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Friday, January 31, 2014
What's in a name?

By Gary West
Special to ESPN.com

Uncle Sigh just might be clever enough and Samraat regal enough to win the Kentucky Derby because, after all, it's not just about talent.

They have talent, of course, plenty of it. If talent were money, the federal government would be trying to figure out a way to redistribute Samraat's and Uncle Sigh's. Samraat has won his three races by a total of 25 lengths, and Uncle Sigh cruised home by more than 14 for his maiden score. Their talent will be on display Saturday in the Withers Stakes at Aqueduct. But it's not about talent only.

Samraat has won his three races by a total of 25 lengths, and Uncle Sigh cruised home by more than 14 for his maiden score.

Have you ever noticed that good horses tend to have good names -- names that demand respect and suggest power or competence or achievement? Many Derby winners, for example, have names imbued with regal or martial connotations: Majestic Prince, Kauai King, Count Turf, Count Fleet, War Admiral, His Eminence. Could Majestic Prince have been anything other than outstanding?

And could Samraat be anything other than, well, a genuine talent who could launch himself down the road to the Kentucky Derby? In Indian, his name means emperor. And then there's Dog, whose name in English means some owners are just downright embarrassing. That's right, there's a racehorse named Dog. He recently finished sixth, or next-to-last, in a modest claiming race at Turf Paradise, where he's hiding, probably out of embarrassment.

Cabbage remains a maiden after several races, Bummy finished eighth of eight when last seen, in the distance, nearly 40 lengths back, and Crook never has raced. Aarons Orient, who lacks both stamina and an apostrophe, is probably off the Triple Crown trail. But Samraat is the 7-5 favorite for the Withers, and Noble Cornerstone the 7-2 second-choice in the morning line for Saturday's Sam F. Davis Stakes at Tampa Bay. Coincidence?

Of course not. Good horses generally have good names. Even if not gravid with positive connotation, their names are frequently imaginative or clever. Vicar's In Trouble, for example, is a son of Into Mischief out of a Vicar mare. And the winner of the recent Sweetest Chant Stakes, Ready To Act, is by More Than Ready out of Always Auditioning.

I'd like to think, of course -- and perhaps in some fanciful moments even imagine -- that the racing gods overseeing such things fill the best-named vessels with winning ichor, that fates or deific powers divert the embarrassingly named horses away from victory, or that the horses themselves find strength and inspiration in their own appellations. Yes, I'd like to think that, but, of course, I know otherwise.

The names horses carry to the racetrack simply reflect the intelligence, thoughtful concern, and pride responsible for getting them there. People who take the time to give their horses well-considered names usually take the time to think about their horses' care and health. People intelligent enough to come up with good names are smart enough to make good decisions about their horses' training and development. People who take pride in success also take pride in naming their horses.

Years ago, when I bought my first racehorse, I had trouble naming him. In those days, an owner had to submit a name to The Jockey Club through the mail and then wait for approval. Usually he would submit not just one name, but a few, in order of preference.

Well, I was having trouble naming my son of Air Forbes Won, purchased with Pick Six winnings and naive optimism. I tried to give him a clever name based on an aeronautical theme, maybe with a presidential twist. But The Jockey Club, for one reason or another, rejected all the names I submitted. This went on for some time, and the horse was ready to run, but still he had no name.

The names horses carry to the racetrack simply reflect the intelligence, thoughtful concern, and pride responsible for getting them there.

And so, in what I knew had to be my final submission, as the desperately last choice, I sent in a name scraped from the residue of my scholarly years, Incunabula. Nobody, I knew, could already have such an esoteric name, and nobody did, and so it was mine. Or rather it became this hapless horse's name, this Air Forbes Won colt out of a Nashua mare.

As it turned out, my eagerness to get him named and see him compete was pointless because he couldn't run, at least not in any meaningful way. Or maybe he just didn't want to tote that name around. He finished fifth, as I recall, in his debut and then regressed.

A year or so later I gave him to a trainer who was going to a minor-league venue, a small racetrack where Incunabula might find more congenial company. He deserved some happiness. Some time later, when he finished his career with a single victory in more than 30 races, I couldn't help but think, although I knew it irrational, that I had doomed Incunabula to mediocrity by burdening him in my foolish haste with that name. Considerable thought and attention and care should go into naming a racehorse.

Since then, the naming process has been streamlined. The names, however, haven't improved. I'm eager to see what Slowpoke Sam does when he makes his debut.

Still, among this year's 3-year-olds there are several that will take with them on the road to the Triple Crown a name worthy of a Derby winner: Honor Code, Cairo Prince, Matterhorn, King Cyrus, Lawmaker, Commissioner, Constitution, Strong Mandate, Top Billing, Medal Count and, of course, Samraat. If they're good enough, the fates or deific powers overseeing the sport won't divert them.