help that the odd headline writer poured salt in the wound. Wordplay is second nature to desk men and women, but whoever decided last Saturday evening to attach "Violence Reigns in $750,000 CashCall Futurity" to colleague Bill Christine's otherwise fine report on the race for the USA Today internet site should have known it was a good day to park his or her Thesaurus by the side of the road and play it straight.

Predictably, strong reactions leaked into racing conversations as well. Historian, blogger and reality show star Victor Zast, whose instincts I admire, suggested that no one would be the wiser or offended in the least were Violence to be renamed in both the interests of good taste and to prevent inevitable distractions from his possible achievements.  As it turns out, Violence was named in good faith by his owner, Steven Marshall of Rancho Santa Fe, who paid $600,000 for the colt as a yearling and was merely tapping into a pedigree led by his dam, Violent Beauty, a granddaughter of the inimitable Sky Beauty. Violent Beauty, a foal of 2003, raced before the novel of the same name was published but well after the concept of the beauty of violence and the commingling of the terms was considered mainstream in art and the behavorial sciences (see Newton, Helmut and Lagerfeld, Karl). Marshall also told Christine the colt looked like a "badass," so there you go.

As far as pushing the boundaries of good taste where Thoroughbred names are concerned, the emergence of Violence as a raw spot is more a result of awful timing than anything else. Over the past decade or so The Jockey Club has approved the horse names Fear, Pain, Gun Fire, Killer Instinct, Murderous and Shoot, as well as Target Sighted, Target Locked, Target Hit and Target Girl. War was a good horse owned by Tom Gentry. Assault won the Triple Crown. Yes, there was a horse named Hillside Strangler entered at Santa Anita while news of the notorious mid-1970s serial killings in L.A. was still fresh, but racing boss Jimmy Kilroe refused to let him run unless his name was changed. It was, and not because it was politically correct to protest, but because it was humanly decent to insist.

I've got no problem with Violence. In fact, I think Violence could be a good thing if every time he runs -- and I hope it will be often -- his appearance reminds people not only of what happened on Dec. 14 in Newtown, but what has been done or not done since that day to dramatically reduce the chances of it ever happening again.