Bailey, the registrar, admits that some questionable names might have slipped through. "There are over 460,000 active Thoroughbred names," he told me. "If you do anything on a scale of 60,000 a year, you'll find a mistake."
The above examples are fine fodder for lampooning an industry that takes itself too seriously. Add a dash of First Amendment tension to the mix, though, and the name game get a bit more interesting.
Two years ago, horse breeder Garrett Redmond sought to name his filly Sally Hemings, after the slave who was the reputed mistress of Thomas Jefferson. Redmond, a history buff, asserted that his choice was intended to honor Hemings. Naming a racehorse as a tribute to a person is routine—Redmond once named a horse after his wife. Besides, the horse's lineage was ideal for such a name: The filly's mother is Jefferson's Secret, who had been fathered by stallion Colonial Affair.
The Jockey Club denied the request and sent a letter stipulating that Hemings' written permission would be required to use the name. Redmond wrote back that it would be a difficult task, since Hemings had been dead for 170 years. He cited other examples of racehorses named after deceased persons and queried if the organization had written permission on file for horses that had been named after King Louis XIV and Buddha.
Officials countered with another letter that said Sally Hemings "may be offensive to persons of African descent and other ethnic groups." But that argument is difficult to reconcile in light of far more racially charged names that have been allowed, such as Tar Baby (1944, 1975, and 1985), Uncle Remus (1944 and 1965), Darkie (1950), Uncle Tom (1950), Jungle Bunny (1953), and Blackface Minstrel (1980). The most disturbing example traces to 1911, when the third-place finisher in the Preakness Stakes was registered as The Nigger (although some linguists contend that word has evolved over time and in the early 20th century was more slang than slur). Yet even until 1941, the word nigger was still considered acceptable by the Jockey Club for use in several Thoroughbred names. In a more enlightened era, Sally Hemings is not.
When I asked Bailey to explain the discrepancy, he argued that "two wrongs don't make a right"—just because the Jockey Club missed an offensive name in the past doesn't mean they should allow one now.
In May 2005, Redmond sued in U.S. district court, alleging that the Jockey Club was restricting his right to free speech. The lawsuit was dismissed, and the appeal dragged on for two years. On Aug. 2, 2007, the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled against Redmond on the grounds that the Jockey Club is a private organization and as such, it may restrict free speech so long as it doesn't discriminate against a specific viewpoint.
Jockey Club officials would not discuss the court ruling on the record, but there is a detectable sense of exasperation that Redmond pushed his Sally Hemings crusade so far. No one at the registry could ever recall a lawsuit over a horse name.
Outsiders might view Redmond as an advocate for free speech, unafraid to challenge the establishment. Thus, the name Guts might have been an appropriate replacement for Sally Hemings. Unfortunately, that name is already taken—it's what Andy Hillis renamed Nutzapper. As he mulls further legal action, Redmond did re-register his filly. Her new name: Awaiting Justice.