Jockey on horse
Neale Cousland / Bigstockphoto.com

There are many aspects that make the sport of horse racing so appealing, from the animals themselves to the thrills and spills of the races and not forgetting, of course, the betting action which surrounds it all. Each of these features adds to the enjoyment of the sport in their own unique way but one thing they all have in common is the fact that, over the years, they have all developed their very own phrasebook.

From horse types to race types, running styles to betting movements and much more besides, the Sport of Kings has developed a language and lingo all of its own. And, whilst much of this racing rhetoric may be fairly self-explanatory, some of it does require a little clarification, particularly to those who may be new to the sport.

That’s where this quick guide comes in. Here we take a look at those words and phrases which crop up with regularity in the areas of the sport most commonly encountered by racing fans and punters. If you don’t know your ante post from your winning post, or your final declarations from your final furlong? Then you’ve come to the right place.

Not Just Any Old Horse: Horse Types

Horse race
Amy N. Harris / Bigstockphoto.com

Considering they are the animals around which the whole sport is built, the obvious place to start is with our noble four-legged friends. All flat racehorses, and the majority of jumps performers, are thoroughbred animals – a breed proven to excel at the sport for centuries now.

The categorisation of racehorses, therefore, refers not to their breed, but predominantly to their age and/or sex. Whilst the following list is not quite exhaustive, it does cover the vast majority of animals those following the sport are likely to come across.

  • Juvenile: A two year old horse, male or female.
  • Colt: Male horse aged four years or younger who has not been gelded.
  • Gelding: A male horse who has been gelded/castrated.
  • Entire: A male horse who has not been gelded/castrated.
  • Filly: A female horse aged four or younger.
  • Horse: A male horse aged five or older that is not a gelding.
  • Mare: A female horse aged five or older.
  • Sire: The father of a horse.
  • Dam: The mother of a horse.
  • Stallion: A male horse used for breeding.

What’s in a Name? Race Titles Explained

So, that’s the horses all sewn up. But what about the races they take part in? Just as with the animals themselves, races fall into a number of different categories. The aim here is to provide suitable contests for runners across the full range of experience, ability and distance preferences.

The racing classification system largely deals with the ability question, operating on a descending scale, with Class 1 contests being for the most talented performers, moving down to Class 2, Class 3 and so on. In both flat and jumps racing the Class 1 categories then contain further subdivisions. These being Group 1, Group 2, Group 3 and Listed on the flat, and Grade 1, Grade 2, Grade 3 and Listed over jumps. The Class of a race will always be noted alongside the race title, as will the distance.

The remaining race information, relating to the experience of the runners, and the conditions under which the race will be run, are then found within the race title itself. And it is here that our next list of racing jargon comes in.

Take, for example, the race title of “Troy Asset Management Novice Stakes” which took place at Ascot on 1st October 2021. This title follows a format found in the vast majority of race titles, in stating the sponsor of the race first, in this case “Troy Asset Management”, followed by the race type of “Novice Stakes”. But what exactly do these race types tell us about the race? Let’s take a look at the most common phrases found within British and Irish race titles.

  • Maiden: For runners who are yet to win a race.
  • Novice (Flat): For runners with no more than two previous wins to their name.
  • Novice (Jumps): Can be either a chase or a hurdle. Restricted to runners who have not won a chase/hurdle prior to the start of the current season.
  • Handicap: A race in which the weights carried by the contenders are determined by their official rating (OR). Also known as the horses’ “handicap mark”, these ratings are assigned by the official handicapper and can increase and decrease with improving or worsening performances. The higher the rating, the greater the weight carried, with the aim being to create a level playing field in which all runners have a theoretically equal chance of winning.
  • Nursery: A handicap race restricted to two year old runners.
  • Classified Stakes: Level weights races restricted to runners whose official rating falls within a specified range. For example, Classified Stakes (90-100) would be restricted to runners with an official rating of between 90 and 100.
  • Conditions: A race in which all runners carry the same weight, with the exception of weight and sex allowances. That is to say, fillies and mares receive an allowance from colts and geldings, and three year olds receive weight from those aged four and older.
  • Claiming Race: All runners are available to purchase for a predetermined price following the completion of the race.
  • Selling Race: Identical to a claiming race, with the exception that, rather than being sold for their predetermined price, the winner of the race will be sold via public auction.
  • Bumper: Also known as National Hunt Flat races, these contests take place at National Hunt (jumps) meetings but feature no obstacles at all.
  • Cross Country Chase: A National Hunt race taking place over a cross country course. Rather than standard hurdles or fences, a cross country course features a wide array of obstacles including steep banks, live hedges and white fences.
  • Conditional/Apprentice Race: A race restricted to relatively inexperienced jockeys – referred to as conditionals in jumps races and apprentices on the flat.

