"What's in a name? That which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet."
Romeo and Juliet (II, ii, 1-2)
Some people dislike trotters because they think they break excessively.
Some people dislike trotters because they think they are difficult to train.
And some people dislike trotters because they can't pronounce their names, or remember which ones they've previously gambled for future flutters with the bookies.
I know right, hard to believe anyone has ever admitted to the third complaint. Alas, the debate is currently raging on Facebook about this very thing, and it has had me laughing and holding my head in my hands in despair in equal measure.
I don't speak a word of French. When I arrived in Paris in December 2016 on my first international visit as a STAGBI Director, I literally showed a taxi driver the printed address I had for the hotel that all delegates were staying at. When he dropped me off at the hotel and handed me my suitcase from the boot of the car, I couldn't for the life of me remember how to say 'thank you' in French. So I ended up saying 'thanks' (CRINGE). Now if Le Trot were in fact Der Trab and the trip had been to Munich not Paris, I would have been able to hold half a conversation with the taxi driver. Unfortunately for me and my semi-fluency in German, this is not the case.
One of the best things about going racing with William Smart Snr before he passed away was sitting in the car with him at a track and going through the card together. Smarty and I used to purposefully skip to the trot race and get him to tell us which ones he fancied. Remember this was back before the TF had arrived en masse, so it was a variety of Swedish, Norwegian and Dutch trotters primarily, but even at that...he just could not pronounce a single one correctly. His variations on their names were so much better than their actual names. Over the past few years we've often joked about what he would have called some of these French Trotters that have arrived. It would have been a hoot.
When I was at Portmarnock back in August for the VDM meeting, Darren [Owen] and I went around the paddock before racing on the Saturday to interview some of the trainers and drivers for pre-recorded segments to be shown during the course of the afternoon on the big screen. I interviewed Sean Kane, who coincidentally has been on both of my trips hosted by Le Trot at Vincennes, and we had a huge debate before filming as to the name of one of his horses. I thought I had gone mad because I had three Irishmen trying to tell me how to pronounce the horse's name and what they were saying versus what I was reading on the racecard appeared to be two different things. Darren got involved and his interpretation was different to both versions that had previously been mooted. The main thing is: we had a laugh about it. It didn't matter in the grand scheme how we chose to pronounce it. After all, there are two very separate and distinct camps when it comes to pronouncing the late and great Kauto Star. Tomato/tomato, potato/potato...even names which appear so distinctly 'British' can confuse people.
For it to then be bandied about on social media this afternoon that in order for trotting (as opposed to general harness racing, including pacing races) to be shown on a mainstream racing channel such as At The Races ('ATR') and be welcomed by the general public, horses from France should have their names changed in order for them to be more easily remembered and for people to start following these horses, to me seems absolutely ludicrous. One comment from a horse owner was that if their horse was exported to a country where its name wasn't easily pronounced or understood, they would have no issue with the horse's name being changed to something more appropriate in that new country of residence. Whilst as an owner they may be happy for a name change, I suspect that the majority of breeders would not be. I know I certainly wouldn't want any of my horses' names changed. Some of mine have our registered prefix; some do not. We don't simply allocate names by plucking them from thin air without any forethought. A lot of time goes into choosing a name that often means something to us, even if the history behind the name never becomes common knowledge. Naming a horse is a breeder's way of putting their stamp on something they helped to create.
Some people might tell you that it doesn't matter what a horse is called; if it's good, it's good. It doesn't know what its name is and that has no bearing or relevance on its ability to race. Therefore, its name should be adapted where necessary to suit those whose sole involvement in racing is to hand their money over to bookmakers and hope for more back. These people, apparently, can only remember anglicised names; they are only willing to remember anglicised names. So either the country is full of close-minded racing fans or these people making these bold claims are massively underrating their compatriots. Somehow though, I suspect these people didn't forget to back Buveur D'Air from one Champion Hurdle victory to the next.
I don't hang about with big gamblers. I don't make a habit of hanging around with bookmakers either, save the one I happen to live with. I do hang about with a lot of occasional gamblers though; people who put a 50p accumulator on at the weekend or beg for a tip off me in the week so they can have something to cheer on at the weekend in front of the telly. I know, from spending time with them, that it doesn't matter if a horse has an easy to pronounce and remember name or not - if it puts money in their pocket on a Saturday afternoon then they follow it from that day forth. When I was younger, I followed Hors La Loi III. The fact that his name isn't the easiest to get your tongue around had absolutely no bearing on my support for him. Edredon Bleu, Voy Pur Ustedes, even Senor El Betrutti (not French, no, but one of my all-time faves)...they hardly roll off the tongue do they? And yet the betting public were able to get behind them one way or another.
