Get A Leg Up: Phrases That Originate From Horse Racing

Let the races begin!

Every year on the first Saturday in May, the Kentucky Derby shines a spotlight on a sport that doesn’t have the same cachet as it once did. Horse racing was once a much more popular pastime. Today, it may be more synonymous with fancy hats at Churchill Downs and funny horse names for many people who watch the fastest two minutes in sports.

Despite the decreased relevance of horse racing in popular culture, horse racing expressions from the sport’s heyday have had a long-running influence on the English language.

Let’s get out of the gates (there’s one for you) with words and phrases that have a surprising origin in horse racing.


If you want to know more about horse racing events, read all about the Kentucky Derby, Preakness, Belmont Stakes, and the Triple Crown!

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. You can be down to the wire on a work or school project you forgot about until the night before, and 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 line 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.


The homestretch is the final phase or last little bit left to do before finishing a race, task, or anything that needs finishing, really. Think of a senior who’s slogging through the homestretch before school’s out forever.

In horse racing, the homestretch is the straight part of a racetrack from the last turn to the finish line. It’s often the most exciting part of the race, and excitement or anxiety can sometimes make the homestretch feel like it’s the longest despite it being no longer than any other stretches.

Speaking of stretches, another term you might hear is down the stretch, which also comes from horses racing down the final leg of the track. It’s figuratively used in the same way as homestretch. And then there’s the backstretch, which is the exact opposite. The backstretch is the straight leg of the race track that’s on the other side of the homestretch. Whether you’re eager to finish a race or simply wishing you were done washing the dishes, you’d much rather be on the homestretch than the backstretch.

dead heat

Many people don’t like to lose, but some people are so competitive they don’t even like to tie. For the latter, a dead heat, which is when a competition or race ends in a tie, is a nightmare. It’s a wash, a draw, a blanket finish. An Olympic sprinter gunning for gold, for example, would do everything they can to avoid a dead heat.

Dead heat originally comes from 1700s British horse racing slang. A race without a clear winner was referred to as dead, while heat refers to a segment of a bigger competition, as in one round of an eight-round race. So a dead heat referred to a segment in the set of races that ended in a tie.

photo finish

A photo finish is not something that half of the people involved in a close competition want to partake in. The phrase refers to a race where two or more contestants finish so close together that a well-timed photograph is needed to see who really won. More broadly speaking, it refers to any end of a competition in which first and second place are separated by a thin margin. A NASCAR race can end in a photo finish that initially appears to be a bumper-to-bumper tie, for example.

The term photo finish first started being used in regard to horse races in the 1880s. Prior to the rise of photography, judges at the end of the track would call who won close races. Cameras became the judges toward the end of the 19th century. The cameras, and the photos they took at the finish line, gave people at the time more insight into the end of a photo finish race.


If you’ve ever experienced the sweet taste of victory after a close finish, you will be interested in other taste-related words that are now traits.


A trifecta is a group, set, or series of three, as you might have guessed from the tri- at the beginning of the word. The Three Musketeers were a trifecta, and you could say that a movie that wins Oscars for directing, original screenplay, and original score won a trifecta of awards. A perfect trifecta is also used not just for a trio itself, but a winning combination of three things.

Before it was a broad term for three, however, trifecta referred specifically to bets on horse races. A trifecta is a bet when a bettor chooses the first, second, and third finishers in the correct order. The odds of making the correct ordered picks are low, but the payout is often much higher than basic bets like picking an overall winner. It’s a bet that isn’t typically applied to other sports.

There are horse racing bets similar to a trifecta. There’s a perfecta (correctly picking first and second place), superfecta (correctly picking the first four winners in order), exacta (another term for a perfecta), and quinella (picking two horses that will finish first and second in any order). There’s also the daily double, which is a single bet on which horse will win in two different races that day. The track decides which two races qualify, making the daily double somewhat like a daily special at a restaurant. It’s also, trivia lovers will note, the name of a type of clue on the Jeopardy! Board. When the Daily Double pops up, the contestant who found it must wager part (or all) their winnings to determine what’s at stake before answering the question.

Perhaps you haven’t heard those bets similar to trifecta in common usage, but horse bettors have given us other phrases. One to note is across the board, which originally referred to a bet that covers all possibilities of winning bets on a single horse—picking a horse to win the race, place in the race, and show (which means to place in first, second, or third), for example. Figuratively, across the board has grown to mean that something applies to all employees, members, groups, or categories.

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 the effort to build a flying car (about time!), and two competing homebuyers may be neck and neck in escalating offer prices.

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. Or in the case when the neck and neck horses stay neck and neck to the end, a dead heat.

on the fast track

Life is easy when you’re on the fast track. You likely have heard fast track used in conversations about school or work. It means a situation or course of action that’s competitive or high pressure, and one in which someone can rapidly advance in their goals. A junior associate can work 10 hour days on the fast track to senior management, for example, or a high school student can cram more classes into their junior year on the fast track to graduation.

It started as a term that related to an actual track. A fast track is a horse racing track that’s dry and hard enough for the horses to reach optimum speed. That makes this one of those words where the original definition is self explanatory: a fast track is simply a track that the racers can go as fast as possible on as opposed to one where racers are slowed down by mud or less than optimal conditions.

get someone's goat

Goats get a lot of love in the world of popular expressions. People who are the best at something are called the G.O.A.T. (Greatest Of All Time), for example. Goats can also refer to knowing what it takes to anger or annoy someone, which is the case in the phrase get someone’s goat. A basketball player may know how to get his opponent’s goat to make him overreact and foul, for example.

It’s believed that the phrase comes from actual goats and their effect on race horses. Goats are thought to calm down anxious or energy-filled thoroughbreds, so owners would put a goat in the horse’s stall for the night before the race. Stealing that goat out of the pen would thus upset the horse and make it perform poorly on the big day.

dark horse

Some of the most exciting competitions and political races are when there’s a dark horse, which is a person who little is known about yet who unexpectedly manages to come out ahead. It’s frequently used in politics, as in the dark horse House of Representatives candidate upset the six-time incumbent, as well as in sports, as in the 16th ranked dark horse managed to beat the star-studded top ranked teamDark horse is often used as the direct opposite of front runner, which is simply anyone who leads a competition and sets the pace for everyone else.

It probably shouldn’t be a surprise that the first dark horses were, well, horses. They didn’t have dark coats, however. The horses were simply ones that bettors and fans didn’t know much about before the horse unexpectedly won a race. Front runner comes from racing as well, in both horse races and car races.


Now take your winnings and your winning vocabulary over to our list of useful golf terms to know on and off the green. 

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