Horse Racing Idioms a Part of U.S. Culture

Pop Culture
Idioms based on horse racing vocabulary can be heard everywhere, even at the track. (Eclipse Sportswire)

American English is a vibrant language with a host of dialects, regional variations and colorful historical idioms. Many of our idioms come straight from the world of sports.

When someone speaks of making a “fast break” for something when they are moving quickly without pause or concern, or hitting a “home run” when they do a good job, or being “down for the count” when someone gives up and quits something - it’s usually universally clear what they mean.

But most of our most widely used idioms come straight from the world of horse racing — a throwback to a time when horse racing was one of the most popular sports in America. Many of these are obvious.

When someone being considered for a position or running in a political race is considered probable to win, they are a “front-runner.” When something is nearing completion, it often is referred to as entering the “home stretch.” When two people are battling for the same thing they are said to be “jockeying for position.”

Some of our common sayings that are derived from the racetrack aren’t as obvious, however.

“Across the board” - When something applies to everyone or everything in a set, we will say it applies “across the board.” For example: “The improvements to the building were seen across the board: new plumbing, upgraded wiring, and a new coat of paint.”

Across the board is a common horse racing term that means to bet a horse to Win, Place and Show. When a horse is bet across the board, in the event of a win the bettor will cash all three tickets.


Photo by Eclipse Sportswire

“Dead heat” - Perhaps this isn’t a surprise that the term dead heat originated with horse racing, but today dead heat is used to describe virtually any kind of tie, be it in sports or politics or anything else.

In the early days of British horse racing, individual races were referred to as “heats.” Whenever the result was a tie, the heat was declared “dead” and didn’t count. Today, however, dead heats in racing result in both horses paying off as winners - the opposite of dead!


“Hands down” - When you hear someone say that they won something “hands down,” you probably know that they mean they won easily, without any trouble. You may think that the “hands” being referred to here are poker hands. Many people incorrectly assume the origin of this idiom is the laying down of poker hands at the end of betting to see who won. In fact, the hands are the hands of a jockey in a horse race.

Secretariat, the "hands down" winner of 1973 Belmont Stakes. (Coglianese Photo/Blood-Horse Library)
When a horse pulls out to so commanding of a lead that a jockey doesn’t need to go to a whip (or do anything at all, really, but ride), that jockey is said to win “hands down.” He or she puts their hands down and lets the horse do all the work coming home.

“Champing at the bit” - When someone is eager or anxious to do something they are said to be “champing at the bit” or more commonly today “chomping at the bit.” For example: “Sarah was really chomping at the bit to get the new iPhone. She stood in line all night waiting for the store to open.”

The bit is a small metal rod that rests in a horse’s mouth and is connected to the bridle. Some superstitious horseplayers would look for horses who were chomping or gnawing at the bit before a race as a sign of anxiety - a sign the horse was ready to run.

“Upset victory” - It’s often said that the term upset victory refers to Man o’ War’s single loss in his 21 race career, when he lost in 1919 to a horse named Upset.

The truth is, upset was used to refer to an underdog or longshot victory long before 1919, and probably was part of the thinking behind naming the horse in the first place. The irony, however, made too great a story to not weave it into a myth. The Man o‘ War - Upset myth has persisted for nearly a hundred years.


Photo by Eclipse Sportswire

There are many more to add to this list. What are some of your favorite horse racing idioms? 

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