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127 Horse Racing Terms Defined and Explained

By Randy Ray
Published on June 10, 2017
Horse Racer

Exact numbers for worldwide horse race betting aren’t published, but it’s safe to say that it’s well into the billions of dollars.

The Kentucky Derby had over 193 million bet on it in 2016 and the Belmont Stakes had over 134 million bet on it in 2015.

Outside of the US, the Melbourne Cup has over 500 million wagered every year and the Cheltenham Festival tops 726 million.

These four events alone account for over 1.5 billion in wagers.

When you consider that horse racing is a worldwide activity it’s easy to see that it’s one of the biggest gambling markets available.

Here’s a list of 127 horse racing terms to help you understand more about the sport and the available wagers.

A

Across the Board: This is a bet placed on a horse to win, place and show. If the horse wins the race then you win on all three bets, if it comes second you win on two bets, and if it comes third you only win on one bet.

Action: Generally, this refers to the way a horse moves, both on the track and in the mounting yard. It’s sometimes also used in relation to making a bet in general, but this is far more common in other forms of gambling.

Added Money: In some races, the track owners will add money to the purse for a race to entice better horses and stables to enter. This money will be added to the total prize money which is generally made up of entry fees and sponsorship cash.

Agent: The person who buys and sells horses, or acts on behalf of jockey’s, trainers and stables is an agent. Much like a football or basketball player would have agents representing them, all the major players including horses in horse racing also have agents.

All Out: In some races horses will be pushed to the absolute limit to win, or in the attempt to win, and this is known as going all out. It’s usually avoided in horse racing as it puts the horse under far too much stress and can result in injury or even death.

Allowances: In handicap races where horses are assigned weight depending on their past performances, sometimes allowances are made and the weight can be reduced. Usually these allowances are given to horses due to poor weather or maybe because it’s a female horse running against males. If an apprentice jockey is riding an allowance may also be awarded. This is known as an apprentice allowance.

Also Eligible: In basic terms this is a substitute horse that will be able to run in a race if any of the current runners are scratched.

Also Ran: This term refers to a horse that has run in a race and has failed to finish in a position that earns money.

Apprentice: A jockey who is relatively new to the sport and hasn’t yet achieved the number of wins required to become a full-time professional. Sometimes you’ll hear an apprentice referred to as a bug.

B

Baby Race: In a baby race only 2-year-old horses can enter and run.

Backstretch: This is the section of the track that is at the far side of the course between the two bends. The finish line is never on the backstretch.

Bald: Some horses have a white face and in the industry, this is referred to as being bald.

Bar Shoe: When a horse injures the lower part of its leg, the trainers will sometimes place a horse shoe on them that has a rear bar that will provide extra protection. This is known as a bar shoe.

Bay: A horse which is a light tan color yet has brown to mahogany brown and even some black in some areas. Usually the main color is light tan with the mane and tail being black. Sometimes you’ll hear the terms light bay or dark bay used also.

Bearing in or Out: Quite often when a horse tires it starts to change direction from a straight line and bear in or out on the track. This can also happen when a jockey is losing control of the horse.

Bell: A bell is used at some race tracks when the gates open to start a race. It’s also used to signify the close of betting on a race. These days the bell isn’t used quite as much in favor of complex PA systems and lights.

Bit: One of the main ways a jockey controls the horse is by using a bit. This is a bar that’s placed in the horse’s mouth. With the reins the jockey can relax the bit, or push the bit further back into the horse’s mouth to get a response. While this sounds cruel it doesn’t hurt the horse that much and is more just used to motivate.

Bracer: After races or training a bracer is used to rub down horse’s muscles to help them to relax and recover. It’s basically like an oil liniment that you might use in massage.

Blanket Finish: In some races, the finish is so tight that you could literally put a blanket over the top of both horses, hence the term a blanket finish is born.

Blaze: You may notice on some horses that are completely brown or tan they have a blaze of white on their face. This is known, funnily enough, as a blaze. It can be quite a distinguishing feature on a horse and is a wonderful way to tell the difference between two otherwise very similar looking animals.

