Chatterbox To Zippity Doodah Day: The History Of Racehorse Names06:27

Oscar Nominated is one of the many creatively named horses that will compete at Churchill Downs. (Andy Lyons/Getty Images)
Oscar Nominated is one of the many creatively named horses that will compete at Churchill Downs. (Andy Lyons/Getty Images)
This article is more than 5 years old.

Sports on Earth's Will Leitch loves the Kentucky Derby. And it's not because he knows anything about horse racing, or blood lines or which jockey to choose when you've got a horse that tends to balk at the start.

"There are new competitors every year," Leitch says. "None of them are named Jones or Smith or Thompson. Imagine if every year the NBA Finals came and they're entirely new players, and they all had self-selected their names. Imagine how much fun that would be? That's the Kentucky Derby."

For the past four years, Leitch has been ranking his favorite Derby names for Sports on Earth, but…

"Frankly in my mind, and really in my heart, I'd been doing it forever," Leitch says.

What's his favorite thing about his favorite Derby names?

"There's no real logic to them or even like any agreed upon rules," Leitch says. "I remember one of my favorite names of all time is I'mAWildAndCrazyGuy. Now, the problem with that is you can in fact spell out I'm-space-A-space-Wild-space-And-space-Crazy-space-Guy, but they chose not to do that. But they did include the apostrophe."

Leitch is talking about grammar. There are no grammar or spelling rules when it comes to naming racehorses. But there are lots of other rules. Names can be no more than 18 characters long. They can't be too similar to another "active" horse name. Obviously, they can't be inappropriate or obscene. And, if you want to use the name of a living person, you've got to get permission.

I think a lot of it is just human, sort of, whimsy. Perhaps just the delight of hearing the commentators struggle with strange names.

Phillip Snidell, historian

"No one, yet, has named their horse Will Leitch. But if they do name their horse Will Leitch, I'm telling them right now they do not need to ask me permission," Leitch says. "They can just go ahead and do it. I will root for your horse. I will cheer for your horse. I will even learn more than the 35 seconds of information about horse racing I can spout off already. Your horse is my horse, of course, of course."

Rules Of The Trade

There's one guy charged with making sure that none of the names of newly registered horses break the rules.

Since 2004, Rick Bailey has been the registrar for the Jockey Club, and he really enjoys the creativity he gets to witness in his job.

Bailey and his staff review about 40,000 names every year and approve two-thirds to three-quarters of them. The numbers add up pretty quickly.

"We do have 350,000 to 400,000 names that are considered active," Bailey says.

With that many names off the table, maybe owners are just running out of normal horse names to choose from?

"Fewer names are unavailable then what we've had in the past, so the opportunity to reuse a name that might be considered more normal, let's call it, is certainly available in many cases," Bailey says.

The list of available names is getting bigger, Bailey says, because the horse racing industry is getting smaller.

There will never be another Secretariat or Seabiscuit. Those names have been permanently retired. But the names of less successful horses are eventually released. Bailey publishes those names on the Jockey Club's website every year. This year, that list included more than 45,000 names.

"So an approach that some owners use is on Jan. 1, they'll wake up early in the morning and begin to take a look at the list of names that are available once again after having been in use for the previous decade or so," Bailey says.

This year, the list includes Bambi le Bleu, Fabulous Rex, and Zippity Doodah Day. Some of the names are a nod to the horse's lineage. But Zippity Doodah Day?

Some Historical Perspective

I can't help but wonder, were horses always given such great names? Just for the fun of it, let's go back — all the way back, to the first horses of any kind whose names were recorded in the history books. I'm talking about warhorses. Some of them have great Babieca.

"Babieca was El Cid's horse," says Philip Sidnell, who has written the book on ancient warhorses. "El Cid led the Christian re-conquest of Spain from the Muslims."

"His horse Babieca means 'stupid,'" Sidnell explains. "And the story behind that one is apparently as a young man he was given the choice of a wide range of horses, told to pick whichever one he wanted by his godfather. And he picked the sort of least trained, ugliest, least impressive looking one. And his godfather exclaimed, 'Babieca!' 'Stupid!' And it stuck."

So, Babieca has a great name with a great story. But most ancient horses are named for pretty mundane reasons. Take the horses who ran in the ancient Roman chariot races.

"They had names like 'Swift' or another called 'Snotty' and one called 'Chatterbox,'" Sidnell says.

Not a Zippity Doodah Day among 'em, though I would like to listen to a track announcer trying to call a race between Snotty and Chatterbox.

And that, Sidnell suggests, is the real reason why racehorses are given such great names.

"I think a lot of it is just human, sort of, whimsy," Snidell says. "Perhaps just the delight of hearing the commentators struggle with strange names."

This segment aired on May 7, 2016.


Karen Given Twitter Executive Producer/Interim Host, Only A Game
Karen is the executive producer for WBUR's Only A Game.