Category Archives: triple crown

Name that horse

belmont

What’s more challenging in thoroughbred racing? Winning the Triple Crown?—which  will not happen for the 37th time in 38 years after Exaggerator upset previously unbeaten Nyquist in last week’s Preakness. Or coming up with a good name for your horse?—one already not among the roughly 450,000 registered with the Jockey Club.

There are all sorts of rules in this game. No using names currently on the Jockey Club’s “permanent” list, which not only covers winners of races in the Triple Crown series but also famous horses in popular culture. There will never be another Secretariat or American Pharoah. Or Black Beauty. Or Silver. Or Trigger.

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Names of living persons are allowed only with written permission from that person. (Nyquist owner J. Paul Reddam, a Detroit Red Wings hockey fan, had to work that out with the two-legged Wings’ forward Gustav Nyquist.) There can be no names with clear commercial significance, and the name must be limited to 18 characters—including spaces between words. (In the case of a horse named Twitter, the thoroughbred’s christening in 1992 preceded the creation of the social networking service by 14 years.)

Also verboten are names that are suggestive or vulgar, in poor taste or offensive to specific groups. (It must be noted that a few risqué monikers have slipped by the name police, the less racy among them being Boxers or Briefs and Hoochiecoochiemama.)

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The man currently in charge of monitoring, approving and recording thoroughbred handles is Jockey Club registrar Rick Bailey, who has come to appreciate the creativity involved in using sly puns, nutty combinations, references to the horse’s pedigree or to present-day doings.

The 1990s sit-com “Seinfeld,” proclaimed by TV Guide to be the greatest television series of all time—and still in reruns—has inspired racing steeds to be dubbed Serenity Now, Yada Yada Yada, No Soup for You, Hello Newman and Low Talker, among others. The controversial presidential election of 2000 brought a flood of names such as Dangling Chad, Electoral College and Florida Recount. When news broke in 2008 that New York governor Eliot Spitzer had been a customer of a high-priced prostitution ring, a colt was named Luv Gov.

Not surprisingly, the wider world of sports regularly is mined, so there are thoroughbreds called Three Pointer and Slam Dunk, Hat Trick, Home Run, Touchdown. Also, playing on marquee athletes without appropriating their full names, there is an A Rod, an Eli and a Peyton. And a Le Brown James.

So let’s say you have $110,000 to spare, the amount it cost to buy Exaggerator at the yearling sale, and you’re looking for a good name. Something catchy and memorable, perhaps with an inside joke attached. (The story is that Exaggerator’s trainer, Keith Desormeaux, described his girlfriend and assistant, Julie Clark, as someone who stretches the truth a bit. And followed through on informing her, “Julie, I’m going to name a horse after you.”)

Maybe you could go for a name that speaks to the racehorse’s lot in life, along the lines of the 27 names in use that start with the word Galloping or Gallopin’ or Gallop’n. So: Trotsky? (Sorry, taken in 2006). Meal ticket? (Already on reserve with the Jockey Club.) Don’t Look Back? (Gone in 2010). Long Shot? (On the permanent list.) Wishful Thinking? (Claimed in 2009.)

OK. Another source of potential names could be songs dealing with the Sport of Kings.

    I’ve got the horse right here

    His name is Paul Revere

….from the tune Fugue for Tinhorns in the 1955 Broadway Show “Guys and Dolls.” Alas, Paul Revere is on the Jockey Club’s permanent list. Two other horses are mentioned in the ditty, but Valentine was taken in 2013 and Epitaph scooped up in 2009.

The Race Is On, a 1964 country hit by George Jones, presents possibilities in mimicking a track announcer’s race call to detail romantic relationships….

    Now the race is on

    And here comes Pride down the backstretch,

    Heartache’s goin’ to the inside,

    My Tears are holdin’ back,

    They’re tryin’ not to fall.

    My Heart’s out of the runnin’

    True Love’s scratched for another’s sake.

    The race is on and it looks like Heartache

    And the winner loses all.

Sure enough, though, Pride was accepted by the Jockey Club in 2006, Heartache in 2014, True Love in 1993. That does leave My Tears and My Heart.

Meanwhile, It occurs that, given the big money at stake in the sport, Cash Cow would be a blue-ribbon name for a thoroughbred. (Such a winner, in fact, that it was taken in 2010.) Well, then, Go To Guy. (Claimed the same year.) Or Money in the Bank. (2000).

What about sobriquets that address racing’s tendency toward excitement and surprise? Zoot Alors. (On the books since 1975). Perhaps the Anglicized version of that expression: Holy Smoke. (Gone in 2008).

The Jockey Club is allowed to “release” a name for re-use after a horse reaches the age of 11 and has not raced or not been bred during the previous five years. In 2009, for instance, the name President Hillary was released. (And is still available as the 2016 campaign heats up.)

A less political approach seems safer. Something like Magic Carpet Ride. Dog and Pony Show. Eat My Dust.

