Furlongs & Lengths: Behind Horse Racing’s Unique Terms

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Vintage film slide of the Grand National race, held at Aintree
Vintage film slide of the Grand National race, held at Aintree

 

When it comes to jumping into any sport, there’s a bit of a learning curve for newcomers. Those first attending a rugby match may hear a lot of ‘heave’, while those into MMA may refer to a ‘tough chin’ a lot.

And in the ancient, storied world of horse racing with its prestigious events like the Aintree Grand National, trying to keep up with slang at the racecourse can give new fans a real run for their money. Speaking of a run for their money—the phrase emerged in the 1870s, when underdog horses returned the value of a bet to their punter, literally giving them a ‘run for their money’.

Let’s take a look at some other common phrases with their origin in the world of horse racing.

Tic Tac (Men)

Before the breath-freshening brand of Italian mint chews, ‘tic tac’ referred to the gestures used by bookmakers to communicate important information from the Aintree Grand National finish line. Today’s modern bookmakers can rely on more efficient systems at the Grand National, like Walkie-Talkies and smartphones.

As technology helps bookmakers communicate more efficiently, the punter’s experience also improves. Today, live and remote spectators have access to grand national guides via mobile platforms, as well as Grand National guides and competitive odds. Though the tic tac man was once a fixed part of horse racing experience, they’re becoming rarer and rarer.

Furlong & Length

Though differences in the metric and imperial measuring systems can create some confusion for viewers of crossover sports, no units of measurement are quite as unique as those found in horseracing.

A furlong, for example, actually has an ancient tie to the Romans, though it’s often used to gauge distance at races like Royal Ascot and the Grand National steeplechase. The actual length is just over 200 meters, while a length depends on a horse’s size to measure how quickly it crosses the line.

Dark Horse

Unsurprisingly, this phrase has its origin in the world of horse racing. However, the term wasn’t actually created anywhere near a horse track. It was first used by Benjamin Disraeli, who would later go on to serve as the British Prime Minister, in his 1831 novel titled, The Young Duke.

The phrase is taken from an excerpt of the book in which the protagonist is attending a horserace and notices that one horse, written as ‘a dark horse’, emerges from the back of the pack to win the race. The character had never heard of or even seen this horse before, which added to the excitement at the Grand Stand after the race. 

A modern shot from the York Racecourse.
A modern shot from the York Racecourse.

Hands Down

Though the modern world isn’t without its challenges, few jobs are as stressful and require quick decision-making quite like that of a jockey. Today, we use the phrase ‘hands down’ to indicate that something has a clear outcome, but the words have a more literal meaning for the jockeys competing at Aintree Grand National and Royal Ascot.

To keep their horses running at top speed, jockeys will keep their hands raised and their grip tight on the reigns. However, if a jockey pulls ahead by enough length and feels confident in their win, they can drop the reigns, literally letting their ‘hands down’.

Even the term ‘give-and-take’ has its origin in the world of horse racing. The original term ‘give and take plate’, which emerged in the mid-1700s, referred to a handicapped race, in which larger horses carried heavier jockeys and vice versa.

However, the phrase had such ubiquitous applications that it didn’t take long for it to move beyond the world of steeplechases and racetracks. By 1778, the first recorded use of a non-sporting function emerged for ‘give-and-take’, which was used to communicate a ‘mutual yielding’. This usage came from author Fanny Burney in her novel, Evelina.

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