From American Pharoah to Wool Sandals, the All-Time Best and Worst Kentucky Derby Names

From American Pharoah to Wool Sandals, the All-Time Best and Worst Kentucky Derby Names

The definitive list of some of the best and worst names of horses to compete in the Run for the Roses.

LOUISVILLE, Ky. — The time has come to contemplate Soup and Sandwich.

Not for lunch. For Kentucky Derby immortality.

That is the unfortunate name of one of 20 entrants for this 147th running of America’s greatest horse race. At morning-line odds of 30-1, he is not likely to win. But more importantly, he is not allowed to win.

There are standards to uphold, and the Derby gods aren’t going to let that animal into the annals on name alone. He’s got no more chance of being green-lit for the history books than Green Alligator in 1991 or Shecky Greene in 1973.

The Churchill Downs tradition is to hang a sign with the name of the Derby winner in gold lettering on the facade of the paddock on the night of the race, and it stays there until the next year’s running. If they put “Soup and Sandwich” in the paddock, they might as well hang a menu underneath it and open a deli.

Dating back to the 1800s, the names of Derby winners have tended to match the prestigious nature of the event. There have been far more that carried connotations of power and majesty (War Admiral, Bold Ruler, Majestic Prince) than vapidity (Lil E. Tee somehow got past the gatekeepers and won the 1992 race). The horses with lame names tend to finish up the track.

Clever, lyrical, literate and evocative are good. Clunky references to relatives (Gramps Image, Our Dad, Papa Clem) are not.

Which brings us back to the Soupster, a lightly raced gray colt who was homebred at Live Oak Farm in Ocala, Fla. The farm is owned by Charlotte Colket Weber, whose grandfather founded Campbell’s Soup, so she has tended to work the source of the family fortune into the names of her race horses. She acknowledged to Louisville’s Courier-Journal last week that Soup and Sandwich is “stupid,” but the horse has done pretty well for himself with two wins and a second-place finish.

“And now stupid is good,” she said. “Just took a shot. Thought it was fun and a little mischief.”

Soup and Sandwich is trained by Mark Casse. In a coincidence that can leave you both shaking your head and feeling hungry, he has another 3-year-old in his stable named Chips and Salsa. (That one is a filly with different ownership.) What’s next, Burger and Fries?

Given this assault upon the dignity of the Run for the Roses, I decided to plow back through the annals for the best and worst Derby names. Both lists are extremely long, but with the assistance of a blue-ribbon panel (consisting of a few friends and family members who bothered to respond to my emails) I have condensed them to a Top and Bottom 20, with the understanding that this is completely subjective and likely to create violent disagreement. Have at it.

THE 20 BEST

In alphabetical order:

Always Dreaming – Year: 2017. Place: Winner
A name invoking dreaming works for all Derby winners.

American Pharoah – Year: 2015. Place: Winner, and Triple Crown champion.
The only thing preventing this from being the best name ever is the misspelling of pharaoh. But it fits perfectly with Egyptian expatriate owner Ahmed Zayat.

Bold Venture – Year: 1936. Place: Winner.
The first of the Bolds—there were eight of them in the Derby, although Bold Ruler was the sire of most of them. Bold Venture did sire two Derby winners: Triple Crown champion Assault and Middleground.

Boundless – Year: 1893. Place: Third.
Perhaps the first adjective horse, he symbolizes the open-ended amount of ambition and enthusiasm it takes to win the Derby.

Charismatic – Year: 1999. Place: Winner.
Charisma is one of those intangible qualities, and it’s a good descriptor for a long shot who paid $64.60 to win on $2 ticket.

Damascus – Year: 1967. Place: Third.
There needs to be some tie on this list to the Middle East, the cradle of the thoroughbred, so why not a horse named for the capital of Syria? Damascus was a great horse, winner of the Preakness and Belmont and many other major races, but was reportedly spooked by the large crowd on Derby day.

Empire Maker – Year: 1993. Place: Second.
Derby favorite was under-trained in anticipation of a Triple Crown run, wound up winning the Belmont.

Gun Runner – Year: 2016. Place: Third.
Some rhyme scheme plus the gravity of a potential international crime.

Jambalaya Jazz – Year: 1995. Place: 15th.
Not a factor in the race, but impressive alliteration. The horse was tragically killed by lightning while standing at stud in Kentucky in 2005.

Laureate – Year: 1895. Place: Third.
According to the Derby racing notes, Laureate’s saddle began to slip in the second half of the race and he dropped out of contention. Could probably write a sad sonnet about the experience afterward.

Majestic Prince – Year: 1969. Place: Winner.
The Prince won both the Derby and the Preakness, but was going to skip the Belmont due to a reported leg problem. Perhaps because of public pressure, Majestic Prince tried the Belmont and finished second to Arts and Letters amid much acrimony within his barn.

