You probably didn't know that Barbara Bush whinnied and nibbled hay, or that Namath was a gelding who lost his first 12 races. Thoroughbreds were named for the first lady and the Jets great, a common practice with celebrities. A living person must give the OK before the Jockey Club will. Mrs. Bush was a good sport, and Namath is a longtime racing fan.
Rick Bailey has worked for the Jockey Club for 25 years, the last 9 1/2 as its registrar, in charge of approving and rejecting names. "Mrs. Bush was still the first lady at the time, and we received a letter of permission on White House letterhead,'' Bailey said, "so that was pretty exciting.''
In September 2010 at Woodbine, Namath was second to Quarterback in the ultimate hunch-play exacta. In his previous race, Namath finished first but was disqualified for interference, and no, the horse he bothered was not a filly.
Seinfeld fans could have bet on Summer of George, Hello Newman, Yada Yada Yada and Nosupeforyou, a gelding who earned more than $220,000. Movie buffs could have played Mickey Rooney, Jimmy Stewart and Fred Astaire. Students of history could have bought tickets on George Washington, Galileo and Spartacus. For Yankees Universe, there was Bambino's Curse; for Red Sox Nation, Curse Reversed.
What's in a name? For thoroughbreds, a lot of dos and don'ts. You can't exceed 18 letters, and punctuation marks and spaces count. "The 18-letter limit is mainly to protect the track announcer calling the races and space in the racing program,'' Bailey said by phone from Lexington, Ky. "We also don't allow names spelled or pronounced similarly to a famous horse's.''
Political correctness is important, too, with anything that might offend an ethnic or religious group rejected. Despite the Jockey Club's vigilance, many vulgar plays on words have slipped through, such as . . . sorry, this is a family newspaper.
Yet despite the restrictions -- Bailey said at any point there are 400,000 to 450,000 protected names -- every year the Jockey Club approves 40,000. "We usually look at about 60,000 new ones,'' he said. "For many years, we would consistently OK about 67 percent, a pretty high batting average, and last year for the first time we went over 70 percent.''
To check on availability, an owner or breeder emails or texts and can find out within minutes. The Jockey Club also has an online data base of taken names.
Sometimes the name is derived solely from the sire. Orb, this year's Kentucky Derby winner, is a son of Malibu Moon. Often the dam is the inspiration, as with Relaxing, who foaled 1989 Belmont Stakes champion Easy Goer.
"It's interesting to see how creative people can be when naming thoroughbreds,'' Bailey said. The undisputed champion is Claiborne Farm, which A.B. Hancock Sr. founded in 1910 in Paris, Ky. Claiborne was the world's most influential breeder of the 20th century, with the motto "Doing the Usual Unusually Well.'' It's equally gifted at producing poetic names for its legion of blue bloods.
Blending sire and dam is its classic formula, such as Departing, by War Front out of the mare Leave. Forty Niner and Seeking the Gold were sons of Mr. Prospector, and his mating with Narrate produced the filly Preach, whose son was named Pulpit.
"Dad liked five-letter names,'" Dell Hancock said of her father, A.B. Hancock Jr. "What we try to do is continue the pedigree with the name so it's readily identifiable. That makes it so easy to recall. My sister, Clay, named Departing, and I named Leave. My brother Seth named Pulpit."
In a 1986 article in Sports Illustrated, their mother, the late Waddell Hancock, said: "These horses are sometimes like your children. You want them to have good names."
Names of Long Islander Mike Repole's horses often are derived from family members -- his wife (Noshoppingmaria, Stopshoppingmaria); mother (Lights Off Annie); father (Benny the Waiter) and brother (Gerard Loves Beer). Then there's his 3-year-old filly Unlimited Budget, a multiple stakes-winner who might challenge the boys in Saturday's Belmont.
A few years ago, Repole bought a home on Nassau County's North Shore. "My wife wanted to upgrade some of the rooms and change the landscaping,'' said Repole, a 44-year-old entrepreneur. "She asked me what her budget was. We've been together since college, and she's had to put up with a lot because often I'm gone working long hours. So I told her she had an unlimited budget. When the bills came in, I said, 'I think you're the only person who ever went over an unlimited budget.' ''
Unlimited Budget has won four of five starts and earned $705,200, $230,200 more than what she cost, so presumably she covered Maria's renovations.
Fun with names peaked on Aug. 22, 2010, in an otherwise insignificant race at Monmouth Park, when Mywifenosevrything and Thewifedoesntknow hooked up in a tongue-twisting duel that track announcer Larry Collmus nailed. The unflappable Collmus' call has collected more than a million views on YouTube.
"They're 1-2! Of course they are! Mywifenosevrything in front, to the outside! Mywifenosevrything! Thewifedoesntknow! Mywifenosevrything! More than Thewifedoesntknow! Whoo!''
Too bad Divorce Papers and Prenup didn't complete the superfecta.