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Here's Why We Say The Expression 'Hands Down'

A little slice of trivia to wow your friends during the Kentucky Derby.
In 2017, jockey John Velazquez won the Kentucky Derby with his horse Always Dreaming. Here's how the popular expression "hands down" ties into all of this. 
In 2017, jockey John Velazquez won the Kentucky Derby with his horse Always Dreaming. Here's how the popular expression "hands down" ties into all of this. 

If you’ve ever been to “hands down” the best party ever or had the most delicious meal “hands down,” you’re actually borrowing a phrase from sports terminology, or more specifically, horse racing.

There are theories that the phrase is rooted in boxing or poker. However, dictionary publisher Merriam-Webster traced the origins of the expression to the idea that jockeys, when they had such a great lead in a race, would feel confident and relaxed enough to lower their hands, thus “winning hands down.” And as Mental Floss pointed out in 2015, the Oxford English Dictionary also noted the phrase’s origins in horse racing.

As time passed, “hands down” adopted a more broad meaning that doesn’t necessarily involve a simple victory. We typically use it now to emphasize that something is indisputable and is often associated with a superlative. For example, someone can have the most beautiful singing voice “hands down” or the coolest wardrobe “hands down.”

There are a handful of helpful books that also explain the phrase. Both The Field Guide to Sports Metaphors: A Compendium of Competitive Words and Idioms, published in 2016, and The Language of Horse Racing, published in 2000, give examples of the expression being used in print in the mid-1800s.

So this weekend when you’re watching the Kentucky Derby, you can impress your friends with this fun trivia and prove you’re the most intelligent person like, ever hands down.