History In The Headlines

7 Expressions You Might Not Know Came from Horse Racing

By Elizabeth Harrison
As we head into the home stretch before this weekend's 140th Kentucky Derby, sometimes called "the Greatest Two Minutes in Sports," let's take a look at some of the everyday expressions that have their origins in the sport of kings. Discover seven commonly used phrases you might not know came from the horse track.

kentucky derby1. Across the Board
In contemporary usage this phrase indicates the inclusion of everyone or everything in a given scenario—such as across the board price cuts or across the board layoffs. At the track, an across the board bet is a wager on the same horse to win, to place and to show—effectively betting all the way across a single line of the board.

2. Also Ran
Commonly used to refer to the losing candidate in an election, an “also ran” is an equestrian-derived moniker for a non-winner. At the track, the results of each race would post the top finishers as well as the rest of the field. Any horse that didn’t win, place or show was listed as “also ran.”

3. Win Hands Down
To win “hands down” is used to mean winning easily, by a large margin or without expending a lot of effort. This phrase has been used in horse racing coverage since the mid-19th century to describe races where a horse was so far ahead of the pack that the jockey could loosen his grip on the reins and lower his hands. This type of confident finish came to be known as winning hands down.

4. Down to the Wire
Every procrastinator knows what it’s like to be working on a project till the last minute, but why to “a wire”? Today this expression refers to something being incomplete or unfinished until the last possible moment, but it originated in hotly contested horse races. A thin wire was strung above the finish line of the track to help the official—and later cameras—spot the horse that crossed the line first, and tight races went literally “to the wire.”

5. Win By a Nose
This expression has spread to all different sports as a metaphor for a close contest even though a nose isn’t the first body part to cross the finish line in most human competitions. However, a horse’s nose is first over the line at the racetrack and is used as the reference for judging the victor. In racing parlance a “nose” also refers to the smallest margin of victory allowed for a horse to be officially declared the winner. Races won by a nose may also have been fought “neck and neck” as the horses ran side by side all the way to the end.

6. Dark Horse
In politics it applies to a candidate who seemingly comes out of nowhere and experiences a sudden gain in popularity, but in horse racing the term “dark horse” dates back to at least the 1830s, and was a label for horses unfamiliar to the race organizers and odds makers. The “dark” in this sense has nothing to do with the color of the horse but is a reference to the unknown qualities of the horse—specifically the sire and breeding lineage.

7. Home Stretch
The last stage of a project or journey is also another expression we get from the racetrack. The “home stretch” is the closing portion of the race, the final straightaway between the last turn and the finish line.

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Categories: Horses, Idioms, Kentucky Derby