Why you can't give your Thoroughbred racehorse an obscene name.

The stadium scene.
Sept. 26 2007 12:51 PM

Aw, Nuts

Why you can't give your Thoroughbred an obscene name.

Illustration by Mark Alan Stamaty. Click image to expand.

Earlier this year, a man named Andy Hillis decided to christen his racehorse Nutzapper. A Tonight Show guest had used the term when referring, jokingly, to a male contraceptive; since his horse had been gelded, Hillis thought he had a good fit. But naming a Thoroughbred isn't as simple as coming up with a good double-entendre. The Jockey Club, the 103-year-old organization that holds the reins to the Sport of Kings in North America, has to sign off on every moniker. Hillis explained to the registry poobahs that as a young boy in Canada, he loved to zap walnuts in boiling oil and sprinkle them on salads. Satisfied that the name had a tasty, not tasteless, origin, the Jockey Club approved Nutzapper. Hillis, unable to contain his glee, boasted about the name to a Daily Racing Form reporter. "I've never even been to Canada," he said. "I just made the whole thing up on the spot."

Timing is everything when it comes to a good joke, and Hillis picked a bad moment to have a laugh at the expense of racing's powerful ruling body. Three weeks earlier, the Jockey Club had emerged victorious in a long, drawn-out federal court case over freedom of speech rights and racehorse names. After Hillis crowed to the Daily Racing Form, the name was barred within 48 hours. The odds are now stacked mightily against a horse named Nutzapper ever running in the Kentucky Derby.

What is the Jockey Club, and who put it in charge of naming horses? First off, it is neither a club nor comprised of jockeys. In addition to overseeing a myriad of statistical resources and underwriting an impressive amount of equine research, its chief function is as the keeper of the American Stud Book. If you want to race or breed a Thoroughbred, the Jockey Club has the final say, including what you are allowed to call your horse.

Roughly 60,000 Thoroughbred name requests are submitted every year, and registrar Rick Bailey must sign off on each one. Roughly one-third of the requests are rejected, primarily because they match existing names. In an effort to free up more names, the Jockey Club now "recycles" them after 10 years, so it is possible for horses from different eras to share the same name. There is a mind-blowing litany of other rules and regulations, but in general, no horse can have a name longer than 18 characters, a name that breaches a copyright or has obvious commercial significance, or the name of a "notorious" person. Emphatically forbidden are "names that are suggestive or have a vulgar or obscene meaning; names considered in poor taste; or names that may be offensive to religious, political or ethnic groups."

Had Hillis so chosen, he might have challenged the anti-Nutzapper ruling by pointing out numerous examples of lewd names that have slipped through. Despite vigilant efforts—prospective names are screened by a team of censors, matched up against urban slang dictionaries, and run through phonetics software to ensure they don't sound different than they look—the sport's officials sometimes get caught off guard.

Aside from the ill-fated Nutzapper, the Jockey Club's database reveals 131 horses whose names begin with the prefix Nut. Of course, you'd have to be Beavis or Butt-Head to find the vast majority of them titillating. But shouldn't somebody have questioned the precedent-setting Nut Buster way back in 1942? Similarly, Pussy Galore probably should have raised a few eyebrows in 1965. The filly never won a race, but one assumes she was a big hit with the stallions.

You want explicit commands? How about Blow Me (1945), Get It On (both 1971 and 1986), On Your Knees (1977 and 2005), Spank It (1985), or 1963's Go Down, whose sire, of course, was Service. Like 'em young? Embarrassingly enough, Jail Bait (1947 and 1983), Barely Legal (1982 and 1989), and Date More Minors (1998) all made it into the staid registry.

If a clever play on words is your thing, Cunning Stunt (1969) is a decent one. Lagnaf (1978) is a thinly veiled acronym for "let's all get naked and … ." The names Hardawn (1937) and Wrecked Em (1983) have to be said out loud to elicit the desired potty-mouth effect.

The list goes on: Golden Shower (1955), Cherry Pop (1961 and 1978), Cum Rocket (1969), Ménage Á Trois (1974), She's Easy (1978), Adultress (1979), Strip Teaser (1980), Rhythm Method (1982), Bodacious Tatas (1985), Tit'n Your Girdle (1988), Kinky Lingerie (1991), Hard Like a Rock (1995), Sexual Harassment (1997), and X Rated Fantasy (1999). (You can search for risqué racehorse names yourself through the Jockey Club's online database of current names. If you want a true historical perspective, you'll need to shell out $325 for the complete American Produce Records.)

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.

T.D. Thornton is a Boston-based writer. He is the author of Not by a Long Shot—A Season at a Hard-Luck Horse Track.