Even someone like moi, who’s more interested in the Philadelphia Phillies than fillies, is taking heed of horse racing this week, thanks to a transcendent steed named American Pharoah. The dark bay colt already has captured the first two legs of horse racing’s Triple Crown—the Kentucky Derby and Preakness—as well as the imagination of millions of diehard and casual fans. And this Saturday he could grab even more attention if he becomes the first thoroughbred since Affirmed in 1978 to go three-for-three in the big races with a win in the Belmont Stakes. During the last 37 years, 13 horses have arrived at Belmont Park on Long Island with an opportunity to become the next Triple Crown champion, and each has come up short.
One person who will be rooting from afar for history to happen is Marsha Baumgartner, a registered nurse from Missouri who is credited with giving the famed thoroughbred its distinctive—and misspelled—name. Zayat Stables held a naming contest for several of their foals three years ago, and Baumgartner suggested American Pharoah because the horse’s sire was Pioneerof the Nile (sic) and the dam’s sire, or maternal grandfather, was Yankee Gentleman. A pharaoh—correct spelling—was a king in ancient Egypt, during the days of the construction of the pyramids. “I don’t remember how I spelled it,” Baumgartner recently told a reporter when asked about the faux pas. “But I know I did look up the spelling before I entered.”
Her selection was chosen by the stable and submitted electronically to the Jockey Club, which, since 1894, has been charged with the approval and registration of all thoroughbreds foaled in the United States, Canada and Puerto Rico. Through the years, a number of horses’ names have been misspelled on purpose. Since this one hadn’t been used before and passed the long list of requirements, it was given the green light. It wasn’t until it was too late that the Zayats realized the error. But it’s really no big deal. As Baumgartner said, “Horses can’t spell anyway.” Unless, of course, the horse is the famous Mister Ed—the equine star of an immensely popular 1960s television sitcom who could both spell and talk.
I’ve always been intrigued by the names of thoroughbreds and the stories behind the names. As mentioned, the Jockey Club has numerous requirements. The name must be limited to 18 characters and has to be original. The horse can’t be named after a person without that person’s approval, and the name can’t have vulgar or obscene connotations.
Several years ago, a stable wanted to name a horse in honor of Oprah Winfrey, but the TV talk show host declined the request. The horse owners got around it by receiving approval of the name, Oprah Winney. Barbara Bush, the former First Lady, had no such reservations about equine immortality and provided her approval on White House letterhead. Through the years, celebrities such as Jimmy Stewart, Fred Astaire, Mickey Rooney and Ann Landers also have responded in the affirmative.
Nearly 37,000 names were submitted in 2014, with about 10,000 rejected by the three-person panel, headed by registrar Rick Bailey. The club currently has about 450,000 names in its data base. Despite Bailey and his staff’s diligence, some naughty names occasionally slip through. That’s not to say the registrar doesn’t have a sense of humor. In fact, he appreciates creativity and cleverness. Hence, through the years, we’ve seen names such as Itsmyluckyday, Rags to Riches, Pants on Fire, Mizdirection, Regret, Seabiscuit, Watamichoppedliver, Funny Cide, Victory Gallop, Mucho Macho Man, Assault, Easy Goer, I’ll Have Another, Game on Dude, Mine that Bird, Boxers or Briefs, Stopshoppingdebbie, Unbridled, Spectacular Bid, Anita Cocktail, Alysheba, Charismatic, Seattle Slew, Vindication, Einstein, Gallant Fox and Atswhatimtalknbout.
My all-time favorite race horse, Secretariat, has an interesting backstory. His owner originally submitted the names Scepter, Royal Line, SomethingSpecial, Games of Chance and Deo Volente, but each was rejected by the Jockey Club because they already had been used. Elizabeth Ham, the secretary for stable owner Christopher Chenery, suggested Secretariat, and it was approved. Secretariat, nicknamed “Big Red” because of his enormous size, wound up winning the 1973 Belmont Stakes by a preposterous 31 lengths, putting an exclamation point on his Triple Crown season. As one scribe wrote after that resounding victory, “He looked like a Rolls-Royce in a field of Volkswagens.” Another wrote: “His only point of reference is himself.” Sadly, the invincible Secretariat would end his spectacular racing season in Saratoga with an upset loss to a horse named Onion, prompting punsters and tabloid headline writers alike to exclaim: “That stinks!”
Speaking of upset, the word wasn’t part of the sports lexicon until a horse named Upset scored a stunning victory versus Man o’ War in 1919, also in Saratoga. Before that time, the definition of the word meant angry or aggravated. But thanks to Upset, the definition of upset expanded, and is now ubiquitous in the sports world. Zippy Chippy, who raced often at Finger Lakes Race Track, would have been thrilled with at least one upset in his memorable career. Then again, maybe it is better he went winless in 100 thoroughbred starts—by losing, Zippy won over legions, who admired his persistence while enduring the agony of defeat after defeat after defeat.
William Shakespeare wasn’t thinking about horses when he penned the line, “What’s in a name?” But perhaps the Bard should have, because centuries later his surname was given to a racehorse, who, hopefully, didn’t ask, “To be or not to be?” when he entered the starting gate.
American Pharoah is hoping this year’s Belmont will be much ado about something. He’ll be racing not only against the field, but also against history, attempting to snap a nearly four-decade drought. Should he succeed, there will be a new way to spell his name: Triple Crown Champion.
You can talk sports with award-winning columnist and author Scott Pitoniak Monday-Friday from 3-7 p.m. on ESPN Rochester 95.7 FM, AM 950 or on-line at www.espnrochester.com.
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