The ABCs of Horse Racing for Beginners

Pop Culture
Racing fans and handicappers pack the grandstand at Saratoga. (Eclipse Sportswire)

If you’re new to horse racing and want to follow along, welcome! We’re here to help you out. Below, you’ll find a beginner’s guide to horse racing by the letter. Use this terminology, and you’ll sound like a horse racing insider every time. Want more terms? Check out our glossary, or just head on over to our Learn page for your beginner’s guide to the best sport in the world.

A – Across the Board 

An across the board bet is one where you simultaneously bet on your chosen horse to come in first, second, and third. That means that if your bet finishes in the top three, you get money! If you’re early on in your gambling career, this is a fun and (relatively) safe bet to play. You'd tell a betting clerk, "I'd like $2 across the board on #1" and voilá! You've just  made your bet.

The backside at Keeneland
The backside at Keeneland (Eclipse Sportswire)

B – Backside 

Get your head out of the gutter, friend: The backside (at least, when it comes to horse racing) refers to the stable area of the track where the horses live. Because they’re usually located on the opposite side of the track from the grandstand (also called – you guessed it! – the frontside), the barn area has become colloquially known as the backside.

C – Colt 

A colt is an unaltered male horse aged 4 years old and younger. If a colt has the … shall we call it the ultimate equipment change? OK, if a colt is neutered, he’s then known as a gelding. Most of the horses who run in the Kentucky Derby, for example, are colts. The feminine equivalent to a colt is a filly; once a filly turns 5 years old, she’s known as a mare.

D – Derby

Speaking of the Kentucky Derby, the term “derby” refers to a race that’s restricted to 3-year-old horses. While most horses who run in derbies are colts and geldings, female horses are also welcome to compete as long as they’re also 3 years old. An oaks race is restricted to 3-year-old fillies.

E- Exercise Rider 

An exercise rider is someone who takes a horse for their morning training every day. These men and women are incredibly strong, often riding more than 10 horses in a morning. While professional jockeys can and do get on horses in the morning, it’s exercise riders who are on Thoroughbreds every day to condition and care for the racehorses as they prepare to compete.

F – Furlong 

Horse racing loves bygone eras, so it should come as no surprise that our standard measurement for race distances (at least in the U.S.) dates back to the 1300s. A furlong is equivalent to an eighth of a mile, and it originates from the length of a furrow in a planted field. The more you know!

G – Groom

In horse racing, a groom has nothing to do with weddings; instead, the term refers to the men and women who care for racehorses every day. They’re the first people to get to the barn at 4 a.m. to feed the horses in the morning and often the last to leave, making sure that their charges are fed and comfortable well after the races are over.

Grooms tend to racehorses at Churchill Downs.
Grooms tend to racehorses at Churchill Downs. (Eclipse Sportswire)

H – Handicapper 

Handicappers are the people who bet the races by studying horses’ past performances, jockey form, and how a Thoroughbred trains and looks before the race. By using a combination of math, intuition, and horse sense, handicappers often try to find big scores by looking for unlikely winners who will pay huge at the betting windows.

 I – In the Money 

If someone tells you that a horse finished in the money, that just means that he or she finished first, second, or third (probably second or third, though; because if someone’s horse wins, they will definitely tell you that instead of being vague). The jargon comes from wagering, naturally: first, second, and third are the most common finishing places that pay bettors out in horse racing.

J – Juvenile 

A juvenile is a 2-year-old racehorse. The most common place to hear this word is around the Breeders’ Cup World Championships (kind of like horse racing’s Super Bowl) where there are Juvenile races for fillies and colts on both dirt and grass.

K – Key 

Say you’re betting a race and you have one horse you really, really think will win. But you want to bet a trifecta (a bet that predicts the first three finishers of a race) and you’re not quite sure who will come in second and third. Well, then you’d make your first horse your key horse and then pick a few others to finish in the money. At the betting window, you’d say something like, “$2 trifecta: key the #1 over the 4 and 5 over the 4, 5, 9.” What you just said was, “In my trifecta bet, I think #1 will win, 4 or 5 will come in second, and then 4, 5, or 9 will come in third.”

L – Layoff 

Everyone needs vacation from time to time, and that includes racehorses. A layoff refers to the period where a Thoroughbred takes a break from racing, which can be anywhere from a couple of months to over a year.

M – Maiden 

Erase visions of Robin Hood from your mind – in racing, a maiden has nothing to do with a lady stranded in a tower waiting for some guy in a metal onesie to rescue her. For us, a maiden is any horse who hasn’t yet won a race. When a Thoroughbred gets to the winner’s circle for the first time, they’re said to “break their maiden.”