Race Distances: How Long Is a Furlong?

Blurry race horses

Easily one of the most commonly asked questions by racing newbies concerns the distances of the races, and specifically “what exactly is a furlong?”. And it’s no wonder really, as this rather antiquated unit of measure – universally used in defining race distances in the UK and Ireland – is rarely spotted anywhere else in everyday life. But where did it come from?

The word furlong descends from the “Old English” Furlang, which is, in turn, an amalgamation of the words “fuhr” and “lang” – meaning the distance a team of oxen were able to pull a plough before becoming exhausted.

What, you may ask, has this to do with modern-day horse racing? And the answer is, very little that we can think of. A furlong was nevertheless the standard unit of measure during the 16th century – the time at which horse racing really began to take off in this country – making it the logical choice in the denoting of race distances at the earliest tracks. With that tradition set, later tracks followed suit and the relationship between horse racing and the furlong was set. Furlong may be the unit of measure, but it is not the only distance-related racing term which it pays to be aware of:

  • Furlong: A standard unit of measure. Equal to 660ft, 220 yards or 201.17 meters. There are eight furlongs in one mile. The numbered posts seen on the racecourse display the number of furlongs remaining to the winning post.
  • Minimum Trip: Races do take place over slightly shorter elsewhere in the world, but here in the UK and Ireland the phrase “minimum trip” refers to a contest over five furlongs.
  • Sprint Distances: Unsurprisingly, those races over the shorter distances. Five furlongs and six furlongs events fall into the sprint distances category.
  • Middle Distance: Races of further than a mile, with 1m6f being the absolute upper end of the middle-distance category. Incidentally, those runners who excel at the one-mile trip are referred to as “milers”, whilst the intermediate trip of seven furlongs is often referred to as a “specialist” distance.
  • Staying Race: On the flat, all races at beyond 1m6f. Over jumps all contests at three miles and further.

A Little Help: Racing Aids

Horse start gate

Tune into the racing on a Saturday afternoon and it likely won’t be too long before you hear phrases such as “really improved for the first-time tongue tie” or “we may need to try him in blinkers next time”. Tongue tie? Blinkers? What are they talking about?

Both a tongue tie and blinkers fall into a category known as racing aids. Optional pieces of equipment, these items are often reached for with the aim of improving a horse’s performance. Sometimes they seem to make very little difference at all, but on other occasions, they can transform a horse entirely. If a horse is underperforming, one of the following may help.

  • Blinkers: Headgear consisting of two plastic cups that limit a horse’s field of vision from both sides. Enables the horse to focus on what’s in front of them rather than becoming distracted by all the movement in their peripheral vision.
  • Cheekpieces: Pieces of sheepskin placed on either side of the bridle. Also a vision-based concentration aid, but not as restrictive as blinkers.
  • Visor: Very similar to blinkers but with a small slit in each eyecup to allow for some degree of peripheral vision.
  • Sheepskin Noseband: Attaches to the noseband of the bridle, also restricting vision but this time concerning what is going on below eye level. It is known to help some horses relax during a race.
  • Hood: Resembling a balaclava for horses, this aid helps to muffle noise, and can help to keep nervous individuals calm during the hustle and bustle of race day.
  • Tongue Tie: A strap used to tie down a horse’s tongue, helping to keep the throat clear and aid breathing.

Watching a Race: In Running Comments

Another area where racing terminology regular crops up is during the race itself – and specifically in relation to the language used by the racecourse commentators. Of course, each individual commentator will have their own individual style, but there are nevertheless a number of words and phrases which have become almost universally used to describe the unfolding action – many of which also appear in the post-race reports:

