It seems bloody hard to name a horse, to work within the stingy limit of 18 characters, to forge something original and evocative. In that vein, the name of Kentucky Derby champion Always Dreaming has snared some fancy, especially in a sport rife with dreaming that is both statistically unrealistic and occasionally prescient.
Just after the Kentucky Derby, then, the microphone at the news conference went to the side of the room to Mary Ellen Bonomo, who is among Always Dreaming’s owners, so that everyone could learn how she concocted the name.
“I probably daydream a little too much,” she said. “I kind of live in Xanadu sometimes. And I said, ‘Why don’t we just name it “Dreaming?’ ” Everybody dreams of something, whether it’s a big event of a special day, the birth of their child, winning the Kentucky Derby. So I just said, ‘Always Dreaming.’ It just took off.”
At the Florida Derby, her husband Anthony Bonomo had said, “I don’t know anyone who’s been in the horse business who doesn’t dream of this, so the name that my wife picked, Always Dreaming, because that’s what you have to do every day, especially in this business.”
As a name, Always Dreaming uses language that comes across at first as generalized, yet tethers so profoundly to its sport. If he were to win the Preakness Stakes on Saturday at Pimlico Race Course, he might embody a common facet of evaluating horse names: How much does the caliber of the horse stoke our fondness for the name? That puzzle and others turned up repeatedly when evaluating all 141 names of Preakness winners, then splitting the (horse) hairs to wreak a top 40.
First, 10 honorable mentions: Bold Ruler (1957), Assignee (1894), Louis Quatorze (1996), Risen Star (1988), Majestic Prince (1969), Rhine Maiden (1915), Sly Fox (1898), Oxbow (2013), California Chrome (2014), Charismatic (1999).
And a top 40:
40. WHIMSICAL (1906). Speaking of embodying a sport …
39. ALYSHEBA (1987). Even factoring in that the name played off his sire, Alydar, it still managed to gain a regal feel that matched a grand horse.
38. COVENTRY (1925). Of all naming formats, place names might be the most evocative.
37. AFFIRMED (1978). Here we start with the everlasting puzzle about names and quality. If Affirmed had finished between fifth and 10th in all the Triple Crown races rather than first, first and first, would this very good name resonate the same way?
36. COUNT FLEET (1943). Sometimes, the excellent names are kind of nonsensical.
35. BIG BROWN (2008). Sometimes, they aren’t.
34. HAROLD (1879). It’s fun how, way back in the first decade, they had a winner with the simple, dignified name Harold. (See also: Shirley, 1876.)
33. FORWARD PASS (1968). This name always had an air of momentum.
32. TIMBER COUNTRY (1995). It almost gives the sense of a deep breath of clean, fine air.
31. PLEASANT COLONY (1981). It also gives a sense of place.
30. THE BARD (1886). It’s stirring how, in 1886, in an era with winners like Refund and Dunboyne and Tecumseh, they had The Bard, and you wonder if his popularity in his day owed a smidgen to his name. “The Bard” seems an excellent name to place within the call of a race — you could hear Tom Durkin or Larry Collmus saying it — and it seems a shame it went untelevised.
29. SMARTY JONES (2004). A slang, carefree, raconteur’s feel.
28. WAR ADMIRAL (1937). It conveys authority and possibly even a uniform.
27. AMERICAN PHAROAH (2015). With the name’s internationalism and royalty, it would have been a good bet for top-10 placement but for a famous quirk. It accidentally got misspelled, rendering the name merely wonderful.
26. SPECTACULAR BID (1979). It always did have a fine splashiness.
25. AFLEET ALEX (2005). There’s a chance that when a horse does a near-somersault but still wins the Preakness, his good name takes on more majesty, but this name had moxie even before the near-somersault.
24. BOSTONIAN (1927). It does give a sense of stoicism.
23. BUDDHIST (1889). It does give a sense of tranquility.
22. GALLANT FOX (1930). It does give a sense of foxes in a way we don’t usually think of foxes.
21. SAUNTERER (1881). The 19th-century portion of Preakness history wasn’t a hotbed of hot names, but this one was a crafty turn.
20. BEE BEE BEE (1972). This name, derived in part from the sire Better Bee, always did seem audacious, to the edge of silly but not quite there, especially when he comes home at 19-1.
19. BURGOO KING (1932). Often, good names can come from day-to-day aspects of life, such as stew, because they sound almost (but not quite) ironic.
18. NASHUA (1955). Brief and elegant.
17. CANONERO II (1971). The suffix enhanced the sound of it. The Venezuela background tacked on some mystery when he got to the Derby as an outsider.
16. CITATION (1948). So, do some names simply sound better because of the greatness of the being? That’s the unsolvable puzzle here (and elsewhere). Here was a horse so great he might have brightened a word that often carries gloom when it involves receiving a summons to appear in court.
15. TIM TAM (1958). A case of a certain playfulness mingled with excellence to make a name echo across the decades.
14. SIR BARTON (1919). It sounds like he walked in to a gale of trumpets.
13. RACHEL ALEXANDRA (2009). Absorb her greatness and then convince yourself: It was a sterling name from the get-go, and it left ample room for an elegant being who might throttle a field in a race and then lounge with fanning from attendants.
12. SUNDAY SILENCE (1989). Ahh.
11. OMAHA (1935). This name was good and evocative long before Peyton Manning.
10. SECRETARIAT (1973). It’s impossible to disentangle this name from the athlete whose story got the full-on Hollywood treatment into a teary movie. But the name itself suggests a wealth of strength. It’s enough to make a person wonder if it doesn’t wind up higher because of an impulse to guard against getting the naming tangled up in the quality.
9. NORTHERN DANCER (1964). That he hailed from Canada makes the “Northern” more evocative, as if the colt weren’t evocative enough already.
8. KAUAI KING (1966). Even for those of us who never saw him run, it always sounded like something from a fine storybook.
7. ELOCUTIONIST (1976). Beautiful.
6. WHIRLAWAY (1941). There’s always the right to think up something that’s not in the dictionary, and this was a marvel of such etymological license.
5. SEATTLE SLEW (1977). From the first time it hit the ear, it just sounded like some rugged beast who might insist upon victory.
4. MAN O’ WAR (1920). Had the middle word spelled out the full “Of,” would this be such a great name for a big boulevard in Kentucky (in Lexington)? Would it feel so automatic as a gem?
3. DAMASCUS (1967). With a partiality to place names established, here’s an all-time standout among place names: ancient (like the species itself), profound, palpable, vast, strong, even as present-day tragedy makes the word ache.
2. SUMMER SQUALL (1990). It conjures a temperature, a happening, a feeling and maybe even a poem, all while fastening comfortably to a horse. It was a soaring turn of horse-naming.
1. CULPEPPER (1874). No. Wait. This is conflict of interest and calls for a recusal. This gold medal is unfair and must be returned.