The Game Of The Name At The Kentucky Derby

Written By Marian Rosin on May 5, 2022
what's behind a Kentucky Derby horse name?

As fun as the Kentucky Derby is, the horses’ names come in a really close second.

Horses running for the Roses usually have one-of-a-kind names, a result of official registration rules and, often, ancestry — and this year is no different.

No plain old “Lucky” or “Sugar” among the 2022 Derby horse names. Even though those two are in the top 20 of last year’s 100 most popular horse names.

And Benedict Cumberbatch, X Æ A-12 Musk, Moon Zappa, and Englebert Humperdink would like to have a word with any of the Churchill Downs racers whinnying about their “unusual” Derby horse names.

Texas horse betting is a popular pastime, so head over to your nearest racetrack in Arlington, Fredericksburg, Houston, or Selma to get in on the action. At the moment, there are no online horse betting platforms available.

However, if you are interested in seeing more gambling options in the Lone Start State then keep an eye on key lawmakers working to make it happen.

What’s in a Derby winner’s name?

Perhaps one of the most amusing Derby winner’s names is 2012’s I’ll Have Another. It immediately conjures up a picture of a drunk horse in a bar at closing time, possibly crooning Frank Sinatra’s “One for My Baby.”

Maybe he could have a drink or two with 1994’s winner, Go for Gin.

2010’s winner Super Saver sounds like the poor horse was purchased at a local A&P. With coupons, of course.

Unintentionally, probably, 2016’s Nyquist reminds us of cold medicine.

And when his owners named the 1932 winner Burgoo King, they couldn’t have foreseen the future’s fast-food boom. (For the record, the first Burger King opened 22 years later in Miami).

When you think about it, really, who wouldn’t like a Derby winner named Charismatic, just like the 1999 first-place finisher?

The most intimidating Derby-winner moniker? Assault in 1946.

And maybe it’s not a coincidence that Assault and the next year’s winner, Jet Pilot, ran in the first years following the end of World War II.

The Most Ironic Name Award goes to Maximum Security. The three-year-old thoroughbred finished first in the 2019 Kentucky Derby but got controversially disqualified for interference.

The Itchiest Name belonged to non-winner Wool Sandals in 2007.

The first Kentucky Derby winner was Aristides in 1875. Other winners with fun, quirky, unique names have included:

Apollo, 1882Spectacular Bid, 1979
Lieut. Gibson, 1900Sunny’s Halo, 1983
Judge Himes, 1903Spend a Buck, 1985
Pink Star, 1907Funny Cide, 2003
Behave Yourself, 1921Smarty Jones, 2004
Bubbling Over, 1926Street Sense, 2007
Twenty Grand, 1931Always Dreaming, 2017
Needles, 1956Justify, 2018
Venetian Way, 1960Country House, 2019
Foolish Pleasure, 1975Authentic, 2020

How Kentucky Derby racers get their monikers

Sometimes horses get their names from one or both of their parents, like several of this year’s contenders, including Summer Is Tomorrow and Crown Pride.

Sometimes a horse gets named after a notable characteristic, like one-eyed Un Ojo. (He was pulled from Derby entry this year.)

The Jockey Club handles the registration of horse names. Horses have to be named by Feb. 1 of the year they are two years old or an additional fee is required.

The Jockey Club lists 17 restrictions on horse names, including no names:

  • With more than 18 letters (spaces and punctuation count)
  • Of living people unless the person in question has filed permission with the Jockey Club
  • With vulgar or obscene names
  • Of horses in racing’s Hall of Fame
  • That have “commercial significance”
  • Consisting solely of numbers or solely of initials

The Jockey Club has final approval of any name.

The stories behind the names of this year’s Derby horses

Jon Hale of the Louisville Courier-Journal looks behind the names of this year’s Derby contenders. Here’s some of what he found:

  • Cyberknife got his name from owner Al Gold’s procedure for prostate cancer. Gold told the Courier-Journal that he “wanted to get the word out” that although a diagnosis of cancer causes fear, prostate cancer can be treated.
  • The inspiration behind Tawny Port’s name is a Portuguese wine.
  • Happy Jack apparently possesses a “sunny demeanor.” His owners gave him the other half of his name at birth.

And sometimes owners can’t really even explain how they came up with a name, like the owners of this year’s Derby favorite, Epicenter.

The closest the thoroughbred’s owner could get to explaining the name? Maybe there was “some reporting or a Weather Channel story about earthquakes at the time that subliminally entered our consciousness.”

Photo by Al Behrman/Associated Press
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