Blind Switch: Quite often a favourite won’t end up winning a race because they get caught in a blind switch on the final straight. This occurs when a horse is positioned between or behind other horses and is effectively boxed in and can’t move at the pace that it wants to. The better jockeys out there will have cunning strategies and ride their horses in a way to avoid ending up in a blind switch.

Blinkers: Some horses get distracted by the other horses around them in races and the crowds of people. To avoid these horses being distracted and thus impacting negatively on their performance trainers will affix blinkers which block out their peripheral vision. Quite often a horse will perform exceptionally well the first time they wear blinkers in a race as the jockey can finally make them focus on the task at hand.

Blowout: Just a few days prior to a big race a trainer will put a horse through a blowout session. This is a short and fast paced session that is intended to allow the horse to peak at their top speed in the upcoming race.

Board: At the race track all the odds and race information is shown on the board. This used to be a chalk black board back in the day, but they have now been replaced by fancy digital screens and displays. You may still see an old style board at some traditional tracks around the country.

Bobble: A bobble occurs at the start of a horse race just out of the gate. The horse can falter on the ground and lose its footing, almost in a bobble motion, causing it to be on the back foot and having to recover while the rest of the horses bolt off. This can effectively end a horse’s chances before the race has truly begun.

Bolt: This is like bearing in or out; a bolt occurs when a horse suddenly changes direction for some reason, usually because they’re distracted or scared by another horse or something they have run past. Blinkers can help in this situation and will usually stop a horse from bolting too often.

Bottom: A horse’s overall stamina is referred to as the bottom. This term is also used in racing about the layer of ground just below the surface of a track.

Bow: Generally, this is used to describe the tendon below the knee on a horse. Quite often it can rupture as this is a common racing injury. You’ll sometimes hear the term bowed tendon used instead of just bow.

Break: Ever heard the phrase it will be good once you break it in? Well this is like how the term break is used in horse racing. You must break a horse to get it used to having a jockey on its back, and to get it accustomed to racing with all the standard equipment that’s commonly used in horse racing.

Breakage: When pari-mutuel betting systems are used, there will sometimes be some money left over. Usually this is just a few cents. This is called breakage and it will usually be given to the track, taken as commission or paid out to the government as an extra tax.

Breakdown: Every now and then a horse will get an injury and break down. This usually means they won’t race again for a long time, and perhaps never again. It’s also called lameness.

Break Maiden: If a jockey or horse wins its first race then it’s a break maiden event.

Breather: Who doesn’t take a short breather every time they’re putting in a big effort in a run? You’ll find that this is no different in horse racing. Sometimes the jockey will ease back to give the horse a breather so that they can come home even stronger and take the lead when it matters.

Breeder: A breeder is a person who organises breeding between two horses and the owner of the dam when the foal is born.

Breeze: A jockey will sometimes run a horse at a moderate pace; this is known as a breeze. Life’s a breeze, meaning it’s all very easy for the horse in this situation.

Bridge Jumper: If you’ve ever come across a bettor who makes big show bets on the absolute favorites, they are known as a bridge jumper.

Broodmare: A broodmare is a female horse that’s used for breeding purposes. They’ll always be a thoroughbred breed and will usually have been excellent racers back in their day.

Bucked Shins: Some horses get inflamed muscles at the front of their cannon bone. This injury is usually more prevalent in young horses who are still relatively new to racing.

Bullet: Trainers will often time a horse on repeated efforts over the same distance in training. The best time they achieve over this distance is known as a bullet. This specific type of training is known as bullet work.

Bull Ring: A much shorter track than the standard is known as a bull ring. It’s usually circular in nature and will be less than a mile in distance.

C

Call: The position of horses at any point in a race is known as the call. Quite often you’ll have a caller making this announcement over the PA system at the track so everyone knows what’s happening.

Caller: As I mentioned above, this is the person who commentates the race and lets everyone know the call.

Checked: Sometimes in a race a jockey must suddenly stop their horse or move them to avoid a collision or being seriously disadvantaged in the race. This is known as being checked.

