Saturday, May 4, 2013

Naming a Winner

Photo Credit: Dan Dry / Power Creative
Today marks the 139th anniversary of the Kentucky Derby and nineteen horses will run for the roses at Churchill Downs. According to the Kentucky Derby website, as of 3:15 p.m. EDT, six horses had odds of better than 10:1: Revolutionary, Normandy Invasion, Goldencents, Itsmyluckyday, Verrazano, and Orb. Of course, this doesn't mean that it's any one of these six who will win. While it's Orb who's favored to win,* as the Wall Street Journal writes, "the favorite has only managed to win four times in the last 33 years (or 12% of the time, but who's counting)."

So how to pick a winner? Well, often casual betters will pick just based on their favorite name. But what is in naming a Derby runner? Turns out, there's a whole lot of rules attached.

Perhaps an obvious rule is that once a winner, forever a winner. This means that once a horse has run the Kentucky Derby, their name is permanently retired. It doesn't sound good if an owner names his horse after Secretariat, the fastest runner in Derby history, and yet that horse fails to win.

Another rule is that an owner must undergo a phonetics test with the potential name. NPR interviewed Rick Bailey of the Jockey Club registrar in 2005 who discussed why this makes logical sense for the sake of the audience, betters, and potential buyers:

"You don't want two Thoroughbreds out there racing at the same time with very similar-sounding names. You know, as an example, there's a very prominent racehorse from several years back named Easy Goer, spelled E-A-S-Y, as you might imagine, and you wouldn't want to allow the name Eazy, spelled E-A-Z-Y. So I try to be careful to, you know, actually say them out loud before it gets approved, just to avoid that confusion."

Furthermore, there is a limitation of exactly 18 characters for a horse's name, so as to fit on legibly on the racing forms. And if you want to name if after a person, you must get written permission from that person. While this may not come up often, it's still a strict rule that must be observed. Rick Bailey told NPR his favorite anecdote from collecting these permissions:

"One of the best ones that I remember in my 17 years here at the Jockey Club is, several years back, we had a filly named Barbara Bush when Mrs. Bush was still first lady at the time. We received a letter of permission on White House letterhead. So that was pretty exciting."

To listen to the rest of the interview, head over to NPR's The Science of Naming Racehorses.

*Update: To prove he isn't just a statistic, Orb has won the 139th Kentucky Derby!

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