  • In-Running: Anything which happens during the race after it has begun. In-running betting refers to the prices on offer during the race.
  • Boxed In: Surrounded and behind other runners and so unable to obtain a clear run. A peril of the hold-up horse.
  • Held Up: Horses who are at, or towards, the back of the field and like to make their bid for glory late in the race.
  • Dwell/Dwelt: Slow to start i.e. dwelt in the stalls.
  • Off the Bridle/Bit: Used to describe a horse not travelling well during a race.
  • On the Bridle/Bit: Used to describe a horse who is travelling well during the race.
  • Length: The length of a horse from nose to tail. Often used to describe the distances between runners during an event, and at the end of a race in relation to winning margins. Distances of less than a length are, in descending order, ¾ length, ½ length, neck, head, and short head.
  • One Paced: Usually a negative, referring to a runner unable to quicken with their rivals.
  • Staying On: Gaining ground. Finishing a race strongly.
  • Turn of Foot: Displaying an ability to accelerate.
  • Green: Used to describe an immature horse. “Showing signs of greenness” or “running green” can refer to a horse failing to keep a straight line, being reluctant to hit the front, or displaying other signs of inexperience.
  • Tailed Off: A horse becoming increasingly distant behind the rest of the field and effectively out of contention.
  • Hands and Heels: A horse being ridden without the jockey needing to reach for the whip. “Won under hands and heels riding” signifies a comfortable winner.
  • Pushed Out: Similar to hands and heels, refers to a runner only being minimally encouraged by the rider without the use of the whip.
  • Won Going Away: Refers to a winner who was pulling further clear of the field at the point of crossing the line.
  • Hacked Up/Bolted Up: Won comfortably, usually by a significant distance.
  • All Out: A horse giving maximum effort. Regularly used to refer to a runner straining every sinew as the winning line approaches.
  • Blanket Finish: A finish to a race which involves a number of horses grouped so closely together that you could “throw a blanket over them”.

Ante Post or Day of Race: What’s the Difference?

Race cards stand at York Racecourse

So far, we have discussed terms related either to the horses themselves or the races in which they take part. There is however a rather important element we have not yet touched upon. We are of course speaking of betting, the feature which, for many, really makes the sport tick. And just as with the sporting elements, horse racing betting also features many words and phrases which may take a little explaining.

In all honesty, there’s a significant chunk of this lingo that inexperienced punters needn’t worry too much about. It’s nice to know for instance that “Burlington Bertie” is a slang term for 100/30 and “Double Carpet” means 33/1, but memorising such information is not really essential to your betting experience. There are however a few key phrases which it does pay to understand, including those concerning the time at which you place your bet. Let’s take a look at the key terms involved in the world of ante post betting.

Final Declarations: All races have a number of entry stages leading up to the race – points at which a horse may be officially “declared” as an intended runner. The time at which entries open can range from up to a year in advance for major events such as the Derby, to only a week or so for the smaller more run of the mill races.

Regardless of when the entries open though, all races apply the same cut off, coming at 10am two days prior to the date of the race. It is at this “Final Declaration” stage that the field of runners effectively becomes set. Of course, runners are frequently still pulled out for various reasons – most notably the going – after the final declarations have been made, but this point does mark a significant moment from a betting perspective.

All bets placed prior to the final declarations are classed as ante post bets, whilst all those placed after this time fall into the “day of race” category. This can make a big difference in terms of how your bet is settled – specifically if your selection is ultimately declared a non-runner.

  • Non-Runner: A horse withdrawn from a race it had been originally been declared to run in.
  • Ante Post: As mentioned, this is any bet placed prior to the final declarations – be that days, weeks or, in the case of events, such as the Cheltenham Festival, even months in advance. The advantage of an ante post bet is that you will likely be able to obtain better odds than those available on the day of the race. The downside being that, should your horse be declared a non-runner, you will not receive your money back.
  • Day of Race Bets: Despite the title, day of race bets are effectively any bet placed after the final declarations have been made, i.e. 48 hours prior to the race taking place. In the case of day of race bets, all stakes are returned in the event that your selection is declared a non-runner.
  • Non Runner Money Back (NRMB): There is however an exception to the above rules and it comes in the shape of the Non Runner Money Back Promotion, sometimes called Non Runner No Bet (NRNB). Most famously offered in the weeks leading up to the Cheltenham Festival, bets placed under this promotion will – as the name suggests – have stakes returned should your selection ultimately not line up on the day.

Number of Runners and Each Way Betting

This next section deals with what may well be the most common betting related query in betting shops up and down the land. What exactly is each way betting? How many places pay out? And how do we work out the odds?

  • Each Way Bet: Simply put, an each way bet is not one bet but two. One bet on the horse to win the race, and another bet, to the same stake, on the horse to finish in the placed positions. A £1 each way bet would therefore cost a total of £2. The win part of the bet will pay out at the full odds listed, with the placed portion paying out a fraction of those odds.
  • Each Way Terms: Whilst the each way bet itself is easy enough to understand, what can cause confusion is exactly how many places pay out and at what fraction of the listed odds they will pay. And the reason for this confusion is that both the number of places paid out, and the odds fraction used, vary according to the number of runners taking part in the race, and what type of race it is.

Helpfully, the exact each way terms for any given race will always be listed alongside the betting odds; be that at the track, in the betting shop or online. With the exception of special offers or promotions, these terms will always follow the universal rules outlined in the table below.

