‘Shoo-in’ and a ‘dark horse’: How common terms began with horseracing

Over the years, horseracing has produce many turn of phrases that have stuck.

Racing can get your goat. You find a dark horse that’s a shoo-in, it wins on its tod and yet the very next race you have to start from scratch.

There is no knowledge of the first ever horse race but archaeological evidence proves that horseracing took place in Ancient Rome, Arabia, Babylon, Egypt and Syria. The Greeks were also forerunners to the pastime of racing horses and by 648 BCE mounted horseracing was part of the Ancient Olympics.

With such a long and storied past it’s no surprise that over the centuries the sport has contributed multiple words and phrases to human language.

Sometimes we don’t even see it.

Take my opening statement for example. In just those 30 words there are no less than five expressions that have their history rooted in horseracing.

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While millennials might have taken the saying ‘greatest of all time’ and popularised it into urban slang as GOAT, the term “to get someone’s goat” refers to the actual mammal whom the dictionary describes as being ‘hardy, domesticated and ruminant’.

Down the years goats have proven effective companions to horses with their live-in presence offering tranquility and solace to those with a highly strung disposition. With horses being herd animals the practice of putting a comforting goat in the stall of a racehorse the night before it was due to compete was common practice.

It stands to reason that if someone were to ‘get your goat’ overnight the temperament and ultimately the performance of your racehorse could be compromised.

Naturally enough the term ‘dark horse’ suggests an unexposed outsider that a punter believes might run above expectations but its origin lies in a literary work penned in 1831 by a 27-year-old Londoner who would go on to be a stalwart of British politics.

In his novel The Young Duke, Benjamin Disraeli – who later that century became the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom on two sperate occasions – wrote how his chief protagonist went racing but failed to observe a dark horse that “rushed past the grandstand in sweeping triumph”.

The turn of phrase stuck and it’s been with us ever since.

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Historically a ‘shoo-in’ is a racehorse that was established as a predetermined winner. It reportedly dates back to the 1930s when opposing jockeys would deliberately disadvantage their rides, shouting “Shoo!” at the foreordained victor who would be driven away down the track towards the winning post and a guaranteed triumph.

‘Starting from scratch’ also hails from horseracing having gained prominence in the years before the advent of flip starts and the subsequent introduction of mechanised starting stalls.

As it so happens in conducting my research I discovered I’ve got something in common with starting stalls as we both came into existence in the UK in 1965.

The reverse timeline tell us that before the advent of starting stalls all races began with a flip start, which took the form of stretching some strong elastic material across the track to act as the starting line.
But long before that, the commencement of races required that jockeys had to line up their racehorses behind a demarcated line that had been ‘scratched’ in the ground.

The irony of me saving the idiom “on you tod” to last is because it was derived from a jockey who was seldom, if ever, last.

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Tod Sloan was an American race-rider who revolutionised riding tactics by dictating races from the front.
Coincidently, Sloan was born in Bunker Hill, Indiana, in 1874, the same year Benjamin Disraeli first took office as Prime Minister of Britain. That said, though diminutive, Tod Sloan was anything but a dark horse.

His talent, lifestyle and reputation was such that he was once the Yankee Doodle in a Broadway play and he left an indelible mark on the English language. Famed for the many winners he rode in England – including Merman, the Lillie Langtry owned winner of the Ascot Gold Cup in 1900 – he became one of horse racing’s first international celebrities and his name became infused into Cockney rhyming slang.

Tod Sloan was rhymed with ‘alone’. Hence anything akin to being on your own or alone was termed “on his tod”.

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