03/30/2017 12:26PM

Hovdey: Putting a nickname on greatness

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Neville Hopwood/Dubai Racing Club
Dubai World Cup winner Arrogate, aka The Blue Locomotive.

In a throwback to old-timey newspaper days, or high school – hard to tell the difference – Bob Baffert has tagged Arrogate with his very own nickname. He calls him “The Blue Locomotive.”

Hearing this, parents with children of a certain age might wonder why a Thoroughbred of such fearsome ability deserves a sobriquet summoning the image of a character from a children’s book. Then again, Thomas the Tank Engine, who is painted a vibrant blue, also has the number “1” painted on his side.

Arrogate’s “blue” is derived from the play of certain light on his gun-metal-gray coat. The locomotive part is self-explanatory. “Blue Steel” would have been a great nickname for Arrogate had it not been for the movie “Zoolander,” which reduced the term to the cross-eyed pout of a loopy male model. So, The Blue Locomotive it is.

The Baffert gang can be a mischievous bunch, and Arrogate is not the first of its stars to be rebranded. Real Quiet, Baffert’s 1998 Kentucky Derby winner and champion 3-year-old male, was called “The Fish” because when he turned to face you, he appeared as narrow as something gazing from a tropical tank.

The game needs more catchy nicknames. After watching her win 10 or so races without losing, Zenyatta’s fans began calling her “The Queen” without fear of contradiction. Later on, someone came up with “Queen B” for Beholder, and it stuck. The “California” was dropped more often than not when referring to the horse known as “Chrome,” while American Pharoah was mercifully shortened to “Pharoah,” or just plain “AP.”

Nicknames can be memorably creative or just a lazy way around extra keystrokes. It takes no particular insight to figure out that “Kelly” was five-time Horse of the Year Kelso, or that “Big Cy” was Citation, the winner of the 1948 Triple Crown. Headline writers had fun with “The Doctor” whenever Dr. Fager strutted his considerable stuff on the way to four championship titles in 1968. And “Slew” could only be referring to Seattle Slew, the winner of the 1977 Triple Crown and the sire of amazing sires.

Writers like Damon Runyon, John Hervey, Joe Palmer, and Red Smith all contributed to the colorful pile of nicknames heaped upon famous horses of eras past. There was “The Gray Ghost,” “The Chocolate Soldier,” “Old Bones,” and “Mr. Longtail,” better known to The Jockey Club as Native Dancer, Equipoise, Exterminator, and Whirlaway.

“The ‘Biscuit was moving along as smoothly as a southern breeze,” wrote Grantland Rice in his reporting of a certain 1938 match race at Pimlico. “And then the first roar of the big crowd swept over Maryland. The Admiral was moving up.”

In a more formal time, a nickname could be as arch as “The Fox of Bel Air,” which came to be the proper form of address when discussing the 1930 Triple Crown winner, Gallant Fox. Assault, however, was never afforded such respect. While winning the 1946 Triple Crown on a hoof misshapen from a bygone pasture accident, he was dubbed by writers “The Club-Footed Comet” and, without apology, “The Magnificent Cripple.”

It should be no surprise that the legendary Phar Lap was christened “The Wonder Horse” both in his adopted Australia as well as in North America, where he made one memorable start at Agua Caliente before his mysterious death in Northern California. His close friends called him “Bobby.”

That other locomotive barrelling through the game long before Arrogate hit the scene was Roseben, a foal of 1901 who was known as “The Big Train” for good reason. He stood a shade under 18 hands, and he truly hauled the freight through 52 wins in 111 starts, along with a world record for seven furlongs that stood for 30 years. At one time or another, Roseben won races carrying 140, 142, 144, 146, and 147 pounds. His owner, Dave Johnson, once was asked how much he usually bet on his big horse. His answer: “Whatever I’ve got.”

The Blue Locomotive eventually will turn gray. But “Big Red” was always “Big Red,” whether the nickname was attached to Man o’ War or Secretariat, widely considered the two best American racehorses of the past 100 years.

Man o’ War’s 100th birthday was celebrated Wednesday at the Kentucky Horse Park, where his remains are buried and his statue near the park’s entrance has been recently refurbished. Michael Blowen, president and founder of nearby Old Friends Equine, was among those in attendance.

“It was a very nice event, full of wonderful tributes and memories,” Blowen said back at Old Friends. “I did not know that his groom, Will Harbut, called Man o’ War simply ‘The Boss.’ ”

Blowen, a former journalist, lords over a colorful herd of modern racing heroes at Old Friends – including Silver Charm, Game On Dude, Touch Gold, War Emblem, and Sarava – but he resists the temptation to give them nicknames. He says it is important for the public to remember them as they were known in battle.

“When it came to Alphabet Soup, though, I couldn’t help it,” Blowen said, referring to the winner of the 1996 Breeders’ Cup Classic, who took up residence at Old Friends in 2015.

“I call him ‘Alfie,’ and it really fits,” Blowen said. “Every morning when he gets breakfast, I ask him, ‘So, what’s it all about?’ and he gives me the same answer every time – ‘I don’t have a clue.’ ”