Amid the Kentucky bluegrass splendor of Claiborne Farm, Mrs. A.B. Hancock Jr. sits with pad and pen and waits for inspiration. She has a hunch that one of this year's colts is destined for glory, and so he should have a suitable name. The colt's daddy is Seattle Slew, and Mrs. Hancock is hoping to find a short, snappy word—five letters if possible because five-letter names are a Claiborne tradition—that is synonymous with slew or, as it is more normally spelled, slough, which is a marsh. She thumbs through a dictionary. Swamp? No. Bog? Maybe. Aha! She has found it, another word for a water runoff. She dials the office and asks a secretary to check The Jockey Club's book of unavailable names to see if the one she wants has been taken. It hasn't. "Well, contact The Jockey Club right now and reserve S-W-A-L-E," she says.
Coming up with something original and suitable, whether the animal becomes a Derby winner like Swale or just an also-ran, is a responsibility horse owners take seriously.
"It's very difficult," says Mrs. Hancock. "There are so many horses now and there are so many names taken. It's difficult to find one that you like and that's appropriate and available." As her daughter Dell, who helps with the yearly task, puts it, "These horses are sometimes like your children; you want them to have good names."
Actually, it wasn't until the 1840s that breeders had to worry about such things. Compilers of early stud books grumbled that it was too confusing keeping track of private breeding records and sporting events when the majority of animals were nameless. Owners were advised to start identifying their horses. At first, the suggestion met with resistance. One owner's halfhearted compliance produced the following: He-Has-A-Name, Give-Him-A-Name and He-Isn't-Worth-A-Name. The last, obviously, for one of the stable's underachievers.
Each year about 50,000 thoroughbreds are registered by The Jockey Club. In addition, nearly 20,000 standardbreds are listed by the United States Trotting Association, and a whopping 156,000 quarter horses by the American Quarter Horse Association annually.
Regulations governing the naming of racehorses vary with each breed. Rules cover, among other things, word length, number of years before a name can be reused (like some uniform numbers, names of famous thoroughbreds and standardbreds are "retired" forever) and the use of names of living persons or those with commercial significance. Lewd or suggestive titles are off-limits.
One method of arriving at a name is the "half and half." Borrow letters or a word from the name of the sire, add letters or a word from the name of the dam, and presto! a new name. That's what happened in the case of Niatross, the fastest standardbred of all time. His parents are Niagara Dream and Albatross.
Many owners prefer the "spinoff' technique, the one used for Swale. It requires a bit more imagination and some research. Simply give the new generation a variation on a parental theme. Northern Dancer begat Nureyev; Rich Cream, Creme Fraiche; Tom Fool, Dunce. You get the idea.
Master of the spinoff is standardbred breeder Norman Woolworth. Some of his classics include Fortune Teller out of Uncanny Ability, Snack Bar out of Dinette and Zoot Suit out of Glad Rags. Woolworth explains that trotters and pacers are generally named as foals, before they go through the sale ring. Bestowing a memorable name on a standardbred yearling can make a potential buyer stop, look and remember. Knowing this, Stoner Creek Stud, of which Woolworth is part owner, advertised its consignment a few years back by placing ads in trade magazines listing mares and their offspring, but in no particular order. Readers were asked to guess which name fit which breeding. "I had people calling me up at all hours wanting hints," Woolworth recalls. "But they sure knew the colts' names by sale time."
Of course, a spinoff isn't the only way to tag a nag. Some farms use the first letter of the mare's name to begin the names of each of her foals, and a lot of the larger standardbred farms include their name as a prefix or suffix in the name of every horse they raise as in Birmingham Hanover, Franz Hanover and Baxter Hanover.