07/11/2010 11:00PM

Playing the name game

Barbara D. Livingston
Marylou Whitney and her husband, John Hendrickson, renamed one of their 2-year-olds Luv Gov after Eliot Spitzer was forced to resign.

One way or another, the names of three Triple Crown champions might have been Deo Volente, Big John Taylor, and Kansas City instead of Secretariat, Seattle Slew, and Omaha. The Bard of Avon got it right about a rose by any name smelling just as sweet. Those horses could have been called Larry, Curly, and Moe, and the cheers from their fans would have rocked the decibel meter just the same.

But it's icing on the cake to have a good horse who also has a good name, although good names, for horses or people, are usually in the ears of the beholder. Take Engelbert Humperdinck, the pop singer who borrowed his name from a famous German composer. He was originally Arnold Dorsey, so the change to Humperdinck, while not a phonetic home run, nevertheless moved him up in class. What did John Nerud, the Hall of Fame trainer, once say? "If you have a young horse that you think is going to be a good one, you don't name him Alfredo." It was Nerud, almost killed in a fall from his stable pony in 1965, who named the inimitable Dr. Fager after Charles Fager, the Boston neurosurgeon credited with saving Nerud's life. When Nerud came out of the second surgery and appeared to have recovered, he said: "Doc, one of these days I'm gonna name a horse after you. And you don't have to worry, it'll be a good one."

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Nerud liked to name horses after people. Fappiano, the prepotent sire whose get included Kentucky Derby winner Unbridled, was his paean to the late Giuseppe Fappiano, known to readers of The New York Times racing coverage as Joe Nichols. The danger, of course, in naming someone after a good friend or a famous person is when the horse becomes a stiff once he reaches the track. Wes Gaffer, a turf writer for the New York Daily News years ago, watched his namesake turn into a habitual maiden, his $2 win bets caught in the wind with every race. Finally, out of desperation, the owners of Wes Gaffer gelded him. He won soon after that, paying a decent price, but by this time a discouraged Gaffer was betting only $1 on his nose. "What happened to Wes Gaffer the horse was the unkindest cut," Gaffer wrote in the News.

Dogwood Stable, which syndicates horses to race, has a long history of naming horses after friends and the famous, naturally with mixed results. Proctor, named after one of Dogwood's veterinarians, D.L. Proctor, was a successful grass horse. Dogwood would have named a horse after another of its vets, Bob Copelan, except Fred Hooper moved first, and the Hooper-owned Copelan became a multiple stakes winner. Hoop Jr., the first horse Hooper ever owned and winner of the 1945 Kentucky Derby, was named after Fred Hooper's young son.

"It is a tricky compliment to name one of your horses after a person," said Cot Campbell, president of Dogwood. "I once named a horse Jack Burton after my business partner. The horse turned out to be worth less than two dead flies. Jack himself, as smart as he was, actually felt I had selected a sorry specimen to carry his name."

The Jockey Club is the breed registry for North American Thoroughbreds and must approve proposed names before horses are allowed to race. The Jockey Club, which receives more than 60,000 name requests a year, has 15 rules that limit the names it will approve. One of the rules says, "Names of living persons [are not eligible] unless written permission to use their name is on file." Rick Bailey, registrar for The Jockey Club, who is based in Lexington, Ky., said his office once received a letter from Barbara Bush, when she was the First Lady in the White House, approving the use of her name.

There are ways, however, of citing someone in the news without naming names. When Eliot Spitzer, the governor of New York, was forced to resign because of his connection to a high-priced call-girl operation, Marylou Whitney and her husband, John Hendrickson, applied to change the name, for a $100 fee, of one of their 2-year-olds, Town Prowler. The original name seemed to be just right for Spitzer, but Whitney and Hendrickson, apparently wanting to be more incisive, chose Luv Gov. They did a tap dance later by saying that the name might apply to other governors as well. Luv Gov finished fifth in last year's Belmont Stakes, but had he won, that might have made for an interesting tableau in the winner's circle: the owners of the colt receiving a trophy from David A. Paterson, who became governor after the disgraced Spitzer resigned and who himself admitted to an extramarital affair shortly after he took office. Whitney and Hendrickson named another of their horses Ninth Client, also inspired by the Spitzer affair. They wanted to name the horse Client Number Nine, which was Spitzer's code name in one of the case's early affidavits, but that name had been reserved by the owner of another horse, so they settled for Ninth Client.

