Since horse racing has been around for hundreds of years it makes sense that many of the expressions we use in our day-to-day life stem from the racehorse world.

I’ve managed to find the origin of several and now when we spout them out we’ll know from where they once came. 

Play the Field

Playing the field. Something I like to think I’m doing, since I’m single and all that. 

This idiom comes from the actions of someone who places bets on more than half the horses in a race but not the favourite. Hedging their bets as it were. Playing the field gives the punter a better chance of winning, obviously. An adage I now live by. 

Across the Board

When we use this expression, we are saying something applies to all, such as rules or bets. 

This is similar to playing the field but only in the sense of hedging your bets. Across the board means putting a win, place and show bet on the same horse in a race. The board in question is the blackboard or tote board where the odds are shown before the race. 

Wild-Goose Chase

A pointless pursuit, like dating, or a harebrained scheme, like dating. Basically, it’s a pointless endeavour, like chasing a wild goose in an attempt to catch it to keep for later. This term was popularized by our friend Shakespeare.

In the Middle Ages, there was a type of horse race called a wild-goose chase. A lead rider was sent out to gallop across the countryside creating their own twisty course that had a set distance. The rest of the field of horses and riders were expected to follow the same track only they were to do so in a V-formation, just as geese fly. 

It’s unclear how this race actually worked as it seems rather impossible for a group to gallop around in a V-formation and follow the same course. And we daren’t ask how one might go about winning the race. 

All we know is this term comes from a type of horse race run many moons ago and if it was good enough for Shakespeare, well then, it’s good enough for me.

Hands Down

If you win at something easily then you’ve won hands down. 

There are mixed ideas as to where this expression has come from but the most popular is the racehorse world. A jockey that wins a race easily can gallop across the finish line with a loop in the reins and their hands down on the horse’s neck. Makes perfect sense to me.

The other theory, which doesn’t fit in this post whatsoever, is thought to have come from the boxing world. Some feel that if a boxer is far superior to their opponent, then they can win the match scarcely needing to raise their hands to fight. Thusly, they’ve won the match hands down.


The term also-ran is a slightly nicer way to call someone a loser of a race or how you may refer to someone you deem of as little importance.

When a horse race finishes it seems that only the first three finishers get any praise. The others merely canter across the finish line heads hung low in defeat. 

The newspapers of the 19th century used to go into great detail about the win, place and show horses and would fill the top portion of the article with stats and bloodlines. In true journalist fashion, the less important information was funnelled to the bottom in what we in the biz like to call the inverted pyramid. It’s here that the reporter briefly mentions the horses in the race that also ran. 

Starting from Scratch

Starting from scratch means doing something from the beginning and I assumed this term came from cooking, I suppose because someone might say, “I made this pie from scratch.” This, however, is incorrect. 

Before the invention of starting gates, horse races started from scratch. And what that meant was that someone scratched a line into the turf, perhaps with the heel of their boot, which became the official starting line.  

This is also where we get the expression up to scratch, meaning ready to meet one’s opponent. Today we are more likely to use it in the sense that something isn’t good enough. Your boss or teacher might say, “Your work isn’t up to scratch.” 

Give and Take

This expression which means to compromise hails from the scales of the racetrack. In the 1700s there were “give-and-take” races where horses carried weights depending on their height. Seven pounds were given for every inch a horse stood over 14 hands and seven pounds were taken for every inch under 14 hands. 

Today we call these races handicaps. 


Sort of like a Black Friday sale, or a mass brawl where people just jump in and battle it out. To the victor go the spoils.

This term was used back in the mid-1800s generally in reference to the highly competitive and unregulated open horse races that anyone could enter. 

There you have it

From the racing world to the dating world and beyond. Horses have once again played an enormous role in our day-to-day lives and for that, I’ll be forever grateful. 

Sources: scratch ; and take ; ; ; ; Why You Say It, by Webb Garrison: Hands Down – page 71, Play the Field – page 89, Also-ran – page 97.