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What's in a Name?
Tuesday, October 04, 2016 - by Mike Tanner, USTA Executive Vice President and CEO

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You might recall the controversy a few months ago involving a contest run by an industry trade website that asked readers to vote on the name of a foal owned by Sydney Weaver, a 16-year-old girl and ardent harness racing fan from Canada.  

Sydney’s personal story is well-documented and inspiring. Diagnosed with cerebral palsy at a young age, she uses a walker and a wheelchair to get around, but that hasn’t slowed her down. She participates in jiu-jitsu, jogs Standardbreds in a specially designed seat, and won a USTA-sponsored essay contest in 2012 for a poignant and personal account entitled “My Wonderful Life.”   

She loves harness racing, and it loves her right back.

So you can imagine the industry’s reaction when the name that Sydney chose from the contest entries and submitted for registration – Only God Knows Why – was rejected by Standardbred Canada, which explained that it does not approve names that contain religious references. Social media and industry message boards exploded with criticism and an online petition drive started to urge Standardbred Canada and the USTA to rescind their decision. It eventually garnered 230 signatures, and here in Columbus, we received a flurry of e-mails and a few phone calls.

There was only one problem with that. Since Sydney is a Canadian resident, we had nothing to do with any of it other than offering, as per the USTA rulebook, mandatory reciprocity respective of Standardbred Canada’s decision. Had Sydney been American, her application would have been received and reviewed here – but she isn’t and it wasn’t.   

Still, though, it led to an extended discussion amongst staff and directors as to our own naming rules and protocols. The USTA rule (26.08) that establishes our naming guidelines has subsections, but none address the issue raised by Only God Knows Why – specifically, the use of religious imagery in a name. Instead, it contains at the very end of the rule a sentence that the Association “reserves the right to refuse…any name which might be considered offensive, vulgar, or suggestive.” That clearly would not apply to Only God Knows Why, but you would be surprised at the amount of complaints we do receive about names that we have denied or, more commonly, about those we have allowed. What’s acceptable to one person often isn’t to another, and when that happens, we often hear about it.

It might surprise you to know that here are more than 1.1 million names in the USTA database, and more than 950,000 of them are unique. Here’s how the approval process works: Once an application is submitted (we ask for three possible names on each form) and delivered to the office, it reaches the desk of a Member Services representative for processing. The first step is to run the name against the protocols set forth by Rule 26.08. Names of living persons cannot be used unless written permission is obtained from the specific individual. If the submitted name is similar in spelling or pronunciation to a name already in use, it’s a no-go. Famous or notorious persons or trades names are verboten. Names previously registered and in use within the last 15 years are rejected. And then there’s that vague, very-much-open-to-interpretation sentence about keeping it clean. 

Once a name has been tentatively assigned to a horse, it is reserved and a report is generated, allowing for three other Member Services staffers to perform a second review. Often this involves an internet search to contextualize the name, and, if necessary, a review using the online Urban Dictionary to reveal any slang usage with which we’re not immediately familiar. (Looking right at you, Fiveknuckleshuffle. You should be proud to know that you inspired quite a bit of angst and a policy change, so you have that going for you.)

The three-person review committee indicates a “yes” or “no” next to each name, then submits the list to T.C. Lane, our registrar, who makes the final decision. If a name is rejected, the owner is asked to submit, usually by e-mail or telephone, additional names for consideration, and the cycle repeats. In all, nearly 20,000 names per year are received and screened.
The entire process is considerably more stringent that it was even a few years ago, but it’s an inexact science, and we’ve let names slip by that perhaps should have been denied.  Some are subtle, others are not. The Pine Chip breeding line gave us such tongue-in-cheek luminaries as Chip Happens, No Chip, Deep Chip, and, of course, the ever popular Don’t Know Chip. 

Richard Breath never should have passed muster. Same thing with Ron Jeremy and Firm Woody, who actually showed up in the same race a few years back.  And a number of years ago, the USTA once faced possible legal action for approving the name Artchie Andrews, which is awfully similar to the trademarked comic strip icon, Archie Andrews.   (The weird thing about that story is that there’s also a registered foal of 1983 named Jughead Jones, and apparently that was OK, so go figure.)  

We’re not perfect, and we’ve taken steps to ensure that mistakes are corrected and not repeated.  But we’re also the folks that annually keep hundreds of inappropriate names from appearing in race programs near you. You wouldn’t believe some of the ones that cross our desks.

The approval of names is not something that we take lightly, but it is a fun, challenging part of the job.  It’s just that only God knows why anyone would try to name a horse Willie B. Hardigan.

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The views contained in this column are that of the author alone, and do not necessarily represent the opinions or views of the United States Trotting Association.