What's special about the 5th race???

I’ve seen this in movies, television, even in comic strips. People asking "What looks good in the fifth?"


I’ve been to tracks all over the U.S., both dog and thoroughbred. I’ve never noticed anything special about the fifth race. What’s the deal?

(Psst, pk don’t tell anyone I told you, but bet on Tiny Dancer in the 5th race)


I have no idea

It’s probably a shorthand establishing device. The use of fifth tells the viewer that the characters have been there all day, and that they probably expect to be there the rest of the races as well. Yet, if the plot calls for them to leave - and it usually does: interrupting a gambling session indicates the awesome seriousness of the matter - they can do so without the director having to picture the rest of the crowd getting up at the same time.

Movies, especially 30s movies, are full of tiny devices like this. Writers and directors became experts on putting “tells” into the movie that would convey huge amounts of background information without ever having to waste time spelling it out on screen.

That can’t be it. The characters are asking “who looks good in the 5th” while they aren’t at the track.

Maybe that’s your answer right there: there is nothing special about the fifth race. But it creates the “tells” that Exapno Mapcase speaks of.

It’s not the feature race that would always come later in the day, assuming a card of 8 to 10 races. It’s not figuring into the Daily or Late Doubles, and it’s likely safely somewhere inside any multi-race parlays like the Win-4 or Sweep Six or whatever they may be called in various places. It’s in the middle of the card, where the characters may be up on their wagering, but still capable of losing; or if they’re down, still have a hope of winning some back. The third, fourth, sixth, or seventh races may not necessarily fit all these criteria.

But stating “the fifth race” does establish that the characters are talking about horse or dog racing. It also establishes that they’re talking about a race that is nothing special; and this may tell the audience a little about the characters–after all, even non-racing-fans generally know something about the Derby or the Preakness, but only racing fans would have an opinion on the horses running in the fifth at a random track on a random day. In short, the fifth race can be whatever the writer/director/artist wishes it to be, lets the audience/reader know what’s being discussed, and serves the purpose of establishing something about the characters.

Just a WAG, but maybe there’s something to it.

Is this a case of confirmation bias?

A reference to a horse race on, for example, a TV programme in the UK will be of the form ‘What do you fancy in the 3.00 at Kempton.’ or ‘This favourite in the 3.30 at Newmarket looks nailed on’. I’ve seen every time from 2.00 to 4.30, which covers an entire 6-race card, and I wouldn’t argue that any one is favoured over the rest.

I think I’ve heard fictional references to horses “in the seventh”, too. If there is a bias towards referring to the fifth race, I’d simply put it down to psychology. The writer wants dialogue mentioning a random-sounding, non-specific race. They don’t choose even numbers - they don’t sound “random” enough, nor does “first”. They are left with “third”, “fifth” and “seventh”. Note that “random sounding” is decidedly NOT a uniformly distributed choice. People choosing a number “at random” will almost never choose numbers that sound too regular, like 10 as opposed to 17, in spite of the fact that 10 should be just as likely.

Just U.S. bias.

In the United States, except for the small number of named stakes races, races are invariably designated by number instead of post time. If you’re at the track, it’s just the fifth or the eighth; outside the track, where more speificity is necessary, you would say “the (number) at (track)”. The post times are often odd times like 3:23 or 4:14. It fascinates me to learn that this is done otherwise in other parts of the world.

Even on TV channels dedicated to racing, all events are referred to by the advertised off time.

We hear a commentator at, say, Newmarket hand over to a counterpart elsewhere by saying ‘And now it’s over to Simon for the 2.30 at York’. If a meeting scheduled to commence at 2.00 is delayed for half an hour then the 2.00 is still the 2.00 even when the race goes off at 2.30. Similarly, the results in the newspaper identify races by advertised off time.

I’m familiar with the US system not only through watching American TV and movies but also by a great familiarity with the stories of the estimable Damon Runyon.

I think the US terminology is much better.