N – Nose

OK, yes, a nose is an anatomical term on both horse and human; but in the context of racing, a nose is the shortest unit of measurement by which a horse can win.

O – Off Track 

An off track is one that’s had some precipitation. If the dirt is listed as sloppy, muddy, or even wet fast, it’s an off track. If a turf (aka grass) track is listed as soft, yielding, or good, that’s also an off track. When conditions are perfect, the main dirt track is known as “fast” and the turf course is “firm.” 

P – Pari-Mutuel

OK, this is an important one: Betting on horse racing (in the U.S., at least) is pari-mutuel wagering. That means that, when you place a wager, you’re not betting against the house, you’re betting against your fellow gamblers. That’s why horses’ odds can change right up to the second a race starts: When people put money on a horse, their odds go down. If a horse is ignored by bettors, the odds go up. That’s pari-mutuel wagering.

Q – Quarter Pole 

If you look at a racetrack, you’ll notice that there are bright, decorated poles evenly spaced along the inside rail of the racecourse. These poles denote how far horses are from the finish line, and are distributed at intervals of 1/16 of a mile. The quarter pole sits, well, a quarter-mile away from the finish line, and it’s where most jockeys will make what they hope is their winning move.

R – Rabbit

A rabbit is a horse who is entered in a race to help a buddy out. Rabbits are fast horses that go at top speed early in a race, allowing a come-from-behind horse (who usually has the same trainer as the rabbit) to have a chance at winning. If we’re being honest, calling a horse a rabbit is a little bit shady, both toward that horse’s trainer and toward the horse himself.

S – Silks 

Every single owner in horse racing has their own jersey, or silks. These can be as simple as one color (in fact, the most historic horse racing owners tend to have the simplest silks) or incredibly elaborate and detailed, but they’re all eye-catching and original and help both horse owners and bettors identify their horse during a race.

T – Tack 

This has nothing to do with office supplies: in the equestrian world, tack refers to the gear horses wear, namely the bridle and saddle. When someone says they’re going to tack a horse up that means that the horse is getting his party clothes on to go do some work.

U – Underlay 

I thought I told you to get your mind out of the gutter. An underlay is a horse whose odds seem to be shorter than they should be. Remember pari-mutuel wagering up there? Basically, you don’t want to bet an underlay because too many people are playing this horse when they probably shouldn’t be. An overlay is the opposite: That’s a horse with long odds but a good chance of winning. Find an overlay and bet him all day.

V – Valet 

A valet (rhymes with “ballot”) is the person who takes care of jockeys on race day. They’re in charge of keeping the riders’ boots polished, making sure that the right silks are ready to go for each race, and care for the jocks’ saddles. They also saddle the horse for the jockeys, ensuring a safe and secure trip for the riders.

A yearling at the Keeneland September sale
A yearling at the Keeneland September sale (Eclipse Sportswire)

W – Went for a Hot Dog 

Honestly, this may be my favorite horse racing term. It’s super insider-y, but it’s hilarious when you know what it means. If a horse goes for a hot dog, they blew the turn (aka ran really wide coming into the turn to the homestretch) and likely lost any chance to win. To use this in a sentence, “Well, I thought I picked a winner in the first race, but then my horse went for a hot dog turning for home.”

X - Xeroradiography 

Look, this term isn’t going to come up ever in normal conversation at the track, but I can’t bear to have a letter missing. So just to have something in X, a xeroradiography is a very expensive x-ray-type of procedure that gives vets a look at both bone and soft tissue, and it’s vital for diagnosing leg or foot problems in horses.

Y – Yearling 

Yearlings are 1-year-old horses. While they’re still too young to race, most Thoroughbred yearlings will be educated on having a saddle on their backs, a bridle in their mouths, and learn to be steered around. Yearlings are the high schoolers of the horse world; once a Thoroughbred turns 2, it’s off to college for an education at a training barn to learn how to be a racehorse.

Z – Zenyatta

Zenyatta was one of the greatest racehorses to grace the track in the early 21st century: She won 19 straight races, including the 2009 Breeders’ Cup Classic against males. She suffered her only defeat in her final career race in the 2010 Breeders’ Cup Classic, in which she lost by a head to Blame. She’s an icon in the sport and still a fan favorite. Drop Zenyatta’s name into a conversation at the racetrack and you’ll definitely make some new friends!

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