Africa is a Horse

What is it with the long practice in British racing of adding an African appellation to a race horse's name. Most African countries now have at least one horse name after it.

Photo: Tsutomu Takasu, via Flickr CC.

In the ambient stale haze of my father’s fags, among the empties and forlorn pages of racing print stained in stout, I have found myself glancing through the debris of an afternoon’s handicapping, pausing at the almost impenetrable nomenclature and knowledge contained therein, developing a random yet fond attachment to certain horses.

You couldn’t make up the outrageous names given to some beautiful beasts. Most though are fortunate to acquire quaint or jolly designations. A few have topical names, such as the obvious: Obamarama or Obama Rule. There are five thoroughbreds with an Obama name or prefix. More interestingly are the increasing numbers of horses representing Africa. I am not referring to horses bred or training in Africa, of which there are some notable champions and contenders, but rather the growing trend of adding an African appellation to a horse’s name.

A serious punter never picks a horse by name. It is the trainer, the booked jockey, the weight to be carried, the past course and distance record, breeding and the prize money that inform deliberations on equine investments. The name may provide a key clue to a horse’s family tree, but more often it is happenstance or a cute choice by an owner or syndicate. So what is it about Africa and why is it trending on birth certificates at stud farms?

Africa may register little in horse racing history, though it would be wrong to assume African names are a recent equine development. Horse racing aficionados have long had a penchant for placing an African prefix to a horse’s name. One could easily guess the names of such creatures: African Safari, African Sunset, African Queen and African Warrior are all horses who have raced across eras and jurisdictions, evoking for the casual rail bird or equine sophisticate that sultry yet wild expansive continent starring Stuart Granger and Deborah Kerr or Johnny Weissmuller and Maureen O’Sullivan or for the discerning documentarian that glorious space of savannah and swamp as narrated by Lorne Greene.

Romantics and voyeurs have not had a historical monopoly over African horse names, however. The more down to earth breeders and owners have also kept the handicapper busy, reminding punters what Africa has really been all about. Preciously named horses such as African Diamond and African Gold have promenading history in the paddock. More recently such shiny animals have been joined by the likes of African Oil, a 2 year old bay colt bred in France who slickly strutted his stuff across England’s green and pleasant turf this past summer.

But now a whole other generation of curious about Africa horse breeders and owners are upon us. Those with the power to own and name a horse have new experiences and influences to call upon. The post-Band-Aid-Jet-Set has largely upped stakes from camp Africa and would never knowingly own a blood diamond. They cruise around in a cacophony of Bono interviews and eponymous Paul Simon tunes. George Clooney movies clutter their DVD rack and they share Nick Kristof on Facebook, often. Kristof endorsed paperbacks can be found on the back seat shag of the Range Rover, though they prefer not to deface the rear of their souped-up jalopy with “Save Darfur” bumper stickers. This is the generation that feels Africa in ways their tweedy parents never did. This generation is not about exploitation and cheering on mercenaries and or Tarzan, though they prefer not to mention mining shares their grandparents cautiously placed in their portfolios. The modern horse owner wears Hunter Wellies — a conscience and sustainable fashion choice, which also provide jobs in Ghana’s rubber industry. The modern horse owner has hiked up Kilimanjaro and raised cash for noble causes. The modern horse owner supported the No Fly Zone and NATO sorties over and freedom for Libya.

And so it follows there are now whole new categories of African horse names. We have African Action, African Appeal and African Art. There is even an Africanist, a 3 year old grey roan colt, who ran sixth when last up at Churchill Downs. Africanist was sired by the prolific stallion, Johannesburg, who was noteworthy for winning a Breeders Cup Juvenile, and currently stands at stud in Japan. There are even African names set aside for just the right future foal, such as African Hope.

It is not just Africa or African that is en vogue. Horses named after African countries are also relatively commonplace these days. For instance, the next running of the Melbourne Cup on November 6th, the world’s richest handicap race, “the race that stops a nation,” with over 6 Million Australian dollars in the purse, has a 4 year old bay gelding called Ethiopia entered. Ethiopia is proven Group 1 (highest race classification) winner, taking last year’s Australian Derby at the Royal Randwick track in Sydney.

Most African countries now have at least one horse name after it. Burkina Faso is one of the few exceptions. Maybe one day if I hit the sweepstakes, I will join the fraternity of horse owners and name my horse, Thomas Sankara. It would be quite the scene to see a horse named after a Pan-Africanist Revolutionary Marxist have his nose rubbed by the Queen of England in the winning circle at Royal Ascot or draped in garlands at Churchill Downs in the Commonwealth of Kentucky.

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