A look at horse racing terms
Horse-racing and the associated sport of betting on the outcome have contributed many well-known idioms to the English language. For those of you planning a flutter (originally a slang term for any exciting venture) on today’s race, the following guide will help you sound as if you know what you’re doing, even if it makes no promises in helping you select a winner.
If you’re feeling lucky, you might want to back an outsider or a long shot; a more cautious approach would be to have an each-way bet – betting on your horse to place (finish in the top 3 or 4), or make the frame (the wooden frame at racing events on which the top 4 names appear); alternatively, you could hedge your bets by placing a second bet to cover the first. This usage derives from the earlier phrase hedge in, referring to the practice of securing a debt by including it in a larger one for which better security is obtained. For an informed decision, you should study the form sheet, which records past performances, and hope that the horse runs true to form; this is also the origin of the phrase have form, used of someone with a record of criminal convictions.
A horse that is expected to win is known as a banker or dead-cert (short for dead-certain); a shoo-in may sound like a safe bet, but this term was originally used of a horse winning a race that had been rigged. Since the horse won by such a clear margin, it appeared as if the other racers were shooing it over the finish line. To be avoided are the also-ran, that fails to place, and the bismarck – a favourite that is expected to flop, named after the famous German warship which was scuttled following heavy British bombardment in 1941.
Non-starters and bookies
Whichever you choose, you’ll be hoping that your horse goes the distance and stays the course, and doesn’t end up a non-starter – a horse that fails to run at all. If your horse is comfortably ahead as it comes down the final straight (US final stretch), it may be that the horse will win hands-down – a reference to the way a jockey drops his hands to relax the reins when victory seems assured. A runner whose lead is so great that the horse can walk to the finish is said to have earned a walkover, a term now used of any one-sided contest or easily achievable goal.
If things are close and the race is going to the wire (a reference to an imaginary wire marking the finish line), prepare yourself for a dead-heat (a heat, or race, in which two or more horses reach the winning post at the same time) or a blanket finish – when the horses finish so close together you could throw a blanket over them. If your horse wins by a nose or finishes in the money, you can return to the bookmaker (or bookie) in triumph. This term derives from the practice of recording bets in a notebook (hence to open, or keep, a book). If, however, the race is unexpectedly won by a horse that no one has backed, this is a turn-up for the bookmakers, or a turn-up for the books – a phrase now used to refer to any unexpected slice of good fortune, as well as a salutary reminder that the bookie always wins!