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I have always believed that the privilege of naming a racehorse is a sacred trust because you can never tell when one of the critters might turn out to be good enough to win the Kentucky Derby. It's important, therefore, to pick something noble, romantic or inspiring. Something like Whirlaway or Majestic Prince or Count Fleet or His Eminence. Now those are names that evoke images of flying manes, pounding hooves and roaring crowds.
This is why I simply cannot understand the monikers some people hang on their colts and fillies. When I checked the list of the 348 horses nominated for this year's Triple Crown races, I saw many suitably stirring names, such as American Dreamer, Eternal Flight, Summer Squall, Silver Ending and Stylish King. But I also saw Mr. Nasty, Rouse the Louse, Winnie the Slew and Smelly. Smelly! Composer Burt Bacharach, of whom you would expect better, has a colt named Spotlight No. One. Even one of the favorites, Mister Frisky, has a name that sounds as if it should belong to a cat food.
Understand, I'm not a snob. I like clever names as much as the next fan. For example, the list of nominees includes a colt named Razor Thin, a son of Sharpen Up out of Cutlery. I wouldn't mind seeing Razor Thin immortalized on those cheap mint julep glasses that are such hot items at Churchill Downs the first Saturday of every May. I also have no problem with Second Green, by Green Forest out of Twosome, and Secret Hello, by Private Account out of Ciao. Those took a little imagination, something of which the worst offenders will never be accused.
History has not revealed to us the identity of the first person who named a thoroughbred by running words together, but I'm confident that he, or she, is Rottinginhell, if you get my drift. This year's list includes Champagneforashley, Itsallgreektome, Stayway Frommydoor and Ima Redhotlover—who, incidentally, is a gelding. Last year's nominees included Playmeonemoretime, Movinglikeawinner and Dontcloseyoureyes. Aaaugh. Gagmewithaspoon.
There ought to be rules prohibiting such assaults on the sensibilities. In fact, The Jockey Club, the moss-backed custodian of the sport's regulations and traditions, already has a long list of name-game no-nos. No name shall be longer than 18 characters, including spaces. No names of living persons may be used without their written approval, and names of famous deceased persons must be approved by the Board of Stewards. Copyrighted material, the titles of books, plays, motion pictures or the names of popular songs, is not allowed. Neither is anything crude, obscene or suggestive, although somehow a horse named Degenerate Jon slipped by. He ran in the 1980 Derby and finished eighth, thank heaven.
Actually, it's tough to get a name past The Jockey Club's computers and its committee, which are vigilant about avoiding duplications. Nearly two out of three suggested names are rejected for that reason. For example, Secretariat was named only after his stable's first five choices were rejected. They were, for you trivia fans, Scepter, Royal Line, Something Special, Games of Chance and Deo Volente (Latin for God Willing). Last year's Derby winner, Sunday Silence, was named by his owner, Arthur Hancock, who writes and sings country music in his spare time. Somebody suggested the name to Hancock, and he seized on it because it somehow reminded him of one of his favorite songs, Kris Kristofferson's Sunday Mornin' Comin' Down. Unfortunately, not all horsemen are so poetic.
Of all the various theories and formulas devised by bettors to handicap the Derby, the one that makes the most sense to me is this: Eliminate every horse with an objectionable name, even if he has won all his previous races by a zillion lengths. By and large, if you run your finger down the list of Derby winners, you will see that this approach would have held up quite well through the years.
Oh, sure, there have been Derby winners with names that don't exactly quicken your pulse. I didn't like the name of Seattle Slew, but I loved the horse, winner of the 1977 Triple Crown, so I was able to overlook it. Generally speaking, though, the horses with the most horrible names get what they deserve. Boola Boola was fourth in '10; Petee-Wrack, 14th in '28; Morpulck, seventh in '35; Anyoldtime, seventh in '51; Tonka Wakhan, 10th in '80; and Shawklit Won, 11th in '87. To those who named them, I can only say: Nyah, nyah, nyah.
I must admit that I was relieved last week when it was announced that Champagneforashley will pass up the Derby and point for the Preakness. I have nothing against champagne, heaven knows, and Ashley, one of the owners' children, seems like a pleasant sort. But I just couldn't see that name on the same julep glass with War Admiral, Iron Liege and Proud Clarion. One I can see, however, is Unbridled. Not great, you say? Well, maybe you're right. Butnotsobadeither.