Famous Derby Horse Names and Meanings

Last Updated on November 20, 2021 by Urska

Ever wonder how racehorses get their names? You’re not alone! Derby horse names have some of the most unique and sometimes puzzling names in the horse industry.  I distinctly remember going to a horse race as a child and finding out that the winning horse was named “Couch.” 

In this article, I’ll be discussing some famous Kentucky Derby winners and the meanings behind their names! These horses include Secretariat, Smarty Jones, Barbaro, and American Pharoah.

Derby Horse Names: Secretariat

Many people know the name Secretariat.  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.  The jockey club rejected all of these names. Penny’s secretary, Elizabeth Ham, was fond of the red colt and suggested the name Secretariat (i.e.- of a secretary).  The jockey club accepted the name that is now renowned in the racing world.


Derby Horse Names: Smarty Jones

In the early 2000s, a liver chestnut stallion stole the hearts of the derby community.  “Smarty Jones” was known for being clever, stubborn, and fast. He was owned by Pam Chapman and would win the Kentucky Derby in 2004. Pam named Smarty Jones after a nickname she used for her “headstrong” mother, because of his stubborn and clever personality.



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 end up 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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Derby Horse Names: 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.

But, 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. 



Racehorses seem to get their names from all over the place! I hope 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 share with us your horse-naming stories!


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 the 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?

Derby horses names must be unique. That means that no two horses are allowed to have the same name. Even if the horse is called by a nickname or shortened version of their full name, that horse has to have its own individual title and therefore needs its own personal identity. This also applies for all non-derby sports like showing or polo.
Derby horses names are often inspired by literature and popular culture, such as the Kentucky Derby winner Street Sense, named after character in F. Scott Fitzgeralds novel The Great Gatsby, or Afleet Alex after Secretariat's half-brother. Others use famous horse names to honor them or keep their memory alive for good luck.
Derby horses names also frequently use the tradition of honoring famous racehorses in English history. Examples are Man o' War and Seabiscuit, both famous thoroughbreds in America's history.
Derby horses names are good if they have good sound and good rhythm. Names that have alliteration suit well for this, such as Mine That Bird from the Kentucky Derby winner in 2009. It's also appreciated if a horse name tells a story, because it gives good context.
A good horse name is easy to pronounce, so that viewers can easily understand it when hearing it over the microphone during a race.
Derby horses names can also be good if they use good puns or good wordplay, such as Yankee Doodle Dandy. This is a play on the famous lyric from 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.