01/05/2010 1:16PM

A Rose Is a Rose

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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.

blackseabass More than 1 year ago
Jay, tracing Zenyatta's tail female line all the way back about the 20th or 23rd dam had a foal named STING! How is that for coincidence?
blackseabass More than 1 year ago
The jockey club has rules barring corporate ad type names from being used. horses that have peoples names must be approved by the namesake. burt bacharach slipped Heartlight No. 1 through by naming the horse before the song was released and Heartlight did go to No.1! My favorite name was April Marie Elaine a speedy filly that won for me and paid 20 bucks the day before my daughter was born in the 80's. You guessed it my duaghters name became April Marie Elaine possibly the only person on the planet named after a race horse instead of the other way around! A couple years later my sister was at a bay area track and saw the horse run and it wired them and payed 20 bucks! She called me and said "you'll never believe it I had a 20 dollar horse yesterday and it was named April Marie Elaine" I said "I believe it she paid me 20 bucks too the day before April was born." No B.S.
Jay H More than 1 year ago
David -- Don't mind the change of subject at all. I noted in my column that was a race to watch for potential talent. I'll certainly be following Pink Blossom carefully. It's a good name, too.
ejs More than 1 year ago
Reasonably Smart: Neither PETA nor the sportswriters are going to go after Proctor and Gamble when there is a fatality on the NASCAR circuit. They're going to be all over any company they deem responsible for abetting a horse fatality; organizing picket lines, and boycotts, and all that other ungainly, not so eagerly welcomed public relations stuff. Now the argument here is not whether such a reaction would be merited; the point is that is how it would play out in the consequential, hypersensitive world of public relations. Another concern is that using brand names for horses only works as a marketing concept if the horses prove to be winners. Why would any product line want their name associated with a loser? And how could they tell in advance the quality of the representative product they are buying at the track? (Or should product lines only buy established horses then change their names?) But tell me how you, as a public relations operative, would deal with the fallout of your product 'investment' dying on the track? You have to admit it might happen; and you better be prepared to deal with it when it does happen; so share with me your plan for dealing with the negative fallout of an on-track catastrophe. There is no doubt product placement and sponsorships are way underutilized in Racing. Every time I go to the Meadowlands, for instance, and see that every TV is still not a flat HD TV I ask myself, "They couldn't get a product line to become the official HDTV of the Meadowlands?" And I've been asking myself this question at every track I have gone to for the last five years. Seems to me there should be a workable deal there somewhere. But that's a whole different can of endorsements.
ejs More than 1 year ago
Smart Man: Wouldn't Pepsi and Mountain Dew have to be coupled? Actually, the enthusiasm for naming horses for marketing purposes breaks down when one remembers horses break down. There is not a corporation in the world who would want to deal with the potential of that kind of negative PR.
david catalano More than 1 year ago
Completely different topic........somebody tell me what happened in Santa Anita's 1st race today.....is Pink Blossom a freak?? The splits and final time were incredible.....especially if you compare them to the feature for more 3 yr old fillies.
AReasonablySmartMan More than 1 year ago
EJS, no more risk than a race car that crashes with Tide written all over it. Specious argument from my perspective. When you ask the Jockey Club they come up with even more ridiculous reasons. Horse racing represents hundreds of years of tradition unmarred by progress! Jay, can you help?
WALMATT More than 1 year ago
One of my all time favorites (he may have been a trotter or pacer)....HOOF HEARTED.
hialeah More than 1 year ago
A personal favorite was when Top Command and Star Mommy produced 1985 Champion 3 yo Filly Mom's Command. And someone connected with Ogden Phipps showed a sense o humor when Private Account and Pure Profit combined for the top Handicap Mare of 1995 – Inside Information. Still, the call down the lane of Seattle Slew holding off Run Dusty Run (1970 Derby winner Dust Commander and Running Beauty) always did it for me.
Jay H More than 1 year ago
Vince -- The same way Winter Course and Polka Tour got by.