What's in a Name? For Kentucky Derby Race Horses, Plenty of References, Rules and Lineage

This story was originally published in 2015.

Thoroughbred owner Mike Piazza has developed a few rules for naming his horses before they hit the race tracks.

The Zilla Racing Stables founder prefers to keep his choices short and tries to think beyond the common practice of naming a horse after its parents. He says he's inspired by war, fire and "anything that represents strength."

But after buying a new 1-year-old colt recently, the New York stable owner took some time to mull his options.

“I don’t rush it, because I want a good name,” he said.

Much like naming a firstborn child or a family pet, picking a moniker for a racehorse is a decision that isn’t taken lightly.

In addition to personal preferences, owners must navigate the governing body's rules on everything from name length to decorum. And should the horse make it into one of the 20 starting gates at the Kentucky Derby — or, better yet, claim the elusive Triple Crown — its name could become the stuff of legend.

"Secretariat sounds great, but that’s because it’s Secretariat," said Alan Carter, a historian with the National Museum of Racing Hall of Fame. “Would a terrible horse being called Secretariat be considered a good name?" 

Naming a Derby Contender
The horses slated for competition in this year’s derby Saturday feature names that range from aspirational — like International Star — to practical. Ocho Ocho Ocho, for example, was reportedly named after the “888” number he wore at a 2014 breeders’ sale. Some, like Danzig Moon, rely on the traditional pedigree formula of drawing from the sire or dame.

And one frontrunner for the Garland of Roses owes his unique epithet to a spellcheck lapse. The transposed letters in American Pharoah (yes, "Pharoah," not "Pharaoh") resulted from how the name, chosen from fans' submissions online, was submitted to the Jockey Club for its official registration, according to the Louisville Courier-Journal.

Dortmund, also a leading Derby contender, was named after one of its owner’s other passions. Kaleem Shah, a self-professed “avid European soccer fan,” had already named one horse after his favorite team, Germany's FC Bayern Munich. That horse, which won the Grade I Breeders’ Cup Classic in 2014, inspired Shah to continue the theme. 

“I was looking for an archrival from a historical perspective, and it was Dortmund, just like the Celtics-Lakers rivalry in basketball,” he told NBC.

Shah, who has owned hundreds of horses over the years, said he often looks to his and his family's interests for naming inspiration. The name Declassify, for example, is a reference to his own telecom and intelligence analysis company. Other horses have been named after stars from his son’s favorite sport, professional basketball.

“Whenever I come across a good name, I write it down for the future,” he said.

Reviewing the Rules
Regardless of how good its name is, every horse's name is subject to scrutiny before it can hit the track.

Registrars with the American Stud Book, a publication The Jockey Club has maintained since 1896, put submissions through several layers of checks to make sure names meet all existing rules and standards.

Many of the rules, like the 18-character limit and the prohibition on names made up entirely of initials or numbers, seek to maintain clarity for announcers and racing fans alike, according to Andrew Chesser, manager of registration services for The Jockey Club. A key requirement that no two currently registered horses carry the same name extends beyond spelling; the registrar uses proprietary software to flag submitted names whose pronunciations could be similar to names already in the book, Chesser said. 

“Two names that are too similar in prounciation could be confusing if those horses were to show up not just in the same race but in the same time period," he said. 

Other rules, including a ban on any name considered profane or offensive, are intended to protect the integrity of the sport. Naming a horse after a living person is only allowed with written permission — a rule that once prompted a letter from then-first lady Barbara Bush on official White House letterhead, giving her OK. As with sports jerseys, names of great race horses are retired for life.

Chesser and his colleagues use Google, the dictionary and even internet slang library UrbanDictionary.com to help with quality control checks. But even with those safeguards, naughty names, such as Bodacious Tatas, can slip through.

“It’s a lot more risqué now than it used to be," said Carter. “There are a couple out there I don’t even want to tell you, because they’re obviously so bad." 

Nodding to Pop Culture, Bucking Tradition
Chesser, who has worked with the Jockey Club for 10 years, said the changing lexicon can create challenges for catching double entendres or inappropriate references, especially given the influence pop culture has on horse naming. In the mid-90s, the hit show "Seinfeld" inspired names like "Man Hands," he said. More recently, "The Hunger Games," "Game of Thrones" and even singer Katy Perry's backup-dancer-gone-viral have popped up on his radar. 

"Right after the Super Bowl, I think there were some names submitted about the Left Shark," he said. 

A horse's successful streak can also inspire copycats. Chesser said names that included the word Chrome were "coming about left, right and center" after California Chrome contended for the Triple Crown in 2014.

And while naming a horse after the sire and dame continues to be a popular practice, one that can bring instant prestige or recognition once a horse starts to race, some owners avoid that practice to protect horses — and their owners — from living in their parents' shadow.

One of Piazza's most successful horses came to him as Don Juan Kitten, after famed father Kitten's Joy, before he renamed it Zandar.

“If Zandar ever becomes a superstar, he’ll be known as Zandar, but had we not changed his name, he would have just been another Kitten’s Joy," he said. "By changing that name, it gave him his chance to develop his own identity." 

As for the new colt, Piazza decided to go with Celtic Chaos, a nod to the colt's father, Dublin, and to some erratic behavior that resulted in a "a gash on his nose." 

“It sounds a little wild and fun," he said.  

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