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Starting From Scratch: The Etymology of Horse Racing Phrases

Posted by THEPOGG on Oct 05, 2019

Have you ever wondered why you win hands down? Why you are considered a dark horse? Or why you constantly feel like you are starting from scratch? Well I have and when I looked into the derivation of such phrases, I found a common link – they are all connected to gambling and more specifically gambling on horse racing. For decades now sociologists and historians have done extensive research into the impact that gambling in all its forms has had on the daily communication of the global populace and whilst the results of their studies show variance, one thing they all agree on is that each and every week, phrases connected to gambling are used and heard by us frequently. Etymology is fascinating to me and if you are interested in such things and are interested to hear of more derivations with a horse racing bent – read on! Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m champing at the bit to explain because it’s a safe bet you’ll have used some or all of them at one time (sorry!)!

When you win hands down it means that you have won something without much competition and this actually comes from the fact that a jockey who was winning a horse race with considerable ease would move his hands from the common high and strong contact of the racing position to a more relaxed and far looser contact – in essence he had moved his hands down! Dark horses aren’t what you may first assume – they aren’t the black or bay runners in a field – they are simply the horses that people bet on without knowing anything about them or their form. And starting from scratch? Well that goes way back to the days when racecourses were far less hi-tech and when they scratched a line on the grass to show the jockeys where to line up their horses. If the horses’ hooves were behind the line, as they should have been, they were starting from scratch and making a legitimate start. Suddenly I found myself fascinated by this subject and I kept digging more and more to see what other idiomatic phrases we have stolen from the field of horse racing and other types of gambling (but more on that later) to integrate into our everyday language.

I found that as a population we really like borrowing phrases from very specific fields and then assigning our own new interpretations of what they should mean. Every time I’m looking a gift horse in the mouth or hearing things straight from the horse’s mouth I’m at it again! Whether I’m flogging a dead horse, collecting bits and pieces or spotting a ringer I simply cannot help myself! Even when I win by a nose, I cannot extract another more heavyweight phrase from the English speaking world’s lexicon to express it more succinctly. So how has this obsession with gambling terminology come to pass? Let’s see!

One possible explanation is connected to the competitive element associated with backing the right horse in the field on a day out to the races with friends. Human beings are by nature competitive – it is an evolutionary necessity – of course all living things: plant, animal or human share this drive – it is just that in humans it is more of a conscious thing, obviously connected to intellect. Since we enjoy taking part in competitive activities (and in fact are obsessed with turning everything into a competition) it may well follow that the language connected with such things filters into our everyday language without much conscious effort on our parts. In fact, right now at this very moment I think I would be safe in assuming that you are trying to think of more horse racing terms that I haven’t mentioned so far just so that you can one-up me!

Many terms associated with horse racing appear in situations connected with other sorts of competition and also in the workplace. Since traditionally such environments were dominated by men it makes sense that phrases from the more male dominated sport (in the past – we are changing that now ladies!) of horse racing feature there too. In this way such idiomatic expressions were embraced by the population and gradually became the norm. Hard working men carried stories of their prowess, peppered with words of a horse racing derivation, back to the green homemakers waiting ready to listen to their exploits appreciatively after a hard day of cleaning and cooking. Said homemakers then picked up these terms themselves and so the happy cycle commenced. Most of us know what type of quality or situation these phrases refer to without necessarily knowing where they originated. So if you have ever got off and running, and despite the fact that several candidates gave you a run for your money, you were determined to go the distance, found yourself to be a good stayer and ended up ahead of the field in the workplace, you are doing your part to further the cause. If you had to ride roughshod over others to get there as you jockeyed for position or if you’ve ever given or been given a leg up to get you to the homestretch by a nose (as opposed to a photo finish) at work then you too are taking your place in the ancient tradition of borrowing and reinterpreting specific phrases.

Consider yourself lucky that it didn’t come down to the wire and that you weren’t flogging a dead horse or riding for a fall. Rest easy in the knowledge that you didn’t go over the top, jump the gun, back the wrong horse or worse still cast a shoe. Better to be a front runner, to make a flying start, to go hell for leather and to weigh in on target instead of being led in a wild goose chase any day. Who wants to be put through his/her paces whilst wearing blinkers only to end up neck and neck? Not me; not you. Personally, I’d rather have the inside track and win across the board, all the time maintaining my position as odds-on favourite – the chalk horse! The smart money would back me – make a profit – and never hear the dreaded phrase: pony up! After all no-one wants to end up broken down!

The derivations of all of the terms used in this article can be found in the Appendix immediately after it.


A safe bet – this refers to a wager that, without doubt, will be successful.

Looking a gift horse in the mouth – the best way to tell the age of a particular horse is to look at its teeth (in the mouth) which continue to grow and wear as it ages. The older a horse the greater the decrease in its value – therefore if you were gifted one and then checked its teeth you could be considered ungrateful – perhaps you were hoping for one of greater value instead of being pleased to receive anything at all.

Straight from the horse’s mouth – this refers to the common wisdom that in the world of horseracing many people on the inside already know which horse is likely to win a particular race and they pass this knowledge on to others they know. This is widely believed to be the best source of such knowledge so to hear it from the horse’s mouth is even better!

Bits and pieces – this phrase simply derives from the name of the equipment used to control the actions of a horse – the bit is the piece of metal that sits in the horse’s mouth and it joins directly to the cheekpieces – hence the phrase. It has been adapted to mean a collection of objects – often unrelated – in the modern idiom.

Win by a nose – a term used in horseracing circles to describe an approach to the finish line that is so close, only a fraction of one horse’s nose edges ahead in order to allow it to be declared the winner.

Heavyweight – refers to a weight division in boxing popular for those keen on betting on this sport. Fighters in this category are generally heavily muscled.

