07/12/2010 12:00AM

Kentucky Derby winners: Best and worst names

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BEST

1. Black Gold, 1924

Named by Rosa M. Hoots, his owner. Black Gold was coal black and a son of Black Toney, but Hoots had another reason. "I named him after the oil out in [Oklahoma]," she said. "You know, the black-gold oil in Oklahoma. That's what they call it."

2. Needles, 1956

Several years ago, I was in Needles, Calif., a week or so before the Derby. I went up and down Main Street, asking people if they remembered the Derby winner. None did, but how could you blame them? Needles' name had nothing to do with the desert town. Elaine Roberts, the wife of the man who broke the colt, said Needles was a sickly foal and received dozens of injections. So Needles was named after hypodermics. Should he be on the worst list, too?

3. Spectacular Bid, 1979

The sire was Bold Bidder, the dam was Spectacular, and a co-owner, Harry Meyerhoff, was an avid bridge player. Seven No Trump was his first submission, rejected by The Jockey Club because it had been taken. "Seven no trump would have been a bid that a bold bidder would make," Meyerhoff said. This was one time when the second choice was better than the first.

4. Swale, 1984

As an old headline writer, I'm partial to short names that fit easily into any size headline. Swale, according to a book of names by J.B. Faulconer and Jim and Suzanne Bolus, was named by Waddell Hancock, whose Claiborne Farm partly owned the colt. When Swale was a yearling, he went missing at the farm. The search party was compromised by a heavy, low-hanging mist, but he was finally found, sleeping and snoring loudly, in a low area of a distant field. A swale is "a low place in a tract of land, usually more moist than the higher, adjacent land."

5. Swaps, 1955

After four names failed to be approved, the trainer Mesh Tenney said: "We've been swapping names back and forth. Call him Swaps." From 1936 through this year, Swaps and Swale are the shortest-named winners. During that period, no other horse with five letters or fewer has won. Bet accordingly.

WORST

1. Lil E. Tee, 1992

With the margin of error 100 percent, a survey turned up the name of this Pennsylvania-bred. Partly named for the title character from a great movie ("E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial"), the altered transition to racing didn't work, especially when it was combined with the first part (which stood for the initials of the breeder, Larry I. Littman, who sold the colt for $2,000). Littman, by the way, went fishing the day of the Derby.

2. Kauai King, 1966

This horse makes the list more for pronunciation confusion than anything else. A rule of thumb with Derby names is that any name that's mispronounced by every other person deserves to make the "worst" list. Some said that the horse's first name rhymed with Hawaii, but hardly anyone pronounced it that way. Another suggested pronunciation was "COW-wee." Still another, "COW-eye." A pamphlet about the horse said his name should be pronounced "cow-AH-he." For the last word, Jim Bolus contacted a professor at the University of Kentucky. In effect, he said there was no correct pronunciation. Around the barn, the horse was called "King." And I have to throw this in: Kauai King also won the Preakness, and the names for Nos. 3 through 7 in that race were:

Kauai King

Advocator

Understanding

Amberoid

Indulto

3. Pensive, 1944

The name Pensive had been used before, for a foal of 1920. But the first Pensive was a nobody, and when The Jockey Club made the name available again, Calumet Farm took it. There's nothing in the second Pensive's bloodlines to indicate how he got his name.

4. Ponder, 1949

Not exactly an energy-driven name. Had the horse known, he would have stopped at the quarter pole to check the lay of the land. He was a son of Pensive, and afterward Arthur Daley wrote in The New York Times: "Advice is hereby given to mortgage the old family homestead some five years or so from now and bet the wad on Ponder's son. He will be a longshot without a chance of winning just as his pappy and grandpappy were." Daley had no idea how right those words would turn out. It wasn't exactly five years, but in 1956 Needles, a son of Ponder, won the Derby. But you can't fool all the bettors all the time. Needles paid only $5.20.

5. Lawrin, 1938

I came close to dropping Mine That Bird into this spot, because the first word of his name looks like it's misspelled, but since the sire was Mining My Own, the word makes sense, in a slightly disorienting way. So instead the honors go to Lawrin. Loved the horse (used him in all my exotics), hate the name. Lawrin's name represents unimaginative use of the breeding, Insco out of Margaret Lawrence. Was Inlaw taken?