Famous Derby Horse Names and Meanings

Last Updated on February 3, 2023

Have you ever wondered where some of the most famous Derby horse names originated from? Derby winners have some of the most unique and sometimes puzzling names in the horse industry.

Today we’re going to take a look at some of the most famous Kentucky Derby winners and the meanings behind their names! These horses include Secretariat, Smarty Jones, Barbaro, American Pharoah, and many more.

Famous Derby Horse Names – What’s in a Name?

Many people don’t realize that naming a racehorse is not a simple task! It can be very hard to choose a name for a horse, for several reasons.

The official name a racehorse is known by and raced under must be approved by the Jockey Club. The owner of the horse must submit a request to name a horse to the Jockey Club, who then checks it meets their requirements.

To be approved, the name must be unique and not sound like any other name already on the system. It must be no longer than 18 characters long, and cannot be offensive. If the horse is to be named after a living person, written permission must be obtained from that person. Many other criteria must be adhered to, hence the reason why nearly a third of naming applications get rejected!

To make the process of choosing a name simpler, many racehorse owners decide to name their horses based on their pedigree. This means choosing a name that is linked to the names of the horse’s dam, sire, or both. This is a great way to continue a theme throughout the horse’s bloodline.

Of course, some of the racehorse names you hear can sound a bit ridiculous! For this reason, most horses also have a stable name that the grooms use rather than the official name. This can be a shortened version of the official name, or a different pet name altogether.

OK, so now we know how some of the most famous Derby horse names were chosen, let’s take a look at some fascinating examples!

Secretariat

Secretariat is one of the most famous Derby horse names, but most people don’t stop to think about how this name came about. Secretariat was one of the few horses to win the elite Triple Crown title, and his bloodlines are in a high percentage of American Thoroughbreds today.

Secretariat was owned and loved by Penny Tweedy in the 1970s. Penny submitted many names for her red colt to the Jockey Club, including Scepter, Royal Line, SomethingSpecial, Games of Chance, and Deo Volente.  However, the jockey club rejected all of these names.

Penny’s secretary, Elizabeth Ham, was very fond of the red colt and suggested the name Secretariat, which means ‘of a secretary’. Happily, the Jockey Club accepted the name that went on to be one of the most famous Derby horse names in the racing world.

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Smarty Jones

In the early 2000s, a liver chestnut stallion stole the hearts of the derby community.  He was owned by Pam Chapman and won the Kentucky Derby in 2004, despite suffering from a severe head injury and fractured skull the previous year.

Smarty Jones had a reputation for being clever and stubborn from birth. Pam named Smarty Jones after a nickname she used for her “headstrong” mother, because of his stubborn and clever personality. Smarty Jones also shared a birthday with Pam’s late mother and naming him after she was a lovely way to honor her memory.

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Barbaro

Two years after Smarty Jones won the derby, a horse named Barbaro took the title.  After his Derby win, Barbaro sustained a leg injury that would tragically result in his euthanasia a few months later.

Barbaro had an entire country cheering on his recovery; he received lots of fan mail and was the face of many posters, ads, and campaigns.  Barbaro was even recreated as a Breyer model horse in the years following his euthanasia. But where did his name come from?

Barbaro’s owner, Gretchen Jackson, named him and his siblings after foxhounds in a painting that she owned.  Foxhounds assist horses and hunters in foxhunting, which has been a popular equine sport for centuries in both Europe and America.  

 

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American Pharoah

Everyone knows this famous name! American Pharoah won not only the Kentucky Derby but the entire Triple Crown in 2015.  The beautiful bay stallion captured the hearts of the nation as the first winner of the triple crown in almost forty years.

However, something looked funny about his name. Owned by Zyat Stables at the time, American Pharoah’s name was chosen from a list of fan-submitted suggestions on their website.  The family is American with Egyptian heritage, so it seemed like a perfect fit.

The submission came from Marsha Baumgartner, who claims to have spell-checked the words before her submission. The correct spelling of the word is “Pharaoh” instead of “Pharoah,” so the “o” and the “a” are switched in American Pharoah’s name. This spelling error certainly didn’t seem to bother the horse in question, and American Pharoah is now one of the most famous Derby horse names in the world!

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Mucho Macho Man

Sometimes a horse gets a name as a foal that suits it perfectly as an adult, and Mucho Macho Man is a great example! Mucho Macho Man was sired by Macho Uno, and his owner named him after the Village People song ‘Macho Man’. Luckily, this little colt grew to a size worthy of such a name!

Mucho Macho Man stands over 17 hands tall, which is much higher than the average racehorse. As a youngster, this was a disadvantage, as he would frequently trip over his own long legs. However, when he reached maturity this size became an advantage, and he was placed third in the Kentucky Derby in 2011, as well as winning several classic races later in his career.

Mucho Macho Man is now retired to stud, but his name lives on in his offspring, the most famous of which is Mucho Gusto.

Summary

So, as we have learned, racehorses seem to get their names from all over the place! The most famous Derby horse names have a wide range of origins, from sentimental names to spelling errors. So, the next time you’re at the racetrack, take a minute to try and figure out how these crazy names came about!

We hope that this article helped you learn where some of the most famous racehorses got their names, and what they mean. If so, please share this article, and comment below with your favorite horse-naming stories!

FAQs

Who was the fastest horse of all time?

The fastest horse of all time was the American thoroughbred, the racehorse Seabiscuit. Even though the horse was smaller than most other thoroughbreds, at only 15.3 hands high (a hand is 4 inches), the horse managed to win more races than any other. The record of this racehorse has not been broken or tied since the 1930s.
The horse Seabiscuit never ran the Kentucky Derby or the Preakness Stakes, because his owner had no interest in the races. The owner claimed the prize money was too small to be worth the time and effort of competing. This means that the racehorse's record still stands today.

What is the most famous race horse of all time?

The most famous race horse of all time is the thoroughbred Man o' War, who was the only other horse to ever defeat Seabiscuit. He tied the record for the highest margin of victory in the Belmont Stakes, which at the time was considered the final and deciding race of the Triple Crown. He won the race by 100 lengths.
Man o' War won twenty-one races and only lost one. To put the winning streak of this horse in perspective, most horses lose more than half of their races.

How to pick a good derby horse name?

The names of Derby horses must be unique, and no two horses are allowed to have the same name.
Derby horse names are often inspired by literature and popular culture, such as the Kentucky Derby winner Street Sense, named after a character in F. Scott Fitzgerald's novel The Great Gatsby, or Afleet Alex after Secretariat's half-brother.
Derby horse names should ideally have good sound and rhythm, and be easy to pronounce, This helps viewers to easily understand it when hearing it over the microphone during a race.
Names that have alliteration work well for this, such as Mine That Bird who won the Kentucky Derby in 2009.
Derby horse names can also be fun if they use puns or wordplay, such as Yankee Doodle Dandy. This is a play on the famous lyric from the American anthem 'Yankee Doodle', with the horse's name itself being a reference to singer and songwriter James Cavanaugh.

How long can a derby horse name be?

Derby horse names are not allowed to be longer than 18 characters, although there are exceptions. Exceptions are made for horse names that have more syllables in their real meaning or because of different language rules.

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