11 popular phrases that come from horse racing

Features | 18th May 2021

One of the joys of horse racing is the unique terminology used in all corners of the sport. Over the years, many of those phrases have made their way into the everyday language we still use today.

Here’s a selection of well‐used sayings and phrases that have their origins in racing.

On Your Tod

The idiom to say you’re on your own comes from American jockey Tod Sloan’s riding style. He revolutionised race‐riding by winning races from the front, when “all alone” in the lead. The saying comes from cockney rhyming slang – Tod Sloan, all alone.

Tod Sloan Jockey

Across The Board

This term, that describes something as all‐encompassing, originated from betting on horseracing. In the early 1900s, someone placing a bet “across the board” would collect if the horse finished first, second or third – much the same as each‐way betting as we know it today.

Hands Down

When someone wins an event “hands down” it means an easy victory, often by a landslide margin. The saying comes from the way jockeys drop their hands to slacken the reins in order to ease up their mounts in the closing stages of comfortable victories.

Starting From Scratch

The phrase “starting from scratch”, meaning to do something from the very beginning, comes from the way horse races were started before the introduction of stalls or flip starts. The horses’ had to line up behind a line that had been scratched in the turf.

Bits And Pieces

To describe something small and numerous comes from a horse’s bridle. The bit that fits in the mouth is attached to a strip of leather called the cheek piece. Large quantities of these were often stacked together in stable yards hence the term “bits and pieces”.

Champing/Chomping At The Bit

Someone keen to get on with things is said to be “champing at the bit”. This also comes from the way horses, often in excitement, will chew at the bit used to control them. This has evolved into the phrase we use for eagerness.

Jockeying Into Position

One of the phrases obviously with its origins in horse racing. It’s now used in all walks of life for hustling to get into a favourable spot whether it be dashing for the tube or trying to get the best vantage point to watch a football match.

It has its origins in 18th century horse racing when, without starting stalls, getting the best position from the off was crucial.

Give And Take

A phrase used to imply compromise, a bit of “give and take” also came from horse racing but there’s a couple of theories how it started.

The most likely has its origins in the 18th century when larger horses were given more weight to carry, while smaller runners would have weight taken off in an early version of modern handicap contests. These races were known as ‘Give And Take Races’.

In The Frame

A phrase that is often used in many facets of life, including when someone is “in the frame” for a crime, comes from horse racing.

Long before the huge digital screens that now adorn racecourses were even dreamed of, the race results were displayed using numbered boards that were put in a large frame alongside the names of the jockeys riding in the next race.

Home Straight

When someone is close to finishing a task or journey, they are often referred to as being in the home straight. It comes from horse racing where the races finish in the “home straight”. Here’s the home straight at Ascot below.

A Run For Your Money

This saying now means to get value for something you’ve paid for. It comes from racing where if a horse you’ve backed performs with credit you have at least got “a run for your money”.

Want to know more popular phrases in horse racing? Check out these popular phrases in horse racing that have slightly different meanings to people outside the sport.