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Whykickamoocow: The secret of silly horse names

Story highlights

  • Silly horse names are a traditional part of the horse racing experience
  • But naming a thoroughbred is also fine art subject to strict international rules
  • A horse's name can influence betting among inexperienced punters
  • Important horse names, such as Frankel, are put on a protected register

Say these names as fast as you can: Hoof Hearted, Whykickamoocow, Oh no it's my mother-in-law, Maythehorsebewithyou.

It's not a playground tongue twister, but a legitimate list of horse names, announced at speed by racing commentators adept at wrapping their lips around some of the most difficult -- and ridiculous -- titles on the planet.

Silly horse names are as much a part of the racing experience as ladies in hats or laying a bet. But naming a thoroughbred is also a fine art subject to strict international regulations, with the power to both sway punters and shape the horse's legacy.

"If you look at the big races, there are not many horses who win them without good names," British racing commentator Cornelius Lysaght said.

"Frankel (the superstar colt who recently retired after an unblemished 14-win career) was a cracking name. It was very distinctive, strong and easy to pronounce -- it absolutely jumped out of the microphone.

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"Added to that was the fairytale story of trainer Sir Henry Cecil naming him after trainer Bobby Frankel, who died from cancer. It created a certain mystique around the horse."

So why are many horse names downright weird? It's partly a way of getting around rules dictating that no professional thoroughbreds have the same name. That includes names which are spelled differently, but phonetically sound the same.

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Names can be no longer than 18 characters, with up to seven syllables.

Each name is also protected for 20 years, and up to 35 years if the horse goes to stud after retiring.

Then there's the holy grail of names considered so important, they can never be used again.

When people say, "There'll never be another Frankel," they aren't wrong. The International Federation of Horseracing Authorities has put the champion horse on its eternally protected list, alongside such greats as Australian gelding Phar Lap and U.S. stallion Seabiscuit.

One loophole does allow horses from different countries to have the same name -- provided they include the nation's prefix at the end.

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And if you want to name your horse after a person or company, you've got to have their permission. British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher famously turned down a request by the late Clement Freud -- a former celebrity chef, politician and grandson of the famed psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud -- to name his horse after her. He called it Weareagrandmother instead.

There's also the minefield of names deemed too offensive for the track. Among the risque suggestions which failed to get the seal of approval from the British Horse Racing Authority's administrative arm, Weatherbys, are: Chit Hot, Harry Balzitch, Pee Ness and Hucking Fell.

The names of terrorist organizations such as Al Qaeda and IRA have also been turned away, though Weatherbys racing director Paull Khan admitted suspect names had "slipped through the net" in the past.

"You've also got to take cultural differences into account. In Britain, people would generally be quite flattered to have a horse named after them, but in France it would more likely be seen as an insult," he said.

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BBC commentator Lysaght has had to call some tongue-twisting horse names in a career spanning more than 30 years.

"A few complicated names in a tight finish can get a bit frightening," he said

"If a few of the more difficult names go down in a race, I think deep down the commentator is thinking, 'Thank God that one's not involved anymore.' "

Thankfully for Lysaght, the most prolific winners in recent years have had sharp, easily pronounceable names -- think Frankel or Australian supermare Black Caviar.

"There's also a certain trend now for short, real words," he said. "The Queen is renowned for naming her horses sensible, quite cleverly constructed words -- like Sea Shanty."

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But can a horse's name affect its performance? Is it possible to have a champion horse called Loser? Lysaght believes a horse's name can be self-prophesying -- to an extent.

"Camelot's owners reserved the name 10 years ago -- they thought it was a marvelous name but there was no horse that came up to scratch," Lysaght said.

"They wanted to wait and attach it to a really great horse who would live up to the mythical title. As it turned out, he didn't quite get there in the end."

British colt Camelot came close to fulfilling his promise, winning this year's 2,000 Guineas and Epsom Derby but failing to complete the English Triple Crown after finishing second at the St. Leger Stakes.

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It's difficult to pinpoint a link between names and performance. But that still hasn't stopped horse names having an effect on punters' betting habits.

"I think it holds the most sway at something like the Grand National in Britain, where you've got a large proportion of inexpert betters," Khan said.

"You'll have lots of small bets on appealing names -- things that have a human element people can associate with or are cleverly constructed."

As for the horse's legacy, Khan puts it down to performance.

"I think the degree people feel attached to certain names is dependent on the performance of the horse -- not the other way around," he said.

So if Khan had a horse, what would he name it? "Worksop Bellyflop. It's a name that just jumped out at me when I gave a talk in Worksop, in the East Midlands, once."

It's no Camelot. But then, as Shakespeare's Juliet famously said: "What's in a name? That which we call a rose
by any other name would smell as sweet."

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