Sports Phrases That Originated With Horse Racing

Profile Picture: J. Keeler Johnson

February 20th, 2019

Horse racing has a long, rich history—indeed, it can be considered one of the world’s oldest organized sports.

So it’s not really surprising that many phrases commonly used in sports and other competitive events originated in the horse racing world. Here are five examples, and we’ll bet at least one or two of them surprise you:

Down the Stretch

Most Thoroughbred racetracks (particularly in North America) are oval-shaped, with the straightway leading to the finish line referred to as the homestretch. Late in the race, when the final outcome is being determined, the horses are said to be coming “down the stretch,” a phrase since borrowed to refer to the final stages of basketball games.

Front Runner

A universal advantage in North American horse racing is early speed—it’s only logical that a horse which secures the early lead has a better chance of winning a given race than any other horse. These speedy horses are understandably called front-runners, but the phrase has also become a more general term to denote the most likely winner of a sporting event.

Hands Down

Have you ever heard the phrase “hands down” in reference to an easy winner? “He’ll win hands down” or “she’s hands-down the best player on the team” are both based on an old racing phrase describing the position of a jockey’s hands during the race. If a is so confident of winning that he drops his hands and eases his mount, that’s a “hands down” victory.


Commonly used in sports and elections, the term “walkover” owes a literal origin to the sport of racing. As described in the October 17, 1924 edition of the Daily Racing Form, walkover “was used when a horse had no competitor in a race. He simply walked or galloped over the course, hence the expression, now used to designate any condition where there is no competition.”


When a participant in a competition leads from start to finish, they are said to have won in wire-to-wire fashion. Certainly this has long been an accurate description of horse races, where—in the old days—the finish line was marked by a wire suspended above the track and the starting point was likewise a physical barrier stretched in front of the horses.