Midnight Bourbon – Year: 2021. Place: To Be Determined. 
A horse named for the cause of both great revelry and great regret during Kentucky Derby week must be respected.

Risen Star – Year: 1988. Place: Third.
The most accomplished son of Secretariat won both the Preakness and Belmont after not being able to close on Winning Colors in the Derby.

Riva Ridge – Year: 1972. Place: Winner.
Alliteration works, especially when the horse wins the Roses. An upset loss in the Preakness kept him from winning the Triple Crown a year before stablemate Secretariat accomplished the feat.

Silver Charm – Year: 1997. Place: Winner.
The name fit the gray colt from the West Coast, who earns extra points by being my personal favorite Derby winner. (Tickets were cashed that day.)

Sinister Minister – Year: 2006. Place: 16th.
The all-time Derby rhyme winner pressed the pace in ’06, briefly sticking a head in front, then faded badly in the stretch.

Spectacular Bid – Year: 1979. Place: Winner.
One of the biggest Derby favorites ever was spectacular in toying with the field in both that race and the Preakness. But then he was one of the more stunning upset losers in the Belmont.

TwinSpired – Year: 2011. Place: 17th. 
Sent off at 33-1 and lived down to the billing, never rating better than 12th at any point in the race. But the name is fantastically clever—he was roughly a 16,000-to-1 shot in his American yearling crop to make the Kentucky Derby, and he pulled it off. Everything thereafter was gravy.

Vagabond – Year: 1875. Place: 14th.
The next-to-last-place horse in the first Derby is pretty forgettable, but kudos to the evocative name.

Whirlaway – Year: 1941. Place: Winner.
One of the all-time great thoroughbreds began cementing that status at the Derby, carrying a name that would conjure up images of a horse capable of leaving everyone and everything behind.

THE 20 WORST

Atswhatimtalkinbout – Year: 2003. Place: Fourth.
The run-on, mashup names are the worst. This stands at the damnable poster child for those.

Big Truck – Year: 2008. Place: 18th. 
Do not name your horse after a motor vehicle. Especially a slow-moving motor vehicle.

Black Servant – Year: 1921. Place: Second.
Even a century ago, this was a very unwise choice.

Daddy Nose Best  Year: 2012. Place: 10th. 
As noted above, all names invoking relatives—dad, mom, grandpa, grandma, uncle, aunt—are bad names. Throwing in a bad pun only makes it worse.

Dit – Year: 1940. Place: Third.
Doesn’t quite roll off the tongue.

Gatch – Year: 1975. Place: 12th.
See above.

Green Alligator – Year: 1991. Place: Fourth.
There isn’t much need to invoke a slower dry-land animal than a horse, but they did it anyway 30 years ago. There are no reptile winners of this race.

Jaklin Klugman – Year: 1980. Place: Third.
One of his owners was actor Jack Klugman. Do not name horses after yourself. There is a big English lexicon out there, go find something else.

Killer Diller – Year: 1990. Place: Sixth.
The exception to the Sinister Minister rule—not all rhymes are good rhymes.

Lil E. Tee  Year: 1992. Place: Winner
The only Kentucky Derby winner who, on name alone, could be mistaken for a dog track greyhound.

Lost Cause – Year: 1882. Place: 13th.
Done in by a defeatist attitude from the moment he was named.

Quasimodo – Year: 1934 Place: Last.
The exact wrong image to convey, and the poor critter ran down to it.

Shawklit Won – Year: 1987. Place: 11th.
Overly literal mashup of his parents, sire Air Forbes Won and dam Shawklit.

Shut Up – Year: 1944. Place: Fourth. 
Rude.

Snuzzle – Year: 1951. Place: 16th.
In the 1980s, apparently, there was a Snuzzle toy pony of some sort. That does not excuse foisting the name upon a live race horse three decades earlier.

Soup and Sandwich – Year: 2021. Place: To Be Determined.
See all the above.

The Clown – Year: 1923. Place: 18th.
Ran like a Bozo.

T V Commercial – Year: 1968. Place: Third.
If this horse had run in the 1950s, when television was new, maybe. In 1968 it was just odd.

Watermelon – Year: 1914. Place: Last.
You name your horse after a bulbous fruit with no legs, you take your chances.

Wool Sandals – Year: 1907. Place: Fifth.
Without question, the worst name in Derby history. All connotations are uncomfortable, awkward, itchy and ungainly. The all-time What Were They Thinking horse.

More From Pat Forde:
What Would a College Football Super League Look Like?
College Basketball Coaching Hires Reflect Sorely Needed Change
Baylor’s Beatdown Spoils Gonzaga’s Chance at Perfection
Chet Holmgren’s Commitment Marks an Inflection Point for Gonzaga

Follow us on Twitter