Examining the Names of Kentucky Derby winners

Aug 12, 2020 Sara Dacus/TwinSpires.com

Colorful, creative Thoroughbred names are a necessity since horses active in racing — at any time, around 450,000 — cannot have duplicate names. The pool is narrowed slightly each year because The Jockey Club, who approves each moniker, retires the names of Kentucky Derby winners. Here’s how some of the horses who wore the blanket of roses gained their identities.

The most popular method of naming a Thoroughbred is to play on the names of the mother (dam), father (sire) or both.

  • Foolish Pleasure (1975)’s sire was What a Pleasure, and his dam was Fool-Me-Not.
  • Man o’ War sired War Admiral (1937).
  • Iron Liege (1957) is the product of War Admiral and Iron Maiden.
  • Lazy foaled Vagrant (1876), and his single-word V name is reminiscent of his sire Virgil.
  • Ponder (1949)’s sire was Pensive (1944).
  • Triple Crown winner Whirlaway (1941)’s dam was Dustwhirl.
  • Funny Cide (2003), who was campaigned by the same connections as 2020 contender Tiz the Law, gets his name from blending sire Distorted Humor and dam Belle’s Good Cide.
  • 50-1 Longshot winner Mine That Bird (2009)’s sire was Birdstone, and his dam was Mining My Own.
  • Shakespearean characters inspired the names of both Macbeth II (1888) and his sire, Macduff.

Some owners named Kentucky Derby horses after places that were important to them.

  • Seattle Slew (1977) was owned by two couples: the Taylors, who were from Seattle, and the Hills, who were from the swamps of Florida, also known as “slews.”
  • Donerail (1913), the biggest longshot to win the Derby at 91-1, was named for a small Kentucky community.
  • Chateaugay (1963) is an upstate New York Town.
  • Baden-Baden (1877) is a spa town in Germany’s Black Forest.
  • European water also lent its name to Donau (1910), the German name for the Danube River.
  • California Chrome's (2014) name refers to his native state and his white markings.
  • A city in Pennsylvania that was the site of three major floods gave Johnstown (1939) his name.
  • Breeder and owner Noah Armstrong was on a business trip in Spokane Falls when Spokane (1889) was born.
  • Kauai King (1966) pays homage to the only Hawaiian Island not conquered by King Kamehameha.

Sometimes, owners elect to honor people with horse names.

  • Aristides, the first Kentucky Derby champion, was named for Aristides Welch, a friend of owner Hal Price McGrath. Welch owned Aristides’s sire Leamington and was named for an ancient Greek soldier and writer.
  • Another notable Greek, a Byzantine-era ruler, is memorialized by Monarchos (2001).
  • Ben Brush (1896) was a superintendent at Gravesend, a former track in Brooklyn.
  • Fred Hooper named Hoop Jr. (1945) in honor of his young son.
  • Lawrence I. Littman, the breeder and first owner of Lil E. Tee (1992), incorporated his initials in the names of most of his horses.  
  • Joe Cotton (1885) was named for a bookie, who was said to have made a considerable amount of money betting on the horse.
  • James Ben Ali Haggin named Ben Ali (1886) after himself.
  • Omar Khayyam, noted Persian poet and astronomer, is the namesake of the first foreign-born horse to win the Derby (1917).
  • Paul Jones, an American naval commander, provided the name for the 1920 winner and a brand of whiskey.
  • Clyde Van Dusen (1929) is the only champion named in honor of his trainer. Both horse and trainer were small.
  • Harry Sinclair named Zev (1923), who shares the distinction of having the shortest winner’s name with Orb (2013), after his lawyer.
  • The first Triple Crown winner, Sir Barton (1919)’s namesake was a Scottish privateer who raided Portuguese ships.
  • Burgoo King (1932) recognizes Lexington grocer James T. Looney and his still-famous regional stew.
  • Paul Reddam is a fan of ice hockey, and he named Nyquist (2016) after Gustav Nyquist, who played for the Detroit Red Wings at the time.
  • Owner Fusao Sekiguchi took the first four letters of his name, melded them with “ichi,” which means best, and paired them with the mythical horse with wings to name Fusaichi Pegasus (2000).
  • Jerry Moss, a co-founder of A&M Records, named Giacomo (2005) after the artist Sting’s son.
  • Alan-a-Dale (1902) refers to a member of Robin Hood's band of “Merry Men.”

Other delightfully unique names populate the Kentucky Derby winners roster.

  • Paul Pompa Jr, a trucking executive who held a contract with UPS, named Big Brown (2008) after the shipping company.
  • I’ll Have Another (2012) is the response owner Paul Reddam gives his wife when she asks him if he’d like to have another cookie.
  • The famously-misspelled American Pharoah (2015) is a play on sire Pioneerof the Nile and a nod to Egyptian-American owner and businessman Ahmed Zayat.
  • WinStar Farm believes one-word names like Justify (2018) are strong and befit stallions. This follows the tradition set by horses like Citation (1948) and Secretariat (1973).
  • Halma (1895)’s name came from a board game that is similar to checkers and Chinese checkers.
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