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Derby entries: Naming names

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Too Darn Hot, Godzilla or Mighty Matilda? John Ingles names the Derby winner, or at least gives himself every chance of doing so, and uncovers some interesting stories in a wander through this year’s entries.

More than a hundred horses are engaged in this year’s Derby following the second entry stage earlier in April. Only a handful of those entries, headed by champion two-year-old Too Darn Hot, have made anything like a name for themselves so far, but several more will no doubt become much better known in the coming weeks as the trials unfold, perhaps one or two who haven’t even seen a racecourse yet.

While we’re waiting for the form of the would-be Derby contenders to take shape, it’s the names themselves that make for interesting study. If weight of numbers means anything, there’s a good chance this year that the Derby winner’s name will be found somewhere in an atlas – especially as a good number of these are in Coolmore ownership - though pinpointing the exact location of some of those places is easier than others: Bangkok, Barbados, Cape of Good Hope, Constantinople, Fresno, Georgeville, Hiroshima, Htilominlo (google it!), Japan, Mount Everest, Norway, Pacific Ocean, Western Australia

None of those places, however, is anywhere near Norfolk which has the surprising claim of being the best geographical source of inspiration for the names of Derby winners in the last fifty years. It can boast two; the 1969 winner Blakeney and his half-brother Morston who was successful four years later, both colts named after neighbouring villages on the county’s north coast. The pair were half-brothers bred, owned and trained by Arthur Budgett. Blakeney’s sire Hethersett also took his name from a Norfolk village.

Rather than on Earth, other owners hoping they’ve named a Derby winner took their inspiration from looking to the heavens, maybe hoping to follow the example of Sea The Stars: Great Bear, Il Paradiso, Persian Moon, Space Blues, Space Walk, Three Comets

It’s also possible that the Derby could be won by a Grenadier Guard, a High Commissioner, a Humanitarian, a Logician, a Private Secretary or a Technician. Then again, it could be a seventeenth century Flemish artist, an eighteenth century Italian ‘adventurer’, a member of a famous family of American comic actors, or a Columbian drug lord, if one of Anthony Van Dyck, Casanova, Harpo Marx or Pablo Escobarr were to be successful on June 1st. Never mind a horse-race, what a dinner party that would be.

While Casanova may be named after a better-known Italian than another Derby entry Ginistrelli, the latter, trained by Ed Walker, would be an entirely appropriate winner at Epsom. The colt’s human namesake was Edoardo Ginistrelli, who, like Arthur Budgett much later, not only trained the Derby winner but bred and owned her. Yes, Ginistrelli’s Derby winner was a filly, Signorinetta, who caused a 100/1 upset in 1908 but quickly showed that was no fluke when following up in the Oaks two days later. More of Ginistrelli later.

Six fillies have won the Derby but none have done so in the last hundred years, which makes Mighty Matilda’s current entry in this year’s race particularly eye-catching. The mystery surrounding her is heightened by the fact she that she has no recorded trainer, while her exotic pedigree only adds to the intrigue. Mighty Matilda would be a first runner in Britain for her French sire Execute, a son of Arc winner Suave Dancer, while her dam was bred in Turkey and is the daughter of Wolf, a triple crown winner in Chile.

Another name that catches the eye among the Derby entries is Godzilla who is yet to be unleashed by Aidan O’Brien. On paper, he’s a much more likely type, by Galileo out of a sister to the recently deceased Australian champion sire Redoute’s Choice. But Godzilla isn’t the only potential monster lurking among the among the unraced Derby entries as Mick Appleby has Dreadnoughtus, named after a gigantic dinosaur discovered in Argentina which is thought to have been the largest land animal that ever lived.

Naming racehorses after fictional or long-dead creatures at least avoids the issue of requiring written permission from either the individual themselves, if still alive, or their relatives, if they’re not, for anyone wishing to name a horse after a real person. There are ways around this rule, though, which probably explains the extra ‘r’ in the spelling of Pablo Escobarr. Timeform’s founder Phil Bull, a successful breeder and owner of horses, had to be similarly inventive when he was refused permission in the 1980’s to name a horse after the Vietnamese revolutionary leader Ho Chi Minh.

‘It is Jockey Club policy to tread warily when there is any risk of causing ill feeling’, Bull was told in a letter, and ‘that Ho Chi Minh’s influence and following is still strong enough to warrant such caution.’  Bull described the decision as ‘outrageous and ludicrous’, observing that the same reasons had not precluded a horse from being named Henry Kissinger, after the US Secretary of State at the time of the Vietnam War. Bull’s slightly amended name for the horse, Ho Mi Chinh, was accepted.

As might be inferred, Bull had a rather eccentric policy when it came to naming his horses, which probably wasn’t popular with commentators in particular who had to cope with tongue-twisters such as Pheidippides, Philoctetes and Thucydides. ‘I’ve often been taken to task for giving my horses unpronounceable Greek names’ wrote Bull. ‘Absolute rubbish! They always roll nicely off the tongue. It wasn’t my fault if the bookmakers referred to Empedocles as ‘Empty Bottles’, and to Anamnestes as ‘Ham and Egg Teas.’’

Another of Bull’s horses, incidentally, Sostenuto, won the 1962 Ebor by eight lengths from an animal named Cracksman, a reminder that horses’ names are liable to be re-used over time, though the exploits of the more recent Cracksman should mean that the name is protected in future. Duplications of the names of big-race winners around the world does happen, however. Last year’s Oaks winner Forever Together, for example, was a namesake of the American mare who won the Breeders’ Cup Filly & Mare Turf just ten years earlier.

Two horses with the same name have even been known to turn up in the same race, as happened in a two-year-old maiden at Yarmouth in 1979. As it happens, those two were also named Ginistrelli. The one with the (USA) suffix turned out to be a smart colt for Henry Cecil, winning the Yarmouth race and going on to win the Lingfield Derby Trial, though he didn’t make it to Epsom. Maybe the latest Ginistrelli will have better luck.

Racehorses – not even Derby winners – do not need fancy names as the likes of Sam, Cedric and Frederick – all successful at Epsom early in the nineteenth century - attest. In the past, they did not even need a name at all - the 1797 Derby winner was known as ‘a colt by Fidget’. In the same spirit, as fans of Coronation Street will no doubt appreciate, the two-year-old colt by Frankel out of Deirdre, in training with Mark (and Deirdre) Johnston, apparently originally went by the name of ‘Kenneth’. Deirdre, by the way, is a half-sister to those good stayers Duncan and Samuel and has already produced the winners Nigel, Stanley and Nathalie. However, ‘Kenneth’, who holds an entry in next year’s Derby, has since been renamed, so instead it’s possible that the name of Fred will join the likes of Nijinsky, Shergar and Galileo on the Derby roll of honour. 

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