Guide: How do you pick a name for a racehorse?

Features | 26th August 2021

What would you name your horse if you owned a racehorse? Here's the factors to consider when making your choice.

One of the most enjoyable aspects of owning a racehorse is deciding upon a name. Many owners have hours of fun dreaming up clever monikers for horses they hope will be become big‐race winners.

Whether it’s based on something personal, a favourite place or popular saying, there are almost infinite ways to come up with a name for your racehorse.

The racehorse naming rules

There are a number of basic rules that need to be followed. Names are limited to 18 characters. That includes spaces and apostrophes – the only punctuation allowed in racehorse names.

Some owners like to squeeze words together without spaces or become even more creative to make sure their chosen names fit, like Shutthefrontdoor or Didtheyleaveuoutto.

Names cannot have more than seven syllables. Racing commentators have a hard enough job as it is without being served up long tongue‐twisting names.

There is also a protected list of some of the greatest horses. There’s no way there will be another Red Rum, Desert Orchid, Shergar, Frankel or Enable.

The protected list contains around 3,000 of the best horses but, obviously, the line has to be drawn somewhere. It means the names of some old favourites do pop up from time to time.

Outside of the winners of the top races, names of any horse can only be recycled five years after they have died. The timespan increases to 10 years for mares who have produced foals and 15 years for stallions.

Rude or offensive names or those which sound rather inappropriate are also vetoed for obvious reasons. Some, however, have been known to slip through the net.

Many owners like to name their horses after famous people but express permission is needed if that person is still alive. If they died within the last 50 years, their family have to agree to the naming.

You can’t just reserve the name Queen Elizabeth II, David Beckham or Elton John without getting the go ahead from the people concerned. Any names that might breach a person’s or company’s copywrite also need permission.

There are currently around 250,000 racehorse names in circulation. To avoid the confusion of multiple horses with the same moniker, the availability of new names can be checked on the British Horseracing Authority’s website.

Popular methods to naming your racehorse

Horse’s Pedigree

Combining the names of a horse’s sire and dam is commonplace. Kauto Star, whose father was Village Star and mother was Kauto Relka, is one of the most famous examples. There have been dozens of horses’ names containing Galileo.

The super stallion has even had his name passed on to his grandchildren like St Leger winner Galileo Chrome and 2000 Guineas hero Galileo Gold.

Galileo and Galileo Chrome
Galileo (left) and Galileo Chrome (right)

Appearance

Some owners, especially breeders, like to use a horse’s features. One of the few racehorses officially registered as ‘white’ was useful staying chaser Russe Blanc. He was a French‐bred by Machiavellian Tsar. Russe Blanc translates as White Russian.

Big Orange, winner of the Gold Cup and Goodwood Cup, also got his name from his size and being a son of the stallion Duke Of Marmalade.

Top Notch Tonto, a Group‐race winner for trainer Brian Ellison, had so much white to go with his chestnut coat he looked like a horse a native American might ride in a Western film. Tonto was the Lone Ranger’s Comanche companion in the popular comic books, radio and TV shows.

Big Orange
Big Orange after winning the 2017 Ascot Gold Cup

TV, film and fiction

The names of characters from well‐known films and TV shows are very popular with owners. There’s been Del Trotter (Only Fools And Horses), Thomas Shelby (Peaky Blinders), Andy Dufresne (Shawshank Redemption) and Lieutenant Dan (Forrest Gump).

They are among dozens and dozens of names inspired by screen favourites. The 2006 Derby winner Sir Percy – a son of Blakeney – was named after the hero of The Scarlet Pimpernel.

Thomas Shelby and Thomas Shelby
Thomas Shelby and Thomas Shelby

Real people

Frankel, perhaps the greatest racehorse of them all, was named after legendary American trainer Bobby Frankel.

Coolmore boss John Magnier’s wife Sue puts a lot of thought into naming their horses. Historical figures have been very successful like Galileo, Mozart, Stravinsky, George Washington and Anthony Van Dyke.

Trainer George Baker named a horse after himself. When he won at Leicester in 2011 the result read: George Baker, owned by George Baker, trained by George Baker and ridden by George Baker.

Footballers have also been a rich source of inspiration. There’s been horses named Aguerooo, Messi, Ronaldo, Bergkamp and Captain Gerrard. The Romford Pele took his moniker from Arsenal football star Ray Parlour’s nickname.

Newmarket trainer Amy Murphy recently reserved the name Southgate after the England team’s success at Euro 2021.

Aguerooo and Aguerooo
Aguerooo and Aguero

Stable names

Many horses are given pet names by those who look after them. God’s Own, trained by Tom George to win three Grade 1 chases, was known as Basil as he was considered as daft as Basil Fawlty when he arrived at the Cotswold trainer’s yard.

Some owners wait until they feel they have a horse good enough to justify the name. Dubai Millennium was famously changed from Yaazer. It was a shrewd move by Sheikh Mohammed as the Godolphin Star went on to win the Dubai World Cup in 2000.

Names That got past the inspectors

There have been numerous names to slip through the net, many far too risqué to mention. Hoof Hearted is one of the more famous ones and whoever thought up Geespot should feel pleased with themselves. She was by the stallion Pursuit Of Love out of the mare My Discovery.

Fergal O’Brien’s social media guru Simon Gilson is a thorn in the side of the naming police. His latest name to escape their clutches is The Turtle Said.

There have been numerous spelling mistakes. Definitly Red (with an ‘e’ missing) became the name for the 2018 Charlie Hall Chase winner when he was being prepared for his point‐to‐point debut. His then‐owner went into his local pub and asked how to spell Definitely Red. Perhaps not the best place to ask about spelling uncertainties.