Horse racing has come a long way since the 1500s when races were held in fields between two horses.

The four-day 2013 Cheltenham Festival from March 12-15 in Gloucestershire, England is almost at the starting wire and this major festival and racing event is a must go, must see fixture on many people’s calendars. And, whether people soak in the atmosphere, imbibe in a pint or three or enjoy the passing parade of two- and four-legged characters, the one sure thing is that betting will be a part of the day. Horse racing is considered the cornerstone of the British betting industry and major player Paddy Power’s 2013 Cheltenham Festival presence will be felt as punters bet at the track, call in, text in or click in their bets. How racing and betting have changed through the ages!

The Starting Post

Horse racing got its first leg up when English Knights returned from the Crusades with swift Arab horses. These horses were bred to English mares and the well-heeled British nobility wagered bets on these faster, lighter animals. Thanks to King James I, who ruled from 1567 to 1625, the then small town of Newmarket was established as the centre of organized horse races, which were often across open fields between two horses. Oliver Cromwell banned racing in 1654, but apparently saw fit to keep some racing horses at his own stables while, under Queen Anne, horse racing became a professional sport, race tracks were built all over England and the breeding, training and selling of race horses became profitable. The Jockey Club, the governing body that still exists today, was formed in the 1750.

Modern Innovations

Horse racing continued even throughout the dark days of WWI and WWII and the “photo finish” was a new innovation in 1947, as were starting stalls for flat races in 1965. With the advent of televisions in the ’50s and ’60s horse racing was there to be enjoyed by all and is now second only to football (known as soccer in North America) as the most widely televised sport in England. In 1961 betting away from the race tracks came into being and betting shops in the towns sprang up; today this form of off track betting has increased with online betting and cell phones. Today at many tracks, enthusiasts can watch and bet on simulcasts showing multiple races from tracks all over the country on t.v. screens.

Parimutuel betting comes from the French words Pari Mutuel and was invented by Joseph Oller in 1867. All bets are placed in a pool; the house ‘take’ and taxes are removed and then the payoff odds are calculated by sharing the pool amongst the winners. At many tracks a tote board – short for totalisator –calculates and displays the bets already made. This type of betting is used for horse and dog racing, jai alai and any other events that are of short duration where participants finish in a ranked order.

The Totalisator, (also known as the “tote”) was invented by Australian Engineer George Julius to remove the large amount of human calculating required in the betting system. It was first used in Aukland, New Zealand in 1913 and then made its way to the USA in the 1920s.

Handicapping is the practice of predicting and quantifying the results of a horse race based on many factors including: has the horse raced well over the past few races; who is the jockey; what is the track condition; have they raced recently; have they been injured; are they using the same trainer. Hundreds of so called fail proof handicapping systems and books have been written over the years to help die hard betters try to get an edge over winning but there are always unforeseen circumstances that make these systems unreliable.

The Tic Tac Man…sadly this human phenomenon is going by the wayside thanks to modern betting methods.

The Mystery of the Tic Tac Men

Until about 10 years ago, when hand-held devices and cell phones came on the scene, Tic Tac men were the norm at English racecourses. Wearing white gloves for better visibility, these gents would pick their spot at the track, stand on a wooden crate or box by the rails and then, using verbal slang along with complex hand and arm movements, take bets and indicate odds to each other.

The language of Tic Tac is based on Cockney Rhyming Slang (CRS) and backslang, a form of phrase construction from the East End of London: a common word is replaced with a rhyming phrase of two or three words and then, in almost all cases, the secondary rhyming word is omitted. Here are some examples from Wikipedia: “telephone” is replaced by “dog” (= ‘dog-and-bone’); “wife” by “trouble”(= ‘trouble-and-strife’); “eyes” by “minces” (= ‘mince pies’).

In racing terminology there are many slang phrases including: Rock Cake – Tic Tac slang for a small bet;Kite – Tic Tac slang for a cheque and Knock – Tic Tac slang for to owe money and not pay up.

The hand and arm motions along with barely imperceptible twitches can takes months to learn so that they can be done smoothly and quickly. Tic Tac is a dying art with its own culture and history and while there Tic Tac men were the norm at horse or dog tracks years ago, now you might only find two or three.

Racing for Change

Racing for Change is a new initiative created by Racing Enterprises Ltd, the commercial arm of British horseracing. Their website Love the Races is aimed at the novice and infrequent racegoer who wants to “have a flutter” or bet and take in the atmosphere with some knowledge of what racing is all about.

One of the greatest challenges facing racing today in Britain is how to make it more appealing and less complex for the younger generation. With countless other high profile sports available that are easier to understand like football many see the winds of change as necessary even if slightly painful.

The modern age of technology has seen the Tic Tac men go by the wayside. Add to that is the difficulty in betting with fractions which are considered “outmoded and unfamiliar” to the younger generation who now deal in decimals. Finally, the use of old betting odds slang such as Bottle (2/1), Burlington Bertie (100/30), Cockle (10/1) and Double Carpet (33/1) may fall out of fashion and favour in an effort to have horse racing gallop into more modern times.