From the sublime to the ridiculous – the issue of naming horses is something of a hot potato, particularly when it comes to sales time.
Local notables have included the likes of Spook And Diesel, Kokorot Sop and Green Tractor, with some less flattering ones including Goat, Donkey, Mule and I’m No Tortoise, along with the Raymond Deacon owned Pistol Dawn and perennial favourite, Hoof Hearted.
Rob Knuppe and Neil Yeats reversed Foveros to come up with Sorevof – particularly clever as the colt was out of Play Back. Snaith Racing had their hands full with President Trump, before rumblings from across the pond saw the name changed to Fake News and Brett Crawford conditioned the three-time winning De Kock (by Dynasty out of Sharp Performer), after globe-trotting trainer, Mike. 2013 saw an extra helping of Black Caviar, before the NHA insisted that the name be changed to Black Beluga. Recent favourites have included the cheekily named Takingthepeace and Joyphyllypist (sadly reduced to the pedestrian Jay P).
The vote seems split down the middle as to whether horses should be sold named or not. We canvassed opinions and stories from both sides of the fence.
In the ‘anti’ camp is bloodstock agent John Freeman, who recalled, “Laurie Jaffee refused to buy a horse that was named. He led the campaign to insist that horses were sold unnamed. He wanted the rights to name the horses he raced.”
Of course, one can always change a name, but, aside from the expense, a lot of people are superstitious. “John Newsome believed it was bad luck to change the name of a horse,” continues John, “and with some of them, one has to wonder what people were thinking.” Client Jack Mitchell thumbs his nose at superstition, regularly changing the names of his purchases. “Futura was called something else when we bought him,” recalls John. “I think it was a random Latin name and we couldn’t work out the name or the relevance. We asked Guy Murdoch who said he didn’t mind if we changed it. Because he was out of Scribbling the Cat, Nancy Mitchell suggested looking at typefaces. Some were already taken, some were protected, but they let us have Futura, which I like. It sounds like a mythical creature.”
“I think naming a horse is very personal – it’s like naming a child. When a guy breeds a horse, he lives with it for a year and then sells it on to someone who is presumably going to spend the rest of their lives with the horse and it’s their responsibility to live with the name. I believe vendors should sell horses unnamed according to international practice, but to be quite honest, there are so many things I have to look at on the page of a yearling, that I promise you the name is the last thing. I really couldn’t care less. You don’t buy the name – it’s the most irrelevant thing,” he says firmly.
Mary Slack has continued the tradition started by her parents and is well known for the time and enthusiasm that goes into naming their horses. She even did it professionally for a time, running a naming agency with Liz Wilson. “We had a lot of fun and we did enjoy it, but it became a bit overwhelming,” she admits. But she still enjoys the challenge of selecting something special.
“It’s incredibly difficult and getting worse because more and more go. You might think you have brilliant name and then someone else has had it for some unknown reason. It used to be 15 years before you could reuse a name, but I think it’s less now,” she muses.
“The Jockey Club have a name database online and that’s the first port of call. Then you can put in a name and think you’ve got it, but you still might not. They’ll look again and not allow it – sometimes as much as six months later, which is incredibly annoying.”
“There are even more complications if you get an imported horse – then you’ve got to clear it here AND wherever it came from – like the English Jockey Club – and that takes forever and eventually you give up because it’s just hopeless. It’s just difficult, is all I can say.”
“We try and do something clever, not just putting the names of the sire and dam together, if you follow me, so we look at the stallion and the dam and try and come up with something that is clever and has connections to both names.”
She recalls a National Assembly colt out of Seeking The Wind as a standout. “I gave it a political name which I thought was completely genius – Hot Air. That’s an example of what we try and look for. Dynasty was out of Blakes Affair and named for Blake from the soap opera. He also had a sister named Clandestine.”
“There have been lots of good ones,” continues Mary, “The mare who produced Asylum Seeker was called Running North, so we had Asylum Seeker and a few things like Gap Year and Traveller’s Cheque – those were all nice, but you can never tell.”
