Naming Your Race Horse – Like registering a trade mark? Well, not quite

The annual Spring Racing Carnival and running of the Melbourne Cup, can often lead to more than a sore head and fistfuls of losing betting slips.  Inspired by the (admittedly rare) example of a $4000 horse winning a Group 1 race, you too might have recently acquired a small stake in a new race horse.  Now, it is time to give your foal a name.

For the trade mark enthusiasts amongst us, navigating the Registrar of Racehorses ‘Horse Naming Policy’ might remind us of the rigors of the Trade Marks Office.  The process is quite similar, but there are differences too.  For the full policy, see here.

The Registrar has significantly more discretion than the Trade Marks Office in refusing to register a name.  There is also no right of appeal.  Horse owners submit three names, and often it feels as if the Registrar picks the one he or she likes best.  The guidelines are interesting, taking into account the needs of the race caller, social niceties and trade mark laws, amongst other things.

The maximum length of a horse name in Australia is 18 characters, including spaces and apostrophes.  Punctuation marks other than apostrophes are not accepted, and names may be rejected if they are difficult to pronounce or read.

Offensive names are not permitted, but ‘offence’ is always a question of taste.  For instance, at first blush, SNITZEL seems a bit unseemly for a race horse.  Yet, this name was permitted and the horse became a major race winner (meaning the name is unavailable for use until 2056).  On the other hand, some years ago the owners of a horse whose sire was GEIGER COUNTER, decided to call their horse HIROSHIMA.  Initially, this was permitted, but  so the (unverified) story goes, the name did not last because the Registrar had a change of heart, considering the name contrary to social niceties.

Any names which are registered trade marks are not permitted, or at least that is the articulated policy:

“The Registrar reserves the right to refuse names:

    • That have a commercial, artistic or creative significance including but not limited to the names of well-known organisations, companies and brands;
    • Are registered company or business names;
    • Are registered trade marks, pending applications to register trade marks and common law trade marks”. [Point 9]

Thus, a search of the horse names register for JOHNNY WALKER (a potentially good and popular name for the punting crowd) yielded no results.  That said, FIVE COUGARS THANKS (plug the term into a search engine if you’re interested in the ads; we don’t plan to tell you!) was registered as a horse name in 2003.  This was the same year that application was made for the registered trade mark FIVE COUGARS, THANKS (No. 956925).  Likewise, there is a horse called NEIGHBOURS, even though this term is registered as a trade mark (NO. 433048).   Meanwhile, CHATEAU LATOUR had a nice hit out last weekend, notwithstanding that this name also comprises a registered trade mark (No. 419881).

Possibly, names which are geographic indications are excluded from the policy.  It is hard to test this though.  CHAMPAGNE, for instance, was registered as a horse name way back in 1984, before GIs became such a hot legal topic worldwide.

Horses which become regarded as ‘famous names’ due to the magnificent performance of the horse itself might lead to a permanent restriction on use of the name.  No one, for instance, can use PHAR LAP, and the Registrar may not take kindly to PHAR LAPS or even FAR LAP (although you never know).  Likewise, there is no prospect you can call your next horse BLACK CAVIAR, just because you had such a great time in Russia on your last holiday.  Twenty five wins and an undefeated record from the champ has led to a permanent restriction on this name as well.

The Horse Names Policy has a section concerning references to persons which says:

“Except at the discretion of the Registrar, names that are or could be the name of a person whether that person is living or not, will not be accepted.  This includes but is not limited to combinations of first names and surnames eg. JOHN SMITH and HAROLD HOLT, stage, screen and pen names eg MARILYN MONROE, nicknames eg. CHOPPER REID and FATTY ARBUCKLE.  Two first names may be considered provided that they are not construed as an obvious given name and surname eg BETTY SUE. Consideration will also be given to the use of names of ancient historical figures eg. TUTANKHAMUN” [Point 7]

This is another rule possibly honoured in the breach, having regard to names on the horse names register such as ABRAHAM LINCOLN (also a 2009 NZ Gelding) and TOULOUSE LAUTREC (an excellent horse and also post-impressionist painter famous in the Moulin Rouge).  Oh wait, MOULIN ROUGE is also a 2005 filly (name available in 2022)!

Principles for selecting horse names are similar to choosing any trade mark, namely, that a made up name will likely guarantee success.  Take, for instance, MAKYBE DIVA, which comprised the first few letters of names of Tony Santic’s employees, Maureen, Kylie, Belinda, Diane and Vanessa.

There are also principles based more on superstition than sense (or any connection with trade mark law):

  1. Pick a name in keeping with the horse’s potential, rather something hilarious ‘amongst the boys’. [Eg. HANDBRAKE does NOT have any Group 1 records known of]
  2. However, avoid a name which over promises, as it might cause the horse to under deliver [eg STRATOSPHERE which has been the subject of a recent heated debate]
  3. Pick a name consistent with the horse’s gender [A note to the fellow owner who came up with PRINCE RAINIER for a filly… you know who you are.]