Triple Crown

How Does a Racehorse Get Its Name?

The Jockey Club, the horse racing industry's main governing organization, has the ultimate power of horse name approval

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Angel of Empire. Confidence Game. Hit Show.

These don't sound like names you would choose for a pet — imagine having to yell "Hit Show" at the dog park.

They are, however, perfectly appropriate names for racehorses. All three will run Saturday at the 149th Kentucky Derby.

Some racehorse names seem whimsical, or even random. But the process is often one of personal reflection, thoughtful decision-making — and strict adherence to the Jockey Club rulebook.

The Jockey Club, the horse racing industry's main governing organization, has the ultimate power of horse name approval.  

Jockey Club registrar Rick Bailey said the club rejects about 30% of submissions. 

"The most common reason for a name to be rejected is that it is a direct match to an active name or is too similar in spelling or pronunciation to an active name," he said.

There's also an 18-character limit, including spaces and punctuation.

Since no horses can share a name, owners have to get creative to come up with something unique. Bailey said for many owners, the first step is to look to the horse's parents.

"There are myriad ways that a name is chosen for a horse, but one of the most common is to name a horse after its pedigree," Bailey said.

Some racehorses get their names from one side of their lineage or the other, while some owners will find a clever way to use both the mother, or "dam," and the father, or "sire."

For example, former Kentucky Derby contender Pioneer of Medina's parents are Triple Crown winner American Pharoah’s sire Pioneer of the Nile and Lights of Medina.

Owners don't have to incorporate a horse's pedigree, however, and can name a horse after a favorite location, pastime, nickname, word, phrase — or almost anything else. Some names may come from pop culture and current events, though owners don't have carte blanche to name a horse after a real person.

"One of the naming rules is that written permission is needed to name a Thoroughbred after a living person," Bailey explained. "In the early 1990s we received permission to use the name Barbara Bush, and she sent her approval on stationery from the Office of the First Lady."

Everything you need to know about the 149th iteration of the Kentucky Derby.

Once an owner submits a name, the Club begins its approval process. The name will be entered into a computer system and run through a check of phonetics to make sure no other horse has been registered with the same, or a similar, name. Besides being unique, there's a slate of other requirements a name has to meet, according to the rulebook. 

Names cannot:

  • consist entirely of initials such as C.O.D., F.O.B., etc.;
  • contain more than 18 characters, including spaces;
  • consist entirely of numbers. Numbers above 30 may be used if they are spelled out;
  • end in "filly," "colt," "stud," "mare," "stallion," or any similar horse-related term;
  • end with a numerical designation such as "2nd" or "3rd," whether or not such a designation is spelled out;
  • use the name of living persons, unless written permission to use their name is on file with The Jockey Club;
  • use the names of persons no longer living unless approval is granted by The Jockey Club based upon a satisfactory written explanation submitted to the Registrar;
  • appear to be designed to harass, humiliate, or disparage a specific individual, group of individuals, or entity;
  • use names of racetracks or graded stakes races;
  • be suggestive, offensive, designed to harass or have a vulgar or obscene meaning; names considered in poor taste;
  • be the name of another horse currently active either in racing or breeding;
  • be the name of any winning horses in the past 25 years of grade one stakes races;
  • be similar in spelling or pronunciation to another registered name.

The Club gives some names "permanent" status, meaning they can never be registered for any other horses. This status is given to names of the most famous and winningest racehorses like California Chrome and Man o' War.

"If the name has been released and is not a permanent name, it can be reused," Bailey said.

With so many rules and caveats, it may be hard to come up a name. But fear not, we've got you covered. Click here to try our Horse Name Generator quiz to help you create a unique name for your Thoroughbred.

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