01/05/2010 2:16PM

A Rose Is a Rose


The deadline for submitting the name of a 2-year-old racehorse to The Jockey Club is Feb. 1. After that, it costs an extra $75. This is not exactly a deterrent, especially if an extra week or so of mulling possibilities comes up with the modern version of "Citation" or "Man o' War." But then, a name is only as good as the four legs and heart that carry it forth into battle, or something like that.

We can say the name of a horse makes no difference in how he or she performs, and that would be correct. Was there ever a sillier handle than Seattle Slew, or one more pedestrian than John Henry, or more obscure than Kelso, or a more obvious confluence of sire and dam than the name imposed upon the son of Forli and Lady Golconda?

But then Forego carried a lot more weight than just his unspectacular name, and after awhile he became defined on his own terms, of durability, consistency, and courage in the face of chronic unsoundness, just as Seattle Slew, when said aloud, summons to this day an image of raw speed and fearless abandon.

If names didn't count for something, we'd all be wearing bar codes. And, like any writer, I've always fancied myself more qualified to name horses than the people who breed, foal, race and pay the vet bills. For instance, I have never understood the claustrophobic tradition of imposing some combination of the names of the sire and dam onto the offspring. Were this carried into common practice on a wider scale, my byline would include a mishmash of Orvil and Elsie. Thankfully, my sainted parents chose not to perpetuate names that have since disappeared from the modern menu. As for horses, it sometimes works and the combo clicks (Foolish Pleasure, What a Summer, Roman Brother). But just as often the effect falls flat (Pleasant Stage, Royal Native, Gun Bow) leaving it up to the horse to make something out of a blank page.

There are, thank goodness, creative souls who feel an obligation to make the names, designed to be proclaimed loud and clear by Denman and Durkin, at least sound interesting. The late W.T. Young cracked open an atlas and was working his way through the continental United States (Cheyenne City, Salt Lake, Boston Harbor). Ann and Jerry Moss of Zenyatta fame tap their rich experiences and exotic friends (Sardula, Giacomo, Tarlow, Neko Bay). The Irish of Coolmore turn often to history and literature (George Washington, Galileo, Yeats, Dylan Thomas), while the Maktoums have the advantage of an entire Arabic vocabulary from which to entertain.

I keep a list of lines and titles from the John Stewart songbook that would sound rockin' good attached to any racehorse worth his halter nameplate (there is precedent--the works of Jim Morrison, Bruce Springsteen and Hoagy Carmichael, among others, have been mined for horse names). Momentary Madness, Runaway Train, All Time Woman, Grace of Rain, Irresistible Target, Moonlight's Alright, Slow Blue Tango--tell me any of those wouldn't jump off a Kentucky Derby program page. 

The first of February is also the publication date of an unassuming little book with a awkward, mouthful of a title and a premise that sounds like an eighth-grade writing assignment. Given a chance, though, "Horsenameographies" proves to be an accrued pleasure, building its own, steady case as an opportunity for people to define themselves in terms other horse lovers would readily understand. The publishers of the book at Caballo Press in Michigan (they did the Joe Hernandez biography, "The Voice of Santa Anita") cast an e-net far and wide to collect material. Respondents were asked to invent the name of a racehorse that told their personal story, or at least the part of their story they chose to reveal. You would be surprised what people are willing to reveal these days. Or maybe you wouldn't.

Some of the names are accompanied by a few lines of explanation, or an autobiographical vignette, or even a photograph. Some stand alone, daring--or defying--interpretation: Likely Story, Just Add Milk, Question Everything, Good Girl Gone Bad. There are stories both funny and poignant, bearing horse names that any suspense novelist could love: Dead Reckoning, Electric Dice, Bad Axle, Moondog. There are those straightforward types who sum themselves up in a name of one word: Nerve, Dodger, Imagination, Grateful. Others tiptoe along the edge, guaranteed to give The Jockey Club fits, among them Hot Flash, Circumsized, PMS and a Handgun. The things people will reveal.

There are more than 445,000 Thoroughbred names in active use, so it's little wonder that the personal collection includes names already made noteworthy on the track, including Unbridled, Fly So Free, Winter Solstice, Kentuckian and Never Say Die. There was also the delightful realization that I knew a few of the people who submitted names, among them my Racing Form colleague, Jay Privman, Thoroughbred of California managing editor Rudy Groothedde, the popular bloggers Marion Altieri and Vic Zast, and Cathy Montgomery-Sheppard, the wife of Hall of Fame trainer Jonathan Sheppard.

Anyway, "Horsenameographies" looks like a fun, quick read and a possible spark for both thought and conversation, never a bad thing. And if a racehorse owner picks it up and gets an idea for a good name, so much the better. Given the topic, though, I just wish the book had a better name.