The Kentucky Derby Horse Names Are That Bizarre For A Good Reason

LOUISVILLE, KY - MAY 02: Jockey Victor Espinoza guides American Pharoah #18 on track prior to the start of the 141st running of the Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs on May 2, 2015 in Louisville, Kentucky. (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)
Source: Chris Graythen/Getty Images Sport/Getty Images

Whatever your political beliefs may be concerning the Kentucky Derby and its treatment of thoroughbred horses, there remains a definite odd curiosity towards the abundance of weird and wonderful names given to the competing horses each year. Ranging from the wildly original to the bizarrely baffling, it's understandable that so many people are left wondering how the Kentucky Derby horses get their names. While you might expect it to come down to a quirk or an eccentric tradition, there's actually a more specific reason why Kentucky Derby horses have weird names, and a lot of it has to do with the history of the race and the way in which their rules are maintained. 

The biggest influence on the naming of Kentucky Derby horses comes down to the extremely strict rules of The Jockey Club, who are the regulatory organization of horse racing competitions and who all competing horses need to be registered with. The Jockey Club rules for horse names are also far greater than you might expect and contain 17 main clauses which make a name ineligible for use. 

While many of these rules make sense (for instance, names distinguished by vulgarity or poor taste are excluded from use, as are any names which are offensive, or even humiliating, to a person or groups of people), there are many which make the whole process super complicated. 

For starters, let's just take a look at a handful of some of the ways listed by The Jockey Club which makes a name ineligible for registration:

Names consisting of more than 18 letters (spaces and punctuation marks count as letters);
Names consisting entirely of initials such as C.O.D., F.O.B., etc.;
Names ending in "filly," "colt," "stud," "mare," "stallion," or any similar horse-related term;
Names consisting entirely of numbers. Numbers above thirty may be used if they are spelled out;
Names ending with a numerical designation such as "2nd" or "3rd," whether or not such a designation is spelled out;
Names of living persons unless written permission to use their name is on file with The Jockey Club;
Names of persons no longer living unless approval is granted by The Jockey Club based upon a satisfactory written explanation submitted to the Registrar;
Names of racetracks or graded stakes races;

Makes sense so far, right? Pretty straightforward. But then we get to the next set of rules, and you can start to see why horse owners might have to opt for the strange and out there names that they often do:

Names clearly having commercial, artistic or creative significance;
Names that are currently active either in racing or breeding;
Names of winners in the past 25 years of grade one stakes races;
Permanent names. The list of criteria to establish a permanent name is as follows:

  • a. Horses in racing's Hall of Fame;
  • b. Horses that have been voted Horse of the Year;
  • c. Horses that have won an Eclipse Award;
  • d. Horses that have won a Sovereign Award (Canadian Champions);
  • e. Annual leading sire and broodmare sire by progeny earnings;
  • f. Cumulative money winners of $2 million or more;
  • g. Horses that have won the Kentucky Derby, Preakness, Belmont Stakes, The Jockey Club Gold Cup, the Breeders' Cup Classic or the Breeders' Cup Turf; and
  • h. Horses included in the International List of Protected Names.

Like I said, it gets pretty complicated. In fact, these are only a small selection of the rules which go way more in depth in outlining what is basically an official structure for originality, and horse owners wanting to test out whether their name has been taken yet or not can easily run their idea through the online Names Book of The Jockey ClubBut why waste time on a standard name which could have already been used or be in use, when you could just try and pull the most authentic, bizarre, and unique name possible out of your mind instead?

While these rules go a fair distance in explaining why there is such an overall standard for such unique and unusual names in the Kentucky Derby, it still fails to acknowledge that there's a certain amount of proud flair to be found in the naming of horses too.  

It's clear when looking at this year's Kentucky Derby contender list, for example, that there's also a great deal of individual personality being imbued into the creative naming decisions with names like Danzing Candy, Brody's Cause, Swagger Jagger, and Manhattan Dan appearing, which all glimmer with the mysterious spark of a name inspired by personal anecdotes, heritage, or even tastes. 

The 2012 Kentucky Derby winner, for example, allegedly had an extremely personal (and adorable) origin story behind its name of I'll Have Another. Though everyone appeared to originally assume that the name was inspired by everyone's favurite slurred phrase at the bar on a Friday night, the truth was that the horse was actually named in tribute to the amazing cookies made by the wife of the owner, which would solicit said response from him (beyond cute). 

I don't know about you, but the majority of people I've ever known to bet on horse racing have always placed bets on the horses with the most appealing names (apparently, this is also not the best method for placing winning bets, but, whatever, it's probably the most fun). So, while the strict legacy of horse racing and of the Kentucky Derby may help to create an environment for bold creativity when it comes to names, it's clear that there's another factor at work here: owners want to give their horses the title of a champion, and that's a name which can only come from the heart. 

Must Reads