'Let us consider the names given to horses - not ordinary horses . . . but racehorses,' writes Claude LÚvi-Strauss, opening an excursus on equine onomastics in The Savage Mind. The names of thoroughbreds are 'rigorously individualised' and 'rarely, if ever, describe them'. What counts is the way they can be seen to derive from the horse's pedigree. They form part of a language system, a new name showing a certain relation to that of the sire the horse is 'by' and perhaps the dam it is 'out of'. The names, that is to say, depend on human associations of word with word.
In Josephine Tey's brilliant little mystery novel Brat Farrar, set in English horse country, a child's toy, rough-hewn in the shape of a horse, is remembered through a grown-up's joke about its pedigree: 'Travesty, by Irish Peasant, out of Bog Oak.'
Seabiscuit, the hero of Laura Hillenbrand's celebrity biography, was by Hard Tack out of Swing On, and had a brother called Grog. In fact, Grog, less successful on the track, would come to play a strong supporting role in Seabiscuit's story as the hero's stand-in and decoy, called on for photo opportunities and to deceive the press, who were anxious to know how the horse had gone in its secret workouts but were duped into clocking Grog's times instead. For this is a feel-good tale set in the Depression about a small horse who could really run. 'The Biscuit', as his handlers called him, had run 43 races by the time he was three, more than many horses run in their entire careers. No matinee idol, he was 'built low to the ground', with 'all the properties of a cinder block': a short tail, stubby knees and an eggbeater gait. Compared to his great rival War Admiral, an exquisitely handsome son of Man o' War, Seabiscuit was the underdog.
LRB 4 October 2001 | PDF Download