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Wednesday, 17 October, 2018

The art, rules and rudeness of naming racehorses

Giving you the lowdown on the sport's unanswered questions

Donald Trump: connections of the equine namesake in South Africa were forced to change its name, picking Fake News . . .
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In the latest instalment of a new fortnightly series, Tom Kerr reveals what's not in a name   

So the dream has finally come true: you've bought a horse. You scouted it at the sales, picked out a bright-eyed yearling with a gleaming coat and an aura of greatness. You've designed your silks, decided who will train it and who you'd like to ride it. There's just one vital step left: naming your racehorse.

For owners this can be one of the most gratifying aspects of owning a racehorse. Silks might carry owners' colours in the most literal sense but naming a racehorse ties it to its owner in a far more meaningful manner, making it at once a champion and a pet.

Every punter who has ever dreamed of roaring home their own horse has given at least passing thought to what they'd call it. Perhaps something personal, perhaps a grand name that prefigures a place in posterity, perhaps just a name with a snappy sound to it.

But there is more than just an art to naming racehorses. Like everything else in racing, the process of naming a horse is governed by an intricate set of rules, with a team of administrators spending every working day sifting through dozens of inspired, questionable and downright vulgar names to decide what is and isn't going to appear on a racecourse.

The rich and famous

If you're planning on naming your racehorse after a real person, you might need to think again.

The racing world recently revelled in the viral tale of a South African owner who named his racehorse President Trump, who had to be gelded after proving "very vocal", "arrogant" and "extremely stubborn".

The South African racing authorities swiftly decided the name was problematic – perhaps because so many were noting the uncanny similarities with the resident of the White House - and demanded the owner change it (they did, opting for Fake News).

Had a British or Irish owner tried to register the same name, however, they'd never have got anywhere – unless Donald J Trump himself had personally given them permission to use the name.

"If they're trying to name a horse after someone who is alive or has been dead for less than 50 years we look to get permission from the person or their family," explains Mike Butts, head of the naming department at Weatherbys, who run the service on behalf of the BHA.

So the next time you see an equine namesake of some celebrity you know that they have given personal permission to be duplicated in equine form. And watch out for equine Clement Attlees and Che Guevaras hitting the track soon – both men died 50 years ago.

Some names are potentially objectionable for more than one reason. Was the person who submitted the name Laura Bush in 2015 really looking to pay tribute to the former first lady of the United States, or did they have something else in mind?

Vulgarity not allowed

Among the genuine names rejected in 2015 are the following efforts: Ben Dover, Biggus Diccus, Penny Tration, Ophelia Balls, Ho Lee Fook, E Rex Sean and Sofa King Fast.

They all breached the rule that says names cannot be "suggestive or [have] a vulgar, obscene or insulting meaning".

For one type of racehorse owner, attempting to sneak Carry On-style names past the checkers has become something of a sport in itself, leading the team at Weatherbys to develop a unique skillset rooted in a schoolkid's knowledge of sexual slang and profanity.

"The internet has been a massive help for us," says Butts. "There's a website called Urban Dictionary that we use. Anything that looks a little unusual we'll look on there, though that can then become a difficult conversation to have with the owner who has applied for it because they may or may not be aware of what the phrase means."

He adds: "Anything that comes in that starts with the name Norfolk is one that immediately pricks at the mind and you think 'hold on a minute'."

No politics at the racing table

Another rule states that names that "may be offensive to religious, political or ethnic groups" are also unacceptable, a policy that got the BHA into hot water when owner Michael Kerr-Dineen attempted to register the name Gay Marriage in 2013.

The name was initially rejected on grounds of "ongoing political sensitivities" but, with gay marriage then on the cusp of being made legal, and with the BHA facing a backlash that threatened to spill beyond the narrow confines of the racing world, the regulator immediately backtracked and allowed the name.

Interviewed at the time, Kerr-Dineen said: "I've tried chancy names before and received letters back claiming I'm bringing racing into disrepute, but everybody in racing tries it – it's no fun otherwise.

"I've got a few through – the best being a Royal Applause filly out of a mare called Devastated whom we called Clap – but we weren't trying to be risque here."

Naming a horse after another horse

More prosaically, your options are limited because at any given time around 250,000 names are in current or recent use or on a list of protected names (so, for example, forget about naming a horse Secretariat or Dancing Brave).

You're also limited to a total of 18 characters including spaces, cannot use punctuation marks other than apostrophes or have a name with more than seven syllables – these rules presumably there, at least in part, to avoid giving commentators sleepless nights.

The ones that get through

Even with Urban Dictionary to hand and a well-honed instinct for spotting when someone is trying to circumvent the rules, the team at Weatherbys are not infallible and a few names slip through their net – no wonder when 12,000 to 13,000 names are registered every year.

Among the ones to make it through are Two In The Pink (don't even think about googling it), Wear The Fox Hat (try an Irish accent) and, admittedly this one in South Africa, Hoof Hearted (say it at commentator speed). 

But let's be honest, it would be a far less colourful sport if a few names didn't slip through the net.

The team at Weatherbys develop a unique skillset rooted in a schoolkid's knowledge of sexual slang and profanity
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