Chute: Quite often a race track will have a large straight section that goes outside the main track at the start of the front straight. This is known as the chute and it allows for longer straight races that don’t have any bends involved.

Clerk of the Scales: This is the person who ensures that all horses carry the correct handicapped weight in a race. They will weigh jockeys and their gear both before and after races to ensure compliance.

Climbing: Trainers will always be on the lookout for climbing, which is a natural fault in the way a horse runs. Sometimes they’ll lift their legs too high like they’re climbing a slope. This expends more energy and isn’t efficient so the trainer will try to get the horse to not lift their legs as high through a variety of methods.

Clocker: The official or officials, who time the race, and sometimes training runs on non-race days, is known as the clocker.

Closer: Every now and then you’ll see a horse that hits amazing speeds and gallops down the outside of the pack right at the end of the race. Sometimes they win on the line and sometimes they don’t. This type of horse is known as a closer.

Clubhouse Turn: The turn on the race track that is closest to the clubhouse is funnily enough, the clubhouse turn. You won’t hear this used as much these days given the expansion in stadium style race tracks.

Colours: Also, referred to as silks, these are the silk tops and colors that a jockey wears in a race. Usually they are relevant to the owners of the horse.

Colt: A male horse under the age of five years is known as a colt.

D

Daily Double: A bet which is placed on two races in a row at the one track is a daily double. Usually this occurs in the first two races of the day and you’ll be trying to pick the winner in both races. At some events a late double may also be offered which is another form of this bet but on later races.

Dam: A mother of a thoroughbred horse is known as a dam.

Dead: One of the main ratings used to describe track conditions. When the track is classified as Dead, it’s usually recovering from a lot of rain and lacks resiliency.

Declared: This has a few meanings depending upon where you are in the world. In the United States, it simply means a horse is scratched from the race. In the United Kingdom and Europe, it means quite the opposite, that a horse is confirmed to run in a race.

Driving: When a jockey needs everything from a horse they’re driving it. This will be done by the jockey when it’s crunch time in the race and the horse has a chance of winning.

E

Exacta: A bet on the first and second place horses in the race is known as an exacta. You must pick both horses and the correct order to win.

F

Fast: Fast is another rating for a horse track where the conditions are great and the ground is quite solid and unyielding. This will result in a fast race.

Fence: This is the rail that separates the front straight from the stands and crowds in a race. It’s also referred to as the outside rail.

Filly: A female horse between 1 and 4 years old is called a filly.

Firm: Yet another rating for a horse track, this one is usually used for dirt tracks when it’s considered to be quite fast.

Flatten Out: Sometimes when a horse is completely exhausted it will flatten its head so that it’s in line with the rest of its body, this is known as a flatten out and is never a good sign in any race horse.

Foal: A baby thoroughbred horse is known as a foal. It doesn’t matter if it’s male or female.

Form: A form is a section of the newspaper, or a booklet that’s handed out at the race track. The form guide gives information on all the days’ races and the horses that are running. This is a vital guide in deciding on your betting selections.

Front Runner: This is a horse that always takes the lead in a race from near the start and tries to hold on for as long as possible. Quite often they will lose the lead on the final straight, but every now and then they manage to hold on for a win.

Furlong: In years past the main way that horse racing tracks were measured was in furlongs. A furlong is a unit of measure which equals exactly half a mile in the imperial system. Or 800 meters in the metric system. It’s pronounced like fur low.

G

Gait: This term is used similarly to how it applies to human runners. It’s about the way and style that a horse gallops, canters, and trots. Trainers will study the gait of a horse ad-nauseam to determine ways in which to make it faster and more efficient

Gallop: This is a type of gait which is the way a horse runs fastest. In most horse races the horses will be galloping the entire time, albeit at varying levels of intensity.

Gate: These are used at the start of a horse race. Horses are placed in them and once they’re all contained the front is opened and the race begins.

Gelding: A male horse that’s lost its man hood; in others words they’ve been castrated.

