Long-time readers will recall our previous themes of horse words. To mark last weekend's running of the U.S.'s greatest horse race, the Kentucky Derby, we devote this week to terms from horse racing. Credit to Nathan Bierma, whose newspaper column suggested the idea and words.
Your wordcrafter isn't knowledgeable about horse racing. I apologize for any errors, and appreciate any corrections.
across the board – covering all categories
– Forbes, May 7, 2006
Was Oxford English Dictionary, which says this is a U.S. English, a bit provincial in its research? It gives no usage examples before 1950 (citing Websters) even though the term goes back to the very beginning of the century. For example, a bit of 1910 doggerel from the Washington Post and other papers includes the couplet, "I really wish I could afford / To play my horse across the board." The earliest use I've found seems to suggest insider information: "Elnus, … a 100 to 1 shot, heavily played across the board, ran second."
dark horse – a competitor, among many, who makes (or is tabbed as having the potential to make) an unexpectedly good showing
Most dictionaries apply the term only to a success achieved in horse-races and political races. This errs: the term includes potential success in other fields. From today's press:
– The Journal News, May 9, 2006, "handicapping" a golf tournament.
While the race could go to either the tortoise or the hare, there is another animal in the contest: a dark horse. Nintendo Co. is rolling out its console, dubbed Wii, about the same time as PlayStation 3.
– Wall Street Journal, May 9, 2006
Let's resolve this. This cite precedes 1831 and shows that the "darkness" is figurative, not literal, to the benefit of those bettors "in the know".
– Edinburgh Advertiser, Sept. 24, 1822
*I think it's unclear if Disraeli's word 'dark' refers to the horse's success or simply his color.
Near the end of a race, a jockey with a big lead might relax his tug on the reins and let the horse "coast" past the finish line. That is, he would finish an easy victory riding "hands down".
hands down – easy; easily
So say the dictionaries, but would you agree that the term is only used in the sense of "surpassing others"? For example, one couldn't say, "This was an hands down parking space to get into; I could park hands down."
– Christopher Golden, Nancy Holder, Child of the Hunt (Buffy the Vampire Slayer)
get one's goat – to anger; to annoy; to irritate
OED's earliest cite is 1910, but one can find quite a few more back to 1908. The most prevalent theory traces the phrase to horse racing, saying that a goat would be stabled with a horse, to calm it. Thus stealing the goat, before a horse-race, would tend to disrupt the horse's performance.
This race-track theory has some appeal. We do know that goats were believed to calm other animals (see 'Judas goat', esp. entry of 12/29). A contemporary account notes that goats were indeed stabled with horses in some areas, but adds that this was because the goat was considered lucky; hence to 'get one's goat' was to take away one's luck. (Washington Post, Sept. 25, 1910)
Nonetheless, I doubt any race-track theory. Why? Because I've found no early use of the phrase, and no reference to goat-stealing, in any connection with horses or horse-racing. Indeed, substantial numbers of the early references are in the context of baseball.
So....they kept goats in....the bullpen?
shoo-in – a certain winner; one sure to succeed
– William Safire, Lend Me Your Ears: Great Speeches in History
And the winner is... Beetlebaum!!! (See Spike Jones/Doodles Weaver)
also-ran – a loser in a race or contest. (Wordcrafter note: tends to imply a unimportant and forgettable one, not close enough to be notable.)
A newspaper reporting horse races would name those who won money for their bettors. It would then, under the heading "also ran:", then list the others.
– Jim Collins, Built to Last: Successful Habits of Visionary Companies
front runner – the contestant in the lead in a race or other competition
– Steven D. Levitt, Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything
Rather, the term is from trotting horses. When a top horse attempted to set a record, he would be given perfect conditions: a horse on each side to pace him, and a horse in front to break the wind resistance. That front horse was the 'front runner'. The following quote, antedating OED's, that makes this clear.
– Evening Telegram (Elyria, Ohio), August 26, 1910