In the money vs. on the board: defining the terms

Profile Picture: J. Keeler Johnson

July 31st, 2021

Two of the most common pieces of horse racing betting jargon are also two of the most commonly misunderstood.

Hang around the racetrack for any length of time, and you’re bound to hear the phrases “in the money” and “on the board.” Wait a few minutes longer, and you might also hear their inverses: “out of the money” and “off the board.”

It can seem as though these phrases are used interchangeably. Certainly there are conflicting views on their exact definitions. But although there’s some crossover in when the terms apply, they’re actually distinct phrases with different meanings.

Let’s explore both phrases to gain a deeper understanding of their meanings as defined by the age-old horse racing authority, the Daily Racing Form.

In the money

“In the money” comes from the days when the only wagering options in horse racing were win, place, and show bets. If a horse finished in the top three, he was involved in the payoffs. If he finished fourth or worse, he was irrelevant for wagering purposes. Thus, “in the money” came to refer to a top-three finish, while “out of the money” designated a horse finishing out of the top three.

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Three horses race to the finish line at Belmont Park (Photo by Coglianese Photos/NYRA)

Confusion about the definition of “in the money” stems from the fact it has also been used to reference a racehorse earning a share of the purse money. In the past, this broadly meant a top-four finish, but purse distribution is more complicated these days. Some races and tracks actually award purse money to every starter regardless of where they finish, so using “in the money” in this regard isn’t very helpful. These days, it’s more accurate to consider “in the money” to mean a top-three finish.

On the board

“On the board” is also an old phrase. It presumably references the tote boards in racetrack infields, which often list the top four finishers from each race. If a horse finishes in the top four, his number literally appears “on the board,” so the term is logical designation for a top-four finish.

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Serengeti Empress races past the infield tote board at Ellis Park - © Ellis Park/Coady Photography

The inverse term “off the board” logically applies to any horse finishing fifth or worse, though there’s also another definition less common in modern racing parlance. The classic horse racing handicapping book Ainslie’s Complete Guide to Thoroughbred Racing, by Tom Ainslie, indicates the phrase can refer to “a horse so lightly bet that its odds exceed 99 to 1,” which is the highest price traditionally listed by tote boards lacking the space to display three-digit numbers.

When to apply the terms?

Since “in the money” refers to a top-three finish, and “on the board” to a top-four finish, the terms can be applicable at the same time. Consider the results of the 2020 Kentucky Derby (G1), where the top five finishers were as follows:

1st: #18 Authentic
2nd: #17 Tiz the Law
3rd: #9 Mr. Big News
4th: #16 Honor A. P.
5th: #2 Max Player

It is accurate to describe Authentic, Tiz the Law, and Mr. Big News as finishing both “in the money” and “on the board,” with the former phrase being slightly more precise.

But “in the money” cannot be applied to Honor A. P. and Max Player, even though they joined the top three in earning a share of the Kentucky Derby purse. Both Honor A. P. and Max Player finished “out of the money,” though Honor A. P. did finish “on the board” by virtue of cracking the top four.

It’s safe to say horse racing, like most sports, has its fair share of unique lingo!