So what is in a name?
To those of us not connected to a particular horse, nothing. But to the person who bred the horse, potentially everything. Every breeder has a method of naming, whether it's a prefix or suffix, naming with the same start letter as the dam, following a theme of the dam's name, following a theme of something the person is interested in...anything. It might even be something totally random in the moment of decision-making, but from that point onwards that name belongs to that horse. No matter where that horse ends up, the breeder has given it something that will stay with it forever.
I'm that much of a naming obsessive that I have to tell people the stable names of horses I sell. I was affronted after selling Merrington Missile (known to me simply as Missile) as a rider to learn that his new owners had renamed him 'Sgt Bash', or 'Bash'. One of my friends nicknamed his foal one name, then changed it when the horse was a yearling. I told him it was bad luck. Another of my friends bought a horse that I had known several owners previously. I told him its stable name from when I knew it (which he thought was weird that I would know such a thing) and he told me its new stable name. Within a fortnight he was back to calling it by its original stable name, the name I had told him.
OK, so French names are a little challenging. They aren't as challenging for us as they are for our commentators. I simply take my lead from Darren Owen. Whatever he calls them, I call them. And yes, it can be confusing with the three- and four-year-old trotters, whose names all begin with the same letter, but that is the naming system in place in France and we must respect that. Remember that one of those horses whose name begins with a certain letter may have been the only foal bred that year by its breeder - it wasn't one horse lost in a sea of horses with names beginning with the same letter. I dislike the younger trotters personally, but not because their names are so difficult to differentiate on a start sheet or a bookie's board. I adore the older trotters (and I appreciate that the younger trotters of today will become the aged trotters of tomorrow). I don't have a photographic memory. In fact, I have a memory like a sieve. If things aren't written down, I've no hope of remembering them. But we have a finite number of horses racing in this country. We see them almost on a weekly basis. If you can't remember the names of horses, that's your problem and not the problem of those who name the horses.
I didn't hear anyone demanding that the Kane family change the name of Maitha Buachaill, even though to date that remains THE hardest name for any non-Gaelic speaking person to pronounce. Martha Buckle got bandied about A LOT. Ffairrhoshillbilly, or Fire House Hill Billy as he's known to the non-Welsh speaking division of our household (that's Smarty, in case you're wondering) - not so simple is it?
Let's just face the facts here: people who moan the loudest about the French Trotters aren't going to like them even if they had anglicised names. Then they say they don't like them because they gallop excessively. I put forward to you that the aged trotters gallop about as frequently as pacers do, and yet those who moan will still *try* to find fault. They moan that the trotters do not provide a spectacle for race-goers and are too unpredictable to gamble (or lay). The fact that they are racing for vastly increased purses compared to pacers is irrelevant to them because racing should be doing more for the spectators.
And yet, these same people are almost always the first to complain that pacers don't race for enough money and the sport doesn't do enough for those involved in owning/training/driving horses. Pacers provide a better spectacle for the crowd, they say.
WHAT DO YOU WANT?
Do you want a good spectacle and betting opportunity or do you want the money in the sport to be better for those directly involved?
Well to have both, you need to accept both divisions. By accepting both divisions, we might actually have a chance to move forward so that the trotters can begin to become a better spectacle for the crowd and the pacers can start to race for increased prize money.
Moaning, on the other hand, because you don't like the 'new' (hardly new now, but comparatively speaking, it is) style of racing on these shores, and finding fault in anything and everything (including the horses' names) won't bring about any positive change. I see things I don't like and I approach the relevant groups or individuals privately to express my concerns and to make suggestions for improvement. This doesn't always go down well, but I have learnt over the years (and from the mistakes in the past of jumping straight on social media to crab things) that this is the proper and appropriate way to do things.
If trotting from France makes it on to the telly in the UK, at least people in this country won't automatically assume we're all road-racing travellers who leave horses in the ditches to die. They'll have half an idea about what our sport is. Names, and galloping when they should be trotting, won't come in to it.
|There's not much going wrong here... (Pikehall, 2017, Sarah Thomas photo)|
Aka Sarah, not Sara, because Sarah is my name and I don't want it changed, thanks.