Good: Good is another track rating which sits between fast and slow. This is a decent track and will usually yield a well paced race. While some horses perform better in certain conditions you’ll usually be able to discount the conditions when a track is good.

Grandsire: A horse’s grandfather is the grandsire, usually just on the mother’s side.

Gray: A horse which is gray has a mix of white and black hair; not actual gray hair strictly speaking.

Groom: This is almost a trainer’s assistant; someone who looks after the horse when it’s in the stable. They’ll comfort, clean, and feed the horse during the week and on race day.

Group Race: In the United Kingdom, Australia, and Europe, a group race is like an American graded race. Group 1 is the best of the best, while group 2 and 3 are also good. Group 1 races aren’t always the best value and some group 2 and 3 races have huge prize pools.

H

Halter: A halter is a piece of rope or leather that’s placed around the horse to lead and control it. Usually this wouldn’t be used in a race and would only be used around the stable and outside for training.

Hand: This is a measurement that’s used on horses. One hand equals around four inches.

Handicap: A race where horses are given extra weight to carry based on past performances. This is done to even up the field and to make the race tighter.

Handle: The total amount of money that’s been wagered on a race when a pari-mutuel betting system is being used is called the handle.

Head: Quite often the head is used to define how much a horse wins a race by. The nose is first, then the head, and then they use body lengths to categorise the distance between horses at the finish line.

Heavy: Another track rating that describes a very wet and muddy ground. This will be one of the hardest tracks for horses to run on given all the extra effort they must put in. Some horses excel in these conditions.

Hurdle Race: A type of horse race that’s conducted over jumps and obstacles, even water hazards, is called a hurdle race. Other names for this type of race include a jumping race and steeplechase.

I

In the Money: If a horse is in the money at the end of the race it means that it finished first, second, or third. Technically speaking horses can still get prize money for finishing fourth or later, but this is just how the term is used in the industry.

J

Jumper: A horse which is proficient and excels in hurdle races is known as a jumper.

L

Length: A measure used to describe the distance between two horses in a race. It refers to a horse’s body length, which is usually around 8 feet long.

Listed Race: In the United Kingdom and Europe, a listed race is one that is just below the level of group races, or graded races if you’re in North America.

M

Maiden: A horse that is yet to win a race is known as a maiden. Sometimes race tracks will put on maiden races which feature a group of horses that have not yet won.

Mare: An old girl, a mare is a female horse that is five years of age or older. Once a female breeds they’re also referred to as a mare irrespective of age.

Mounting Yard: An area at some race tracks where the horses are paraded prior to the race for the crowd. The jockeys will also mount and take a seat on their horse in this yard.

Muzzle: A muzzle is an apparatus that’s placed over the nose and mouth of the horse to prevent it from eating or biting things it isn’t meant to. It’s also casually used to describe the nose and mouth area on the horse itself.

O

Oaks: An oaks race consists of 3-year-old fillies only. This is usually a very popular race and quite often ends in a close finish.

Odds On: A term used to describe the odds on a horse when they drop below even money.

Off Track Betting: An off-track betting establishment is a place where you can go and wager on races that occur in other locations. Sometimes if you’re in the same state the money will go into the same pool that’s being used at the track itself.

On the Bit: If a horse is on the bit it means it’s trying to push the absolute limit and wants to try and run as fast as it can. Quite often in races the jockey’s job is stop a horse from doing this until the opportune moment.

On the Board: If a horse finished in the top four in a race they’re on the board. Generally, this will be a good thing if you’ve placed a bet on this horse.

On the Nose: On the nose is a slang term used when you are placing a bet on a horse to win the race.

Overlay: Sometimes a horse will be placed at a higher price than previous form would usually dictate. As an avid bettor, you need to keep an eye out for this.

P

Paddock: The area at the race track where horses are prepared prior to the race is called the paddock.

Pari-Mutuel: A type of betting pool where all the money that is wagered is combined and payouts are determined based on popularity and cash value of bets placed. The track or establishment running the pool will take a commission off the top for themselves, and the rest of the money is paid out to the bettors who have won.

Photo Finish: In a photo finish, it isn’t clear who the winner is, so a series of photos are used to determine which horse hit the line first.

