Everyday Phrases That Came from Horse Racing

Gene Siudut@@GeneSiudutContributor IIIMarch 10, 2011

Champing at the bit
Champing at the bitMark Dadswell/Getty Images

At Churchill Downs in Louisville, Kentucky, the 137th running of the Kentucky Derby will fly out of the gate May 7. This first leg of the Triple Crown races always stirs up quite a bit of nostalgia for me because of the association I’ve had with race tracks throughout my life.

When I was a youth, my father would take the family to Delaware Park to watch the races. My brother, sister and I were too young to understand that the race track was a gambling establishment and were just happy to be able to see horses running really fast. There was a playground and a picnic area there, and the whole place was pretty family friendly.

This was much different that my experiences at Garden State Park in Cherry Hill, New Jersey. Garden State Park, which has been demolished to make way for a shopping center the size of Tampa, was where I misspent time during my teen years.

I still remember going on a date there with my girlfriend when I was 16 and winning $20 on a horse named Mel’s Fella. It was the first time I actually won money on a race, and it was also the first time I went on a date with this girl that didn’t involve being driven around in my friend's car while we made out in the back seat...oh, the good ole days.

Cutting school to go to the race track became one of my favorite hobbies. There is a slice of America that only exists at a horse track that I can’t explain, but it seems every race track has the same characters in attendance. Whether it be the several Preakness Stakes I've attended in Pimlico or the dozens of Off Track Betting Facilities I've been compelled to frequent, everyone looks, sounds and acts the same.

The stretch run
The stretch runAlan Crowhurst/Getty Images

As I’ve aged, my race track appearances have decreased, but not my love for the sport of horse racing. There’s camaraderie between the patrons and a language that is all their own. It’s them against the system. Each race creates new bonds between like-minded pari-mutuel bettors. Each finish creates story after story about who bet what and why each person there is either a genius or a dope.

What I’ve found particularly interesting is how deeply horse racing dialogue has permeated the American lexicon. There are obvious phrases that come from horse racing like, winning by a nose or neck and neck, but there are several that most people didn’t know came from horse racing.

Hands Down

When someone wins easily or a result is assured, this is a common phrase. The origin comes from a jockey’s hand position during a race. Generally a jockey would want to hold the reins tight to control the horse. A jockey will let his hands down and ease up on the reins when victory is assured.


Usually, a ringer is someone who is far more experienced at a sport than people are led on to believe and comes into a contest and dominates. This comes from a less scrupulous time in horse racing when an owner would substitute a similar looking horse in a race for another horse he or she would own to change the outcome of the race.

Starting from Scratch 

This term was used in horse racing as an indicator that a horse’s front hooves were behind the line scratched out in the running surface.

Champing at the Bit 

A horse’s bridle has a bit that fits on the gum of the horse. When a horse is excited or nervous, it will tend to try to chew on the bit, causing a lot of salivating and head bobbing. This has evolved into a phrase meaning eager and ready to perform, but it also gives way to another phrase...

Bits and Pieces 

Connecting the bit to the bridle is something called a cheek piece or just piece. Bits and pieces are small and would often be piled up in a stable, developing a term for any group of small, varying objects.

Beating a Dead Horse 

This term is often misunderstood as someone beating a horse that has passed on to greener pastures. A dead horse is a horse on a track that doesn’t have any run left. Beating a dead horse refers to a jockey whipping the horse with a crop when the horse is obviously going nowhere. In the non-horse racing world, a good example would be lecturing a child about not cleaning his or her room.

Looking a Gift Horse in the Mouth/Right from the Horse’s Mouth

The condition of a horse’s incisors are a fairly good indicator of a horse’s age. You could insult a gift giver by looking a gift horse in the mouth or you could go right to the source of the information you want to know by getting it right from the horse’s mouth.


Before boxers used the weight class of heavyweight, it was a classification for horses.

Dark Horse 

This term has nothing to do with the color of a horse. It has to do with the betting public being in the dark about the horse.

...and I'm off.


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