In Irish legend, dullahans were a kind of Celtic Grim Reaper, roaming the countryside on black horses, holding their heads under their left arms while brandishing swords made from human spines. When they came to your door, your time was up.
"But the exciting part about the legend is that when they rode, neither lock nor gate could keep them from their goal," said Jerry Crawford of Donegal Racing, which owns Derby entry Dullahan. "We think the legend speaks of a good trip for Kent Desormeaux, and Dullahan on their trip to the finish line."
Thus speaks the power of a name, at least to the people who have the difficult task of choosing the perfect one for their racehorses. It's harder than it looks, not least because of the stern rules of the Jockey Club: No repeats of currently registered Thoroughbreds, no naming after living people, nothing too bawdy or suggestive. You're naming for posterity, especially if you have a horse in the Kentucky Derby.
Naming racehorses has gotten a little easier now that the Jockey Club puts out a list of horses' names that have been released, says David Fiske, manager of Winchell Thoroughbreds, based at Corinthia Farm in Lexington. "The trick is trying to find something new and fresh that hasn't been used before," Fisk said.
With Sabercat, Ron Winchell wanted to find a name that used Cat in it because of his runner, Sabercat's sire, Bluegrass Cat, and his even more famous forebear, Storm Cat.
"He wanted something that was ominous or threatening," Fiske said. "There are a lot of sports teams named Sabercats, I think that was in the back of his mind."
John Oxley, the owner of Prospective, saw the horse at the Saratoga sale and loved him partly for his good looks and partly for his brilliant pedigree, which featured Mr. Prospector and Seattle Slew. "I thought, 'He's very prospective for the Kentucky Derby,'" Oxley said. "I didn't expect it to be available, but you never know until you try."
That was true for Alpha, the horse owned by Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum's Godolphin racing operation. Jimmy Bell, who heads up the Sheikh's breeding operation, Darley, here in Lexington, said the name just seemed good and happened to be available.
"I always like to think good Derby horses have good names," Bell said. "It's a good strong name, it's dominant, it's top dog. I think it's a nice name, short, meaningful and, golly, it landed on the right horse."
That was also true for Optimizer, picked by officials at Bluegrass Hall LLC because it was a derivative of "optimum," said Sienna Hooper, who works there. "It was just a name they liked and picked."
With the Internet, crowd-sourcing can help the naming process. At WinStar, employees can enter a naming contest. For Gemologist, they put the naming contest on Facebook. It was won by Al Hilbert, a New Yorker who picked up on the horse's dam, Crystal Shard.
The Facebook contest produced some 400 names, and the WinStar officials narrowed them down to the one they liked best, said bloodstock assistant Amy Nave. Hilbert was at Saratoga for the Wood Memorial, and he's supposed to attend the Derby, too.
In the Let's Go Stable, nine investors were in the syndicate that owns El Padrino. Founder Bryan Sullivan said each investor is allowed to suggest one name. The first time around, no one liked any of the names. But Sullivan's partner, Kevin Scatuorchio, had the name reserved, and everyone liked it.
"It means godfather in Spanish," Sullivan said. "He's actually the exact opposite because he's so laid back. But it's a good trait because he'll be able to handle the Derby crowds."
The pedigree is still the best source for names, and this year's Derby features plenty of that kind of inspiration.
Rousing Sermon's sire is Lucky Pulpit and his dam is Rousing Again. Take Charge Indy is the product of A.P. Indy and Take Charge Lady. The stallion Scat Daddy helped two of his colts: Daddy Long Legs and Daddy Nose Best, whose dam is Follow Your Bliss.
Trinniberg combines his sire, Teuflesburg, with his owner's native country, Trinidad. Creative Cause's sire is Giant's Causeway. Maybe the most clever use of pedigree is Done Talking, the colt produced by Broken Vow and Dixie Talking.
Sometimes, there's more sentiment involved. Union Rags' name comes from his sire, Dixie Union, and one of his maternal forebears, Glad Rags II. That mare belonged to owner Phyllis Wyeth's family, won England's 1966 One Thousand Guineas and became a foundation mare for their farm.
Then there are the names plucked from everyday life. J. Paul Reddam, owner of I'll Have Another, has said the horse is named for Reddam's response to his wife's nightly query of "Do you want any more cookies?" as he lies on the couch.
Owner Ahmed Zayat named Bodemeister for his trainer's son, Bode Baffert, who in turn is named for friend and famed skier Bode Miller.
Dr. Kendall Hansen stayed even closer to home, naming the grey Hansen for himself.
But no doubt the most thought went into the naming of Went the Day Well. Team Valor Racing has gotten so many questions about it that they just send out the email from the man who bought the horse in England, Mark Ford, who owns 25 percent of the horse.
Ford said the phrase comes from an epitaph written by John Maxwell Edmonds in 1918: "Went the day well? We died and never knew; But well or ill, England, we died for you."
A 1942 English war film had the same title.
In addition, Ford writes, "Having started from the word "Day" the "day going well" sounded very appropriate for a galloping horse and moreover the name Went the Day Well seemed to have a great cadence to it, I guess as it's pretty symmetrical with a 4 3 3 4 format and a 'W' at the start and end. I was then happy I had a really great name for the horse."
Linda Blackford: (859) 231-1359. Twitter: @lbblackford