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Playing Name Game, He’s a Sure Thing

What’s in a name? Shakespeare wanted to know.

Well, plenty--unless you’re so talented you can turn Evander Holyfield into a household one.

If your name is Jack Dempsey, you don’t have to be good--even though by any other name Dempsey would have hit as hard.

Sugar Ray was a ticket to greatness for two gladiators. But could Rocky Marciano have been as tough if his name were Clarence? Has a fighter named Ralph ever won?

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Certain names strike fear in the territory. Geronimo on the great plains, for instance. Hogan on a golf course. An Iron Horse in a batter’s box. Bronko Nagurski on a goal line.

The great tackle, Alex Karras, once told George Plimpton he could never have made it as a football player if his name had been, say, Alexander Harris. Then, he would have been Secretary of the Interior. Or, perhaps, an interior decorator. Larry Csonka, he said, couldn’t have been anything but a crunching fullback. “If his name was Robin Jenkins, he couldn’t have made Yale,” Karras insisted.

Which brings me to the proposition that even those athletes who don’t know what their names are--racehorses--are similarly circumscribed.

So, it gives me great pleasure to report that the winner of the Santa Anita Derby on Saturday is in the great tradition. Indian Charlie is a handle to gladden the hearts of horse-players everywhere--to say nothing of headline writers.

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Indian Charlie won like a good thing, overtaking a horse called--ugh!--Orville N Wilbur’s. (Imagine the trouble Vanna White would have with people buying vowels to come up with that.)

How important is a horse’s name? Well, who’s the greatest race horse who ever ran? Man o’ War, right?

With that collection of syllables he couldn’t have been other than what he was--an unforgettable champion. Even if he weren’t, race fans would never forget him.

If his name had been Warra Nymph, who would care?

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So, we had to look at the horses loaded in the gate at this year’s Santa Anita Derby and check which ones belonged there.

Oh, not for their past performances, their morning workouts, fractions, stamina or whether or not they were on Lasix. For their names.

You see, we’ve had some successful runners on the track of late who didn’t pass the poetic litmus test. I mean, the Kentucky Derby was won a few years ago by a colt called--yeeech!--Lil E. Tee. No wonder he paid $35.60. Who wanted to bet on a Lil E. Tee?

Ever notice the great names on all those winners of the Triple Crown? Not a clinker among them. No Lil E. Tee need apply. Sir Barton, Gallant Fox, Omaha, War Admiral, Whirlaway, Count Fleet, Assault, Citation, Secretariat, Seattle Slew, Affirmed. Marquee names, all.

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Years ago, there was a Saratoga horse named Red Rain. He couldn’t run much, but what a name. Everyone remembered.

Naming a horse is an art form anyway. Liz Whitney used to spend hours at it. If she had a sire called Dante’s Inferno, she named the foal Divine Comedy. The Jockey Club monitors the naming of thoroughbreds and, among other things, a name must have no more than 18 letters or spaces and no more than three words. Horse owners get around this today by pasting their words together like a German spelling book, no space or punctuation in between. Arewehavingfunyet is an example. So is Makinanhonestbuck. Fortunately, none of these ever seem to get in the classics.

I thought of all this Saturday as I surveyed the company of Triple Crown hopefuls in the gate of the Santa Anita Derby. Which of these would have the magic combination of syllables to go on to score in the classics?

After all, Silver Charm, a name for the ages if there ever was one, went on from this race last year to win two Triple Crown races and be a close second in the third. And 22 horses who started in a Santa Anita Derby have gone on to win Triple Crown races.

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We had to have a horse with the alphabetical stamina to share space with their likes--Swaps, Determine, Affirmed.

We got one. Indian Charlie not only has the name, he has the game.

He has a nice collection of syllables handling him too, Bob Baffert. Baffert is the trainer who had Silver Charm, winner of last year’s Kentucky Derby and Preakness, and he had Cavonnier, who lost the 1996 Kentucky Derby by a nose.

Many thought Indian Charlie was just another pretty name. He had run only three races before Saturday and horses that lightly raced are not supposed to win the Santa Anita Derby. He was coming out of a maiden and two allowance races.

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But he broke his maiden by 12 lengths and won an allowance race by seven lengths after breaking with two feet in the air like a bucking horse at the start.

Indian Charlie had a pretty fancy name in the irons too: Gary Stevens, the greatest rider ever to come out of Idaho. Stevens has won three Kentucky Derbies, something only three other jockeys in history have done.

Indian Charlie could make it four.

“He’s a completely professional horse, " Stevens noted after the race. “Before the race, Bob [Baffert] and I discussed engaging the front-runner [Orville N Wilbur’s] but when I got out there I thought ‘Wait a minute! I’ll let him make his race. He has this lovely long stride and he seems to know what to do.’ So I let him settle in. I just had this sit-still ride. This is like a horse who has run 20 times, not just three times. This is a very very good horse. “

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And he has a very very good name. He has the name for the ages. He may be a horse for the ages.

He comes just as we were kind of hoping no horses with names like Go For Gin, or Spend A Buck, or Sunny’s Halo would ever win Kentucky Derbies again.


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