Number of Runners Race Type Places Paid Odds Fraction
1 to 4 All types Win Only NA
5 to 7 All types 1-2. 1/4
8+ Non-Handicap 1-2-3. 1/5
8 to 11 Handicap 1-2-3. 1/5
12 to 15 Handicap 1-2-3. 1/4
16+ Handicap 1-2-3-4. 1/4

Too Close To Call: The Photo Finish

Close race

From understanding the type of runners taking part, the nature of the races themselves, and some of the lingo related to our bets, we now move on to a query that comes right at the end of the race – at that moment when the runners cross the finish line and the winners and losers are determined.

On many occasions, backers will of course immediately know their fate, with the winner of the race being clear for all to see. Not always though. Many times, the horse to finish first past the post will not be quite so obvious. What happens on those occasions when one or more runners appear to hit the line almost in unison?

  • Photo Finish: An end to a race that is so close that a photograph taken on the line is required to help determine the winner. Officials may need to consult the photographic image in order to decide upon the winner, the placed positions, or both.
  • Dead Heat: Whilst close examination of the photo finish will usually reveal the winner of a race – even if it is only by a flared nostril – there are those occasions when the runners simply cannot be separated. In such situations there is little option but to declare a dead heat, with the two (or more) runners, to have hit the line as one, being declared joint winners of the race.

A dead heat will affect the betting returns you can expect should you have backed one of the horses involved. In a two-horse dead heat, for example, half of your stake will be settled as a winner, with the other half being settled as a loser. For example, a £10 win single on an 8/1 selection will return a total of £45 (£5 at 8/1), rather than the £90 which would have resulted had the horse won the race on its own.

Problems & Pitfalls

And, finally, we conclude with a list cataloguing the many things which can go wrong during a race, from problems at the start, to problems at the finish, and on to the various events which may result in a horse failing to complete the course. That is, those phrases you almost certainly don’t want to hear – at least not in relation to the horse carrying your cash.

  • False Start: Just as in other sports, this is a failure to start correctly. Unusual on the flat thanks to the use of starting stalls, it is more common in jumps events that require runners to approach the starting line in an orderly manner. A failure to start correctly in a jumps contest will result in a standing start being used.
  • Standing Start: In a jumps race, rather than walking in to approach the line, the field is required to stand side by side, lined up along the start line, and begin from that position when the starter lowers his flag.
  • Weighed In: Following the conclusion of a race, all jockeys – complete with saddle and equipment – must “weigh in” in order to confirm that the correct weight has been carried. Only after all jockeys have “weighed in” is the official result declared.
  • Stewards Enquiry: An enquiry conducted into the result of a race, usually in relation to whether a runner has unfairly interfered with a rival. On occasion, finishing positions may be altered following such an enquiry.
  • Void Race: A race in which no official result is recorded, and stakes are returned on all bets. This can result should all horses take the wrong course, fail to be successfully recalled following a false start, or in the instance that no horse manages to finish the race.
  • Fell (F): This simply means that a horse has fallen during a race. Note that, under the rules of racing, a horse may not be remounted having fallen or unshipped their jockey in any way. Many horses will race on riderless having fallen, but they will not be eligible to either win the race or finish in the placed positions. Any bets on such runners will be settled as losers.
  • Brought Down (B): Rather than falling as a result of their own error, this is used to describe those situations where a horse falls due to the mistake of another.
  • Ran Out (O): Failing to follow the proper course, most often by taking a wrong turn, or running around a hurdle or fence rather than jumping it.
  • Carried Out (C): Rather than veering off course under its own initiative, this refers to a horse being forced to do so due to the actions of a wayward rival. A frustrating, but nevertheless race-ending occurrence.
  • Pulled Up (P): If, for whatever reason, a jockey feels that all is not well with their mount during a race, they may opt to call it a day and pull on the reins to bring the horse to a halt. This action is most often taken in the event of a suspected injury or clear fatigue.
  • Unseated Rider (U): Usually coming as the result of a less serious error at an obstacle – not quite enough to bring the horse down, but enough to unship the jockey.
  • Left (L): When you really don’t get a run for your money! This refers to a horse being left at the start, i.e. standing completely still whilst the other runners set off on their journey to the winning line.
  • Refused (R): A horse refusing to jump an obstacle – opting to bring themselves to a halt, rather than attempt the leap.
  • Hit Rails (HR): A horse colliding with the course rails during a race. A rare, but often race-ending error.
  • Disqualified (D): Disqualifications can occur for a number of reasons, including badly interfering with a rival or failing to weigh in correctly.