Thoroughbred Racing 101: A Racing Glossary

To best describe this shot of Victory Gallop (11, outside) and Real Quiet (on the rail) during the 1998 Belmont Stakes, look under the letter "P." (Bill Kostroun/AP Photo)
To best describe this shot of Victory Gallop (11, outside) and Real Quiet (on the rail) during the 1998 Belmont Stakes, look under the letters “N” and “P.” (Bill Kostroun/AP Photo)

–by Michael A. Riley

The history horse racing can be traced back to before the Common Era, and throughout the last millennia, the modern version of the sport has woven its way into the fabric of humanity. The thoroughbred horse is the fastest land animal at the distance of one mile. It can be trained to work with humans and for many years, humans have competed against one another by riding these beautiful creatures, whether for sport, money, pride or legacy. Along the way, some interesting language has filtered its way into our everyday lexicon. I thought it would be fun to share a few of my favorite terms, words, phrases and emotions that either originated in, or are associated with “the sport of Kings.” (Note: I really love how many of these terms can apply to politics.) So here we go: horse racing, language and life.


Across The Board – A wager placed on a horse to run first, second or third. In life one might say “I wagered across the board to be sure to cash a ticket.” A safe bet, but yields very little in the long run.

Also Ran – Any horse that ran in a race and didn’t win or “hit the board.” In other words, a loser.


Bad Actor – An easily irritated, unruly horse. Sometimes, you’ll see “bad actors” get jumpy before being placed into the starting gate before a race.

Blinkers – A small cup attached to the horse’s equipment over his head that shields his eyes to the sights around him and can only focus forward. In life, when somebody has “blinkers on,” it means they are not seeing the big picture and are only focusing on the goal.

Bomb – A horse that is sent off at high odds and rewards his supporters with a juicy payout. KA-BLAM! I just hit a bomb! Drinks are on me!


Closer – A horse that runs well towards the end of the race and passes the early leaders after falling behind.

Co-Favorites – When more than one horse is favored by the bettors, usually they lose. The public can be foolish.


Dead Heat – When two (or more) horses reach the finish line at the same moment. Too close to call by the naked eye.

Derby – Named after the late 18th-century British nobleman, the 12th Earl of Derby, it refers to a stakes race run for three-year-old horses. The Kentucky Derby is the one race everyone in the game wants to win. Also, the word is used to mean a contested match among rivals. While it’s pronounced DURR-bee in the States, it’s pronounced DAR-bee across the Atlantic.

Down The Stretch – The final yards of the race are called the home stretch. When a politician surges past his rival in the days before the election, he rolled past the opponent “down the stretch.”


Even Money – A 1:1 wager. The “even money” favorite.

Exacta – A wager where the bettor selects the first two horses across the wire in a race in order.

Exotic Wager/Exotics – A wager on something other than a straight bet, usually an exacta or a trifecta. Also called a prop bet.


Favorite – The horse in the race that has the most money wagered on it. He is the “favorite” among the crowd.

Field – All the runners in the race. A closer passes the “field” as he makes his way to the wire. A politician in an election separates himself from the “field” on his way to victory.


Gelding – A male horse that has been castrated. When someone is stripped of their power, we might say that he has been “gelded.” Neutered.


Home Stretch – The final yards of a race. The Yankees turned it on in the “home stretch” to win Game Seven of the series.


In Hand – When a horse is running with little or no encouragement, but still manages to get the job done easily. Mayor Bloomberg won his second term during the 2005 New York City mayoral election “in hand.”

In The Money – This applies to any horse who finishes first, second or third (sometimes fourth). You can lose the race, but still finish “in the money” and get a share of the purse.


Juice – The commission on a bookmaker’s bet. I cashed a ticket, but had to pay the juice.


Key Horse – The main horse used in an exotic wager. I keyed the number two horse on top of all in the exacta, and I hope the longshot runs second.


Long Shot – Any horse that is either given no chance of winning by the bettors, or in fact is bet so little that his odds are high, or “long.” Do I need to describe this one?


Morning Line – The probable odds on the horses as predicted by the track handicapper. It is used as an early guide to how to make one’s wagers. The “morning line” favorite is not necessarily the winner even though he is favored to win.


Audio: 2014 Belmont Stakes Preview with Michael A. Riley


Neck and neck – When two (or more) horses are battling it out toward the wire and they are so close that they are “neck and neck.” The two politicians are heading into election night neck and neck with each other, and public opinion is so divided that we can’t determine who will win.


Odds-On – When the odds on the horse are less than even money, or 1:1. That doesn’t translate into a win usually, with many horses having gone off at less than 1:5 but then going on and losing the race. The horses can’t read the tote board.

Out Of The Money – When a horse fails to finish in the top three (or four) positions. Ralph Nader ran for president many times, and the commentary was always, “He finished out of the money.” (Although we can thank Ralph Nader a whole lot for his efforts many years ago in ensuring seatbelt safety – and overall auto safety – among car manufacturers during the 1960s.)


Photo Finish – When the horses cross the finish line in such proximity to each other that a photograph snapped as they cross the wire is examined to determine who the actual winner was.

Post Time – The designated time for a race to start. Also, when any event is gathered to begin at an aforementioned time, we gather at “post time.”

Purse – The prize awarded to the winner of a race. Used in any game or sport where there is money awarded to the winners. Historically, there was an actual “purse,” with money in it, attached to the pole or flag at the finish of the race and the winning rider would literally grab the purse and ride off with the dough. The prize in any competition, from boxing to the spelling bee, is referred to as the purse.


Quinella – A wager where the player bets on the first two horses to finish the race in either order. I just had to use a Q word.


Ringer – A horse entered under another’s name. Although no longer performed, this tactic was often used long ago to pull a fast one on the public, as the owner or trainer could place – and most likely cash – a large bet afterwards. When the 16 year-old kid was competing against 12 year-olds in the Little League World Series, he was a “ringer.”


Scratch – To withdraw a horse from a race before it starts. Derek Jeter is a scratch tonight due to an ankle injury.


Trifecta – A wager where the bettor selects the first three horses across the wire in a race. Also used in sports of all types when a player or team completes a series of three accomplishments. Sometimes a three-point shot in basketball is called a trifecta.


Underlay – Any horse starting at odds less than what they should be. Facebook stock was an underlay at the IPO; it was worth less than what it sold for.

Upset – When an improbable winner defeats the likely winner. According to popular belief held for many years, the term was coined when a horse named Upset handed the great racehorse Man o’ War his only defeat in 1919. The horse was named after the emotion of being upset, but the phrase is used every time a supposed winner is defeated by longshot in any sport, or in politics.


Valet – The person who attends to the jockey and his equipment. Note: On the racetrack, it is pronounced “VAL-it”. Rhymes with shallot. Ha!


Walkover – A race that scratches down to only one starter/horse who merely gallops the required distance. A formal gesture required by the rules of racing.

Wire-To-Wire – When a horse leads the entire length of the race. Same goes in life: out of the gate first, and the first one home.


Sorry, no X’s for you guys.


Yielding – A very soft turf course due to rain or severe weather. In football, sometimes, the teams compete on a sloppy, or “yielding” turf.


Sorry, no Z’s either, but thank you for getting this far in our story!

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