Horseracing Idioms in Politics

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A reader asks about my use of the verb place in a recent post:

In your ‘The Oxford Short List 2015’ article the second paragraph reads “In this post, I’ll take a look at eight other words that placed in Oxford’s annual list of frequently used English words and phrases.” Is that construction correct, or wouldn’t the verb tense ‘were’ be missing between ‘that placed’?

The reader is thinking of place as a transitive verb meaning “to put” or “to set,” as in this example of passive voice: “The books were placed carefully on the shelf.”

I was using place with the following meaning:

place intransitive verb: to achieve a particular final position in a race or other competition.

In British horseracing, “to place” means to finish a race in any of the first three (occasionally four) positions, especially other than first.” In North American usage, “to place” is to finish second. Here’s an example of this figurative usage from the 2000 presidential race:

“They were playing to win; they weren’t playing to place,” Gore spokesman Chris Lehane said. “This is not win, place and show. This is winner and loser.”

Horseracing idioms are especially popular in political campaigning. Here are some more examples, with explanations:

After a strong performance in this week’s Democratic presidential debate, Hillary Clinton has reclaimed some of the ground she’d lost to Senator Bernie Sanders over the summer, leaving the two in a statistical dead heat in New Hampshire

Dead heat noun: Two or more horses finishing in an exact tie at the wire.

Time to prune the Republican presidential field to the top six

Field noun: The horses entered in a race.

The Republican Front Runner is a Huge Fan of Michael Moore

Front runner noun: A horse that usually leads (or tries to lead) the field for as far as it can.

Mayoral race in home stretch

Homestretch noun: The part of a racetrack between the last turn and the finish line

Mikva wins by a nose in 10th District

Nose noun: The smallest advantage a horse can win by. In England, the term is “a short head.” 

Two more scratched from 28th ward race

Scratch verb: to be taken out of a race.

Whichever candidate proves the better stretch runner, the barrage from the other side will continue through until Election Day.


Stretch runner noun: a horse that picks up speed late in a race and finishes fast.

Silvestros tout Trump from their rooftop

Tout noun: a person who gives tips on racehorses, usually with expectation of some personal reward in return.

Tout verb: to praise particular horses and to predict winners. The verb has become especially popular with headline writers as a synonym for recommend or extol in a variety of contexts.

Researchers Tout Possible Breakthrough on Curing Peanut Allergies

Republican presidential hopefuls tout big government as the cure for terror

Scientists tout ‘fish toxin’ as potential cancer cure

New study touts huge gas hike & toll roads to ease traffic congestion in GTHA

Judges Tout Program Helping Victims of Domestic Violence

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7 thoughts on “Horseracing Idioms in Politics”

  1. “According to tradition the earliest games at Olympia were held by Endymion, who set his sons to run a race for the kingdom. His tomb was said to be at the point of the racecourse from which the runners started. The famous story of Pelops and Hippodamia is perhaps only another version of the legend that the first races at Olympia were run for no less a prize than a kingdom.”

    – James George Frazer from “The Golden Bough: A Study of Magic and Religion.”

  2. The first idiom that came to mind when I saw the title of this article was “first past the post” (also styled as “first-past-the-post”). This likens the contest for leadership to a horserace where the winner takes all. It’s opposed to representational voting where the winner is the candidate taking the most districts. First past the post is an issue much debated in the UK in resent years.

  3. To me, “tout” has a seedy quality and comes off as slightly pejorative with a hint of hucksterism.
    I like the “first past the post” idiom but I, an American, have never heard it before. Is it chiefly British?

  4. The term “first past the post” is used in the US, but not as much as it is in the UK. It’s used in political science for elections that are winner-take-all, or “whoever gets the most votes wins”– which the vast majority of American elections are. In political science you also see the term single-member-district-plurality (SMDP) meaning nearly the same thing.

  5. The phrase that comes to my mind is “I have no horse in this race,” meaning “I don’t have anyone I like or am supporting as a candidate in this election.”

  6. ……..or any vested interest in a particular issue or event (not just to an election). Also, “I have no dog in this fight.” (kind of a gross metaphor!)

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