Ours is a sport with a lexicon all its own. People unfamiliar with horse racing would be surprised to learn that some expressions still being used today have their origins based in the sport of kings.
So, let’s get out of the gate and take a look at a sampling:
ACROSS THE BOARD. Meaning pertaining to all categories or things, originated around 1903 as a betting term in horse racing. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, wagering across the board means betting that your horse will finish “in either first, second, or third place.”
DARK HORSE. Dark, in addition to meaning lacking light also means concealed, secret, or mysterious. By that token, a dark horse is “a horse about whose racing powers little is known,” says the OED. The term was first used by Benjamin Disraeli in his 1831 novel, The Young Duke:
The first favourite was never heard of, the second favourite was never seen after the distance post, all the ten-to-oners were in the rear, and a dark horse, which had never been thought of, and which the careless St. James had never even observed in the list, rushed past the grand stand in sweeping triumph.
Dark horse now often refers to any unexpected success, while in politics, a dark horse candidate is one who unexpectedly comes up from behind.
FRONT RUNNER. A front runner is the leading candidate in a contest, competition, or election and comes from the horse racing term referring to a horse that runs best while in the lead.
HANDS DOWN. To win something hands down means to win it easily. It comes from the practice of horse racing jockeys loosening the reins when it seemed certain that they would win.
HOME STRETCH. When you’re in the home stretch you’re almost done with whatever you’re trying to accomplish. That meaning came about around 1860, according to the OED, while the horse racing term is from about 1841 and refers to the final length, or stretch, of the racetrack.
The word stretch refers to “a continuous or unbroken length, area, or expanse,” as in an empty stretch of highway, and by extension, “a straight section of a racecourse or track, especially the section leading to the finish line.”
IN (OR OUT) OF THE RUNNING. In horse racing, those horses in the running are the lead competitors. This term came about in the mid-1800s, according to the OED, while the figurative meaning referring to viable, and not so viable, political candidates originated a couple of years later.
A RUN FOR ONE’S MONEY. To give someone a run for their money means to give them a challenge. The term originated in horse racing around 1839, says the OED, with the meaning “to have (or get, want, etc.) a successful race from a horse one has backed.
Around 1874, the term gained the extended sense of getting “value or satisfaction in return for one’s expenditure or exertions.” The challenge sense of the expression came about shortly after that, around 1886.
DOWN TO THE WIRE. When something is down to the wire, it’s pushed to the last minute or the very end. Procrastinators know the feeling of this expression well. Characters in spy movies are often put in a position where they’re down to the wire while disarming a ticking bomb.
The origin of the phrase is far less explosive, though. Down to the wire originally comes from the practice of stretching a literal wire above the Finish Wire of a horse racing track. The first horse to break through that wire was the one that won, and a close race that was down to the wire would be one that’s decided at or near the very end. Technology allows us to judge a race winner without a wire these days, but the expression lives on.
NECK AND NECK. Whenever two things are very close, it’s common to say that they’re neck and neck. Two companies can be neck and neck in their efforts to build a flying car (about time!).
In this sense neck and neck is used in a metaphorical way. Large companies, of course, do not have actual necks. It comes from horse racing, however, where actual necks are in fact present. Two horses that are neck and neck appear to be literally side by side. The term is often used alongside other horse racing terms about close races, such as down to the wire.
Feel free to add to the list