LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Tacitus was a senator and a historian of the Roman Empire who wrote about the reigns of the emperors Tiberius, Claudius and Nero. His name is famous and now adorns a horse who will try to earn racing’s greatest crown Saturday.
Vekoma is also running Saturday, and he’s named after a Dutch roller coaster company. Roller coasters, says his owner, mirror the huge ups and crashing downs of the horse racing industry.
What’s in a name? Quite a lot, if you’re a racehorse heading to the Kentucky Derby. It can be used to signal your hopeful dominance or honor your ancestors. It could be clever or funny.
Naming a racehorse is not easy, say the people who do it. First, you have to meet the stringent rules of The Jockey Club, which registers all Thoroughbred racehorses. Those include a limit of 18 characters, no famous people, nothing vulgar, and nothing already in rotation. There are 450,000 names in the Jockey Club database; owners can plug in their choices and find out if it’s already in use. Once a horse stops racing, the name is put back into circulation.
Lots of people use a horse’s ancestry for inspiration. For example, Improbable’s dam was Rare Event. His owner, WinStar Farm, is a huge operation that conducts a naming contest every year. Julie Ward, was the WinStar controller at the time, and said she was just going through names one night. “They like one-word names, and I was just trying to think about names and that one was available,” she said.
Lots of other horses in this year’s Derby were named with similar inspiration. Spinoff was sired by Hard Spun, Bodexpress is by Bodemeister and Gray Magician is by Graydar. War of Will’s sire is War Front, and Code of Honor is by Noble Mission.
Roadster’s sire is Quality Road, and his dam’s sire was Strawberry Road. Cutting Humor is out of a dam named Pun, whose own dam was Joke.
Another farm that prefers one-word names is Claiborne Farm, which bred Tax. Tax’s dam is Toll, said Claiborne’s Dell Hancock, who actually picked the name. “It seemed to be fitting, and we were able to get it,” Hancock said.
Some names are more subtle. One definition of hat trick is three wins in a major sporting event. Hat Trick sired Win Win Win, the Derby entry of Charlotte Weber’s Live Oak Plantation. “Horse people are eternal optimists, so with the Triple Crown in mind, Win, Win Win,” explained Live Oak manager Bruce Hill.
Then there are the people struck by a bit of inspiration. Chester Thomas names lots of horses, and he hangs out with some former Special Forces soldiers who used a phrase he liked: “By my standards.
“It wasn’t like I had this foresight that By My Standards would be a good horse,” Thomas said. “It’s just a good coincidence. I really hope he lives up to making Derby standards.”
One of Country House’s owners, Maury Shields, always liked being in the country, said her nephew, Guinness McFadden, a co-owner of the horse. “She always liked the thought of a country house, and she liked the name,” he said.
Game Winner and Maximum Security are the kind of cliche terms beloved by racehorse owners. They’d both been used before, but were freed up this time for owners Gary and Mary West.
Omaha Beach, who was scratched from the race Wednesday night, honors a decisive spot in the Allied troop landing on D-Day. Owner Rick Porter chose the name either aptly or luckily, as this year is the 75th anniversary of D-Day.
Master Fencer, the horse from Japan, was named in a contest by employees of owner Katsumi Yoshizawa, who operates a large training facility in Hokkaido, according to his representative, Kate Hunter. Maybe not coincidentally, the dam’s name is Sexy Zamurai.
Bourbon enthusiasts may be putting money on Long Range Toddy, but that’s not it. The horse is actually named for owner Willis Horton’s relative Todd Rayburn, who loves to hunt and is a great long-range shot, said Horton’s racing manager, Case Clay. Not to worry, though, Horton is still a fan of Kentucky’s premium beverage.
Sheikh Hamdan al Maktoum of Shadwell Farm names all his own horses, said Shadwell manager Rick Nichols, and he prefers Arabic names. Haikal, who was scratched Friday, means “frame or boundary” in classic Arabic, as opposed to more modern Arabic, which translates the name to part of a Coptic church per Google.
Plus Que Parfait is owned by several Russians based in Dubai, who like to give their horses French names, according to their bloodstock agent, Conor Foley. Plus que parfait means more than perfect, or the pluperfect tense in English.