“Hot Air was a brilliant name that was completely wasted as he died before reaching the track (although Seeking The Wind redeemed herself by producing Met winner Martial Eagle a few years later). “Dynasty was obviously a good name that came right. Europa Point was another good name because she’s by Rock of Gibraltar and Europa Point is a cape nearby. I never sell anything without a name. I have such fun trying to do it.”
The Avontuur doyenne takes a pragmatic approach. “There’s always the decision whether to name or not to name. The way I look at it is that it’s for me to keep track of where these horses go and who is running where and what. They’re much easier to follow if I’ve named them.”
“A lot of people think the owner has the right to name the horse. I think I have the right until I sell it and when I sell it, they have the right to name it. If someone really hates the name, then I don’t mind. Well, I do, but it’s their horse, but in all the years I’ve been naming horses, I only truthfully know of 3 that have ever had their name changed, which is amazing, so we’re obviously choosing the right ones!”
“We start as soon as the first foals start arriving – we don’t name foals until they are born – and we reserve names as we go along. Often it’s the names of good books or movies that might be a bit oblique for the man in the street, but 99% of the time it’s got something to do with mom and dad.”
Has she has any favourites over the years? “There are lots one can think of. We used to name a lot of horses after soccer players, like Cantona (Model Man – Avon Rouge) and Escobar (Dominion Royale – Hot Grass). I also liked Attenborough by Western Winter out of In Camera, but you try with all of them. Of course there are lots of horses that get hurt or injured and don’t get to the course and you think, damn, I wish I hadn’t given them such a nice name because it’s a waste.”
“I think I drive the Jockey Club mad, although normally you get what you want. For example, I’d wanted to call Live Life Coldplay. I tried everything to get permission to use the name, but didn’t get any feedback and the Jockey Club said no because it was the name of a famous band. And then they allowed it for another horse. I think the Jockey Club gets a lot of flak, particularly if someone has wanted a name and been told no and then someone else gets it, but their rules change.”
“Recently, we named a foal out of River Jetez Watershed, which is also a band. We wrote them a letter to ask permission and they wrote back and said with pleasure. In fact, the only one who ever said no was Pirelli, the tyre people. The Joburg office said yes, but that they’d need to speak to the head office in Italy. They did and came back with a sweet reply that they were happy for us to use it, but we would need to guarantee that it would be a good horse, so we said no. But I generally work very hard to get permission.”
Any names she regrets? “One year we named a colt who broke a leg at around 16 months. He hadn’t race, so we asked the Jockey Club to release the name as the mare produced another colt the following year. They said fine and we re-used the name and that one died at 8 months, so we’ll never use that name again,” she says decisively.
Another farm that goes to great lengths in naming their foals is Sorrento and Annabel Andrews shared the story of their mare Aretha.
“We went for musical names, so Aretha’s first foal was Nocturnal Affair (after the band). Then there was Armatrading and Ladysingstheblues, but James Blunt was the best,” she says. “I’m absolutely crazy about James Blunt. He used to ride in the army and a friend’s sister is married to James’ best friend. One day we were all in the pool and we thought why don’t we just ask James? He said fine, as long as it’s not a Shetland Pony!”
“The late Peter Mills used to have a foal party once a year. He had lunch at his house in Somerset West and would give you all the breeding and which sites you could check and then we’d all sit and vote and we got some fantastic names.”
“Over the years we’ve had a couple of different themes and at one time we became known (notorious!) for adopting Zulu names (Igugu, Nhlavini) in order to give our horses a place-specific brand. While that was especially useful when it came to reserving names as there were few Zulu precedents at the Jockey Club, we had a couple of illiterate presenters and commentators who completely lost their way with the pronunciations, particularly when there was a tight finish between two of them (for example, Imbongi and Umngazi who fought out a tight finish for the Emperor’s Palace Ready To Run Cup). Otherwise we’ve lived by the belief that a good horse usually has a good name, and if we can find something connected with the genealogy from the reservoir of intellectuals we have around us (remember, the KZN Midlands is home to some of the nation’s leading private and public schools, our staff etc) we’ll use it.”
“That said, the one thing I do insist on is having a role of approval myself with the horses carrying the Summerhill brand: South Africa is one of the few countries in the world where breeders get to name their horses, and I’ve always felt there’s an intimacy and responsibility in that.”