Some owners are outright diabolical in naming their horses. Jerry Jamgotchian, a gadfly who has been at odds with the California Horse Racing Board for years and has occasionally taken them to court, has named several horses after board members in unflattering ways. While the namesakes of these horses are obvious to many in the game, Jamgotchian doesn't use full names, which enables him to skirt Jockey Club rules. He named one horse Ingrid the Gambler, after Ingrid Fermin, former executive director of the CHRB. Another horse was named Shut Up Shapiro, after Richard Shapiro, the former CHRB chairman.

The famous owner-trainer team of Isidore Bieber and Hirsch Jacobs was known for naming horses after their political beliefs. They opposed President Franklin D. Roosevelt's third term in office and named a horse Nothirdchance. When a constitutional amendment that limited presidents to two terms was ratified, Bieber and Jacobs named a colt Hail to Reason, who sired a Kentucky Derby winner in Proud Clarion and an Epsom Derby winner in Roberto.

In 2005, The Jockey Club refused to approve the name Sally Hemings for a horse, which resulted in a lawsuit in federal court. Hemings was a slave who was said to have been the mistress of President Thomas Jefferson. The owner of the horse, Garrett Redmond, said Sally Hemings was a natural name, in that the horse's dam was called Jefferson's Secret, a daughter of Colonial Affair. Redmond's suit was twice dismissed by federal judges, but there were those who thought The Jockey Club had overstepped its bounds. "If The Jockey Club chooses to be so fastidious about proper names for horses," said a letter writer to Daily Racing Form, "I'd like to know how it allowed Thoroughbreds to be named Slambamthankyaman, Isitingood, Drop Your Drawers, or any one of numerous other names." While his case meandered through the courts, Redmond campaigned his horse as Awaiting Justice.

Another of The Jockey Club's rules is that names that are "suggestive or have a vulgar or obscene meaning" may not be used, and Rick Bailey said his staff even does phonetic checks to protect against off-color names and names that might sound like the names of prominent horses. But yesterday's off-color slang can sometimes be today's vogue, and at The Jockey Club, name clearance is an all-day job. I remember Drop Your Drawers − the owner, George Pappas, said with a straight face that the name occurred to him one day when his secretary, rooting through her desk for their list of tentative names, dropped the drawer to the floor. I didn't buy any land in the Everglades from Pappas, either.

Drop Your Drawers was just below The Jockey Club's 18-character maximum, and when a favorite name approaches that limit, owners have been known to jam the words together. Hence, David Lanzman's Dontsellmetofelons, which may or may not be a comment on his unhappy partnership with International Equine Acquisitions Holdings involving I Want Revenge, the Kentucky Derby favorite in 2009 before he was scratched the morning of the race. None of the IEAH principals is a felon, and Michael Iavarone, in an interview with The New York Times earlier this year, declined to comment about Dontsellmetofelons, who is a half-brother to I Want Revenge.

Late last year, The Jockey Club opened 40,000 names of undistinguished horses who are 11-year-olds or older and have not raced or been bred the five previous years. Still, more than 445,000 names are on the unavailable list. In the days before the Internet, horse-naming was a laborious process. Now the mechanics are much easier, and owners can click on to the registry and immediately find out if their name choice hasn't been taken.

According to Bill Nack's book on Secretariat, five names were turned down when the naming process began: Scepter, Penny Chenery Tweedy's favorite; Royal Line; Something Special; Games of Chance; and Deo Volente, which means "God willing" in Latin. The name of Secretariat then came from Elizabeth Ham, who before joining Meadow Stud as a secretary had worked for Norman Hezekiah Davis, whose many political posts included a U.S. role at a World War II disarmament conference in Geneva, Switzerland, where the secretariat of the League of Nations was based. "Miss Ham thought that the name Secretariat had a nice ring to it," Tweedy said. "It was submitted as the third name on the second list."

Karen and Mickey Taylor had two promising young horses in 1974. They submitted the names Seattle Slew and Big John Taylor for one of the colts, and The Jockey Club approved Seattle Slew right away. The other horse, who also became a stakes winner, took the name of Big John Taylor. The Seattle part came from the state of Washington, where the Taylors lived. Their partners, Jim and Nancy Hill, lived in south Florida, where marshy sloughs, or slews, are not uncommon.

When William Woodward Sr. of Belair Stud showed a few friends one of his new yearlings, one of them said, "He's a beefy horse." That gave Woodward the idea to name the colt after a beef-packing center. The name Chicago was already taken. Kansas City? Not as bad as Alfredo, but close. So Woodward settled on Omaha.

Years later, Barney Nagler, the Daily Racing Form columnist, ran into someone who bred his mare to Omaha and called the foal South Dakota.

"Why South Dakota?" the man was asked.

"Because of Omaha," he said.

"Because of Omaha?"

"Yes, isn't Omaha in South Dakota?"

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