Place: A place bet is a bet on your horse to finish either first or second. Strictly speaking a place means the horse finished in second position.

Post: The post is the starting position of the race. The gates will be placed at this point, or in a rolling start the race will commence here.

Prop: On occasion a horse will refuse to start from the gate. They will simply stand their ground and not budge. This is known as a prop and it’s disastrous for everyone involved with that horse and the people who have bet on it.

Purse: The purse is the prize money for a race which usually comes from race track owners or sponsors.

Q

Quinella: A quinella is a wager type where you’re attempting to pick the first two finishing horses. You don’t need to pick the order they finish in.

R

Rail: The metal fence on the inside of the track is known as the rail. Some horses are considered rail runners as they like to run along this and perform at their best when doing so.

Run out Bit: Some horses that bolt around on the track will have a run out bit placed on them by the trainer. This is a bit different from a normal bit and will usually stop this behaviour.

S

Saddle Cloth: A saddle cloth is a cloth that’s placed beneath the saddle of a horse. This protects the horse from the saddle and displays a number for the race.

Scratch: When a horse is withdrawn from a race it’s a scratch or scratched.

Shadow Roll: Some horses fear their shadow when they’re running and it negatively affects their performance. To combat this, trainers place a roll of wool on the horses face so they can’t see their shadow. One thing to keep an eye out for in the form guide is whether a horse is using this for the first time, as it will quite often result in improved performance.

Show: A show bet is a bet on a horse to finish in third place or better. If a horse runs third it’s just a show.

Silks: The same as colours described earlier; these are worn by the jockey to show who owns the horse and to distinguish it from other horses.

Sire: The father of a horse is known as a sire.

Sophomore: A horse that’s three years old, of either gender, is a sophomore.

Stakes: A type of race where the horse owner must pay a fee to enter is a stakes race. This will go towards the prize pool. Stakes are usually feature events and will draw big crowds and big betting.

Stick: Stick is a slang term for the whip. In some jurisdictions and countries, the amount a jockey can use the whip is restricted and failure to stick to this can result in disqualification.

Stretch: This is the final straight of the race.

Stud: A male horse that’s retired from racing will be put out to stud. Here they’ll breed with female horses in the hopes of producing horses that end up being great race horses.

T

Tongue Strap: Sometimes a horse can become distressed and run the risk of choking on their own tongue when they’re training or racing. To avoid this, trainers will use a tongue strap to secure the tongue.

Totalisator: A computer system that is used to run pari-mutuel betting is called a totalisator. At some race tracks it’s simply referred to as the tote.

Trifecta: A bet on the first three horses in a race in the right order. If you don’t want to pick them in the right order then you can make a box trifecta bet, where they can finish in any order and you still win, but a lesser amount.

Triple Crown: The Kentucky Derby, Preakness Stakes, and Belmont stakes are the Triple Crown in the United States and considered the three most illustrious races to win. Twelve horses have won all three, with the latest being American Pharoah in 2015. In the United Kingdom, the Triple Crown consists of the 2000 Guineas Stakes, the Epsom Derby, and the St. Leger Stakes. You must go back to 1970 to find a horse that won all three in Nijinsky.

U

Underlay: The opposite of overlay, this is when a horse is at much shorter odds than its previous form would suggest.

W

Washy: In every race, you’ll probably see a horse that is shining as if it were wet before the race. This is known as being washy and it’s sweat from being apprehensive, and it’s not a good sign in general.

Whip: A tool used by jockeys to motivate a horse in key moments in the race. As I mentioned earlier, it’s also referred to as a stick, and you may hear it also called a bat or gad.

Y

Yearling: A horse in the first calendar year of its life is a yearling.

Yielding: Rain sodden turf which is very soft underfoot is called yielding. Horses often sink into this turf when they’re running and it greatly impacts the pace of a race.

Conclusion

Betting on horse races can be fun, but it helps to understand all of the terms you read and hear at the track. You can use this guide of 127 horse racing terms to learn more before your next trip to the track.

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