Let’s say I have $110,000 to spare—now that’s Wishful Thinking—and am inclined to name my imaginary horse friend with a nod to my almost half-century in the journalism business. Since Suddenbreakingnews (fourth in this year’s Derby and signed up for the Belmont Stakes) already is on the Jockey Club registry, along with Headliner, Wordsmith and Rewrite, even Laptop Computer, I might have to settle for Inkstained Wretch.

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Belmont winner? The Triple Crown build-up

invite

Let us apply a little horse sense to what is becoming a mostly annual, and regularly futile, pursuit of thoroughbred racing’s Triple Crown.

1) A Kentucky Derby-Preakness-Belmont Stakes sweep hasn’t been completed since 1978. 2) Of the last 13 steeds to take the first two races in the sport’s premier series over that span, all 13 were established as betting favorites to win the third—as is this year’s “superhorse,” American Pharoah. 3) None did, including I’ll Have Another, who was scratched the day before the race with a leg injury two years ago.

But, 4) It’s the journey, not the destination, that matters.

It’s the build-up, the tantalizing drama of yet another Triple Crown attempt, that ratchets up interest beyond the Daily Racing Form aficionados. It’s the anticipation, growing with each unfulfilled try, that reinforces the difficulty of winning a Triple Crown—and therefore provides the allure to casual observers.

Duke University anthropology professor Orin Starn has equated the Triple Crown series to “a good play. If the first and second acts are good, you’re riveted for that third act.” He noted how television packages the three races as something of a soap opera, with the realization that most of the TV audience doesn’t know much about the sport but can be drawn into the back stories of horse owners, trainers and jockeys. Non-racing fans can be enthralled by the spectacle and tradition of the Spring events—stylish women in fancy hats, beautiful animals, teary-eye crowds singing “My Old Kentucky Home.”

Horse racing has been in decline for decades, increasingly elbowed aside by casino gambling, and it is only during the five weeks of Triple Crown season that a significant portion of the hoi polloi pays any attention. And it is only in the years when one horse wins the first two jewels of the crown that there suddenly is an equine with a vaguely familiar name, appreciably enhancing public awareness.

So, virtually from the moment American Pharoah became the 10th Double Crown winner in the last 18 years on May 16, adding the Preakness title to his Kentucky Derby success, conversation of ending the 37-year drought was at full volume. Immediately, Pharoah-related stories filled the media: From hard-core racing analysis to reports on how “Pharaoh” is misspelled. (Ancient Egyptian rulers, or tyrants, were “pharaohs.”) The “538” Web site provided a chart of bettors’ expectations, entering the Belmont, of a completed Triple Crown for the last 13 candidates, noting that the percentages were as high as 70 for only three horses—Spectacular Bid (76.9) in 1979, Smarty Jones (74.1) in 2004 and Big Brown (76.9) in 2008. All losers, or course.

I covered Big Brown’s Preakness victory, which prompted awed horse people to declare him a “freak,” “superstar,” “monster,” “a tremendous horse,” “the real deal,” “almost a man among boys.” One rival trainer, Patrick Gallagher, was so carried away that he said Big Brown might win the Belmont by more than the incomparable Secretariat’s unreasonable 31 lengths in 1973.

secretariat

Alas, Big Brown melted down in the final turn and walked home dead last. But the point is that the pre-race fuss he created meant the second-highest on-track betting handle in Belmont history at the time—more than $13 million—and a crowd of 94,476.

The eight largest crowds in Belmont history, in fact, all have come since 1998, and all when the possibility of a Triple Crown existed, topping out at 120,139 in 2004 (when Smarty Jones was upset), and hitting 102,199 last year (as California Chrome was beaten). Even with this year’s cap on ticket sales at 90,000, there will be a typical Triple Crown-threat attendance figure. Since 2000, whenever no Triple Crown was a stake, Belmont Stakes Day drew between 45,000 and 73,000.

Likewise, as Richard Sandomir recently reported in the New York Times, 20.5 million watched the Belmont on television last year to see California Chrome’s Triple Crown bid, compared to an average (since 1992) of 5.9 million without a Triple Crown at stake.

Here, then, is my two-cents-worth wager that the racing’s winning ticket for this season already is cashed, whether or not American Pharoah prevails. Because, either way, the boost to racing is substantial. And, either way, it’s temporary. Trainer Nick Zito, whose Birdstone ended Smarty Jones’ Triple Crown bid in 2004, told USA Today this week that he is “not too sure” an American Pharoah victory will make that much difference to the industry.

When Tonalist prevailed in last year’s Belmont, with Derby-Preakness champ California Chrome left in a tie for fourth, Tonalist trainer Christophe Clement made the legitimate observation that “this is nothing negative. California Chrome created a wonderful thing. Five-thirty in the morning, 500 or 600 people came to see him train [in the Belmont run-up]. That was great. It was wonderful to see the large crowd [at the race]. But it’s nothing negative. The Triple Crown: If it was easy to do, it would mean nothing.”

Besides, not everybody lost. For a $2 bet on the lightly regarded Tonalist, my wife emerged $20.40 richer.

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