Backing the right horse – this refers to the ability to place a wager on the horse that will win the race.

Got off and running – the traditionally used phrase to denote that a horse race has got off to a clean and valid start.

Gave you a run for your money – this phrase is believed to relate to a close run race where the horse you bet on may not win but it is so close that you still derived pleasure from the excitement generated.

Go the distance – usually used to refer to a horse’s ability to perform well in races that are longer – not just the sprint races.

Good stayer – used to refer to a horse that has remarkably good powers of endurance during a race.

Ahead of the field – another horseracing term which refers to an animal that consistently remains in front of its rivals.

Green – usually used to refer to a horse with little or no racing experience.

Ride roughshod over others – this term relates to a horse shoeing technique whereby the nail heads were left sticking out – sometimes to provide more grip – dating to the seventeenth century – in the phrase the hardness of the nails inflicting damage on something they came into contact with is referenced. Now it generally relates to trampling down other people to have your own way.

Jockeyed for position – in horse racing circles this phrase usually means the act of a rider moving their mount into a position that will give them the best chance of winning.

Given a leg up – this phrase refers to the act of using a rider’s bended leg to help them on to their mount before a race – it has been reclaimed to mean someone being given help to attain a better position.

Homestretch by a nose – derives from horse racing terminology – the homestretch is the very last part of the track signaling the welcome end to a grueling race and to enter it by a “nose” means a very small fraction of a horse has made it to this part of the race.

A photo finish – stems from horse racing – since horse races are often a close run thing many races began to use cameras at the finish to help decide the winning runner.

Down to the wire – this phrase is linked to a time in history when it was common to run a line across the track at the end point of the race to enable the judges to decide who has won by judging who touched it first.

Flogging a dead horse – this references a time in history when it was considered acceptable to whip a mount in order to make it win a race. If the horse was dead there would be little point in beating it as it would not alter the result and so this relates to a hopeless case.

Riding for a fall – this term is a reference to a careless manner of riding – either when hunting or racing – which is sure to result in disaster. In modern terms it refers to someone reckless who will come to harm as a result of their own actions.

Go over the top – a phrase that links to a horse that has peaked during the season but is now past its peak before the season ends.

Jump the gun – refers to track racing – usually started with a pistol – if one of the athletes starts before the pistol goes off the race has to be restarted – now used to refer to someone that acts before they should.

Back the wrong horse – a borrowing from racing terminology in which this was the act of placing a wager on a horse that failed to win. Today it us used to mean placing faith in the wrong person.

Cast a shoe – this relates to a horse losing a shoe meaning it is unable to take part in a race.

Front runner – a betting term generally accepted to mean the competitor – human or animal – that will be the probable winner.

Flying start – linking to a competitor – animal or human that approaches the start at a run while the other competitors take the conventional stationery approach – the moving competitor has a distinct advantage that means they make a strong start.

Go hell for leather – another horse racing related term which translates to mean riding at an impossibly fast, some may say reckless, speed which would have a degenerative impact on the leather riding equipment that would be subject to significant wear as a result of engaging in riding at such a speed.

Weigh in – this phrase relates to the procedure jockeys would undertake preceding a race where they were weighed in order to determine whether they would be required to carry additional weight to level the field.

Lead in a wild goose chase – this phrase is believed to originate in the 1500s and again links to a type of horse racing – a single horse started ahead of the others and was then pursued at breakneck speed by them – the shape the pursuers ended up in looked similar to the form a flock of geese take when flying overhead hence the comparison.

Put through his/her paces – relates to the practice of warming a horse up through each of its gaits (walk, trot, canter and gallop) – links to testing something or someone out for quality nowadays.

Wearing blinkers – this relates to apparatus used to shield the sides of the eyes often used in racing to enable horses to maintain their focus and not be spooked by things they may see in their peripheral vision. It has been reclaimed to mean someone unable to see the bigger picture.

Neck and neck – a term used to describe two horses so evenly matched in speed and ability that they are running directly side-by-side and the result of the race cannot be predicted with any certainty as a result.

Inside track – it is common knowledge that a horse running on the inside of the racing track closest to the rails runs for a shorter distance than one further outfield. It is the sweet spot on the racing track and often in races you will see jockeys try to steer their mount into this prime position from the off.

Across the board – the derivation of this term lies in a particular betting style that seems to offer more security for those gamblers that hate to just lose out by a place or two. Generally, it is used to reference a win, place or show approach to betting – meaning that a horse can come in first, second or even third and you still have some return on your wager.

Odds-on favourite – when this term is used it is generally an indicator that more than just being favourite – a horse is actually more likely to win than not. This results in your win rate being decreased because your return to player/gambler is less than what you speculate. Odds such as 2-5 are reflective of an odds-on-favourite. You only gain 2 pounds for every five you bet rather than in bets such as 5-1 where you would win five pounds for every one-pound bet.

Smart money – a term usually used to indicate a gambler betting with some additional or inside knowledge of the racing field. Money placed on a horse that is sure (or as sure as these things can be!) to win.

Pony up – this is generally used to refer to the stumping up of money which is often owed in arrears.

Broken down – this term is used to describe a soft tissue injury or more severe leg injury often resulting in the humane destruction of horse.

The chalk horse – most commonly this term is used to refer back to the days before digital technology went race side. The good old days when bookmakers wrote the odds up on chalk boards for punters to peruse. The chalk horse was the favourite horse – the one that attracted most bets and therefore had to have its odds altered most frequently. The continued act of chalking up odds, rubbing them out and repeating again and again led to that area of the chalk board becoming heavily soiled and so the name of the horse occupying that space would literally be almost obscured by the chalk – hence it was – the chalk horse.

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