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I had encountered the phrase, “racing cert”, the other day, and I had to go look it up. The only definition I immediately found was one from UD:

English colloquialism. Born from gambling talk and used to indicate a statistical or logical outcome that appears to be a foregone conclusion.

It seems to be mostly related to horse racing, and used even in news articles as a jargon term (e.g. “Racing cert: The 400-year history of Perth racecourse”), but I had found no confirmation of that definition, nor explanation whence it came from exactly. If it has anything to do with so-called “racing certificates”, I could not even find meaningful explanation as to what that is, especially pertaining to horse racing. In other racing (auto, or sailing, for instance) it appears to be a sort of manifest clearing the participant (car or a boat) for the race after inspection, and for animals it also seemed to include veterinary check up. But I fail to grip how does that imply the “foregone conclusion”.

Note. As of this note, I picked a winner, although I thought all three answers were very helpful in understanding, and I upvoted them all. There are some question still unanswered (When did the meaning of this phrase went from ironic to literal? Are there any other examples of usage of “racing certainty” around 1834 St. Leger Stakes?), and if others add or improve their answers, I might reconsider. but generally, good answers.

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3 Answers 3

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Racing cert is from racing certainty and was once used literally when talking about horse racing but has since changed so it can be used to describe any (particularly sporting) dead cert.

Racing certainty

I found an antedating to the OED's 1859 of racing certainty, in The Monthly Magazine, Or, British Register, Volume XXIV of October 1837:

If ever there was a racing certainty, it was that, barring accidents, he must win the Leger. He was well, and on the Thursday, at Tattersall's, the last betting day previous to the race, backed at even with the field, when a commission arrived from a ...

This is talking about horse racing.

Racing cert

Racing cert doesn't show up in print until much later, but that doesn't mean people hadn't already been using it in speech for some time. The earliest I found was in a 1920 snippet of St. George's Gazette, Volume 38 (Great Britain. Army. Northumberland Fusiliers):

On the 8th instant our first match against Washington resulted in a goalless draw after a strenuous game at Washington, and it seemed a "racing cert" on the game at home the following Wednesday, but we also ran, to the tune of being beaten by two goals to nil, our Washington visitors well deserving to win.

On the 8th instant our first match against Washington resulted in a goalless draw after a strenuous game at Washington, and it seemed a "racing cert" on the game at home the following Wednesday, but we also ran, to the tune of being beaten by two goals to nil, our Washington visitors well deserving to win.

This is still sport, although rather than being used literally (about horse racing) it's changed to being used figuratively (about football).

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I'm not sure I'd consider that an antecedent of the expression, but rather a straightforward noun adjunct - they're talking about racing, and within that context say "if ever there was a certainty". In particular, they are talking about something that didn't happen (in other words, they share my objection to the very concept of "racing certainty"). +1 for an interesting find all the same though, –  Jon Hanna Jan 28 '13 at 20:11
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@JonHanna, I think it could be really significant, because the horse indeed had lost that race, and the controversy ensued. I wonder if there are sources surrounding that 1834 St. Leger Stakes that indeed proclaimed the “racing certainty” which did not materialize. –  theUg Jan 29 '13 at 1:42
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The first Barry found was also sarcastic, so we can perhaps see the shape of the word's growth - first as a sarcastic use (and a more sensible one, considering that the whole point of racing is its unpredictability) that at some point got inverted into a straight use. I'm now very curious myself as to when that inversion happened. –  Jon Hanna Jan 29 '13 at 1:53
    
@JonHanna, should we, mayhaps, start another question about that switch? –  theUg Jan 29 '13 at 4:26
    
@Hugo, technical question: how were you able to quote from the Gazette? For me it showed up as a tiny, fuzzy image, totally illegible. –  theUg Jan 29 '13 at 4:31

Cert has been a slang abbreviation for certainty for a long time (1889 according to etymonline.com, which may or may not be true, but cert and dead cert are definitely not very recent).

Cert and dead cert are particularly popular among gamblers, who will often tell you with great conviction that they know of a cert in a given race or sporting event.

Meanwhile, racing certainty from the same demographic, exists both literally (if not reliably) of racehorses, and figuratively about other things.

Racing cert combines that phrase and that abbreviation. If somebody says something is a racing cert, they are sure it will be true, will come to pass, etc.

(That said, if when an actual racehorse is described as a racing cert, take that information with a grain of salt).

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Sounds a good explanation, but more sources would be welcome. Another thing is that Google n-grams do not find any. I understand it is colloquial, but it would be reflected in fiction. “Dead cert”, on the contrary seems to be continuously used since late XIX century. –  theUg Jan 28 '13 at 18:17
    
The earliest quote for "racing certainty" at collinsdictionary.com/dictionary/english/racing-certainty is a book published in 1993, and certainly while I've known "cert" and "dead cert" since childhood, I've only heard "racing certainty" recently (and it's a phrase that always itches me, since to my mind "racing certainty" is an oxymoron). I'm guessing it is indeed quite recent, though the abbreviation to "racing cert" is not surprising. –  Jon Hanna Jan 28 '13 at 18:24
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According to n-grams, “racing certainty” was used earlier, and ironically as well (from 1921: “Was he devoted to Anglo-Saxondom because it was a greater ego or because it was the ideal type of a God whose existence was at best a ‘racing certainty’?”) –  theUg Jan 28 '13 at 18:42
    
I suppose some of this could be incorporated in the answer and we would have a winner. –  theUg Jan 28 '13 at 18:42
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The OED's earliest citation is from 1859: All other ‘certainties’ we have a thorough distrust of, more especially of racing ‘certainties’. –  Barrie England Jan 28 '13 at 18:54

Here's a bit from the OED entry for racing certainty

n. Brit. A horse considered certain to win a race; (in extended use) anything regarded as certain to happen; a ‘sure thing’.
1859 Era 2 Oct. 3/4 All other ‘certainties’ we have a thorough distrust of, more especially of racing ‘certainties’.

And for cert Abbrev. of certain adj., certainty

n. slang A certainty (esp. in phr. a dead cert ); spec. in horse-racing, a horse that is considered certain to win.
1889 Man of the World 29 June 3/2 Love-in-Idleness is bound to take the Rous Memorial, and I hear Pioneer is a cert. for the St. James's.

And here's a chart to show that dead cert has always been far more common...

enter image description here

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Comparing to “racing certainty” produces slightly smaller margin, but what surprises me is that for a hundred years no one (not enough, anyhow) thought of contracting certainty to cert in that phrase, given how ubiquitous cert seems to have been. –  theUg Jan 29 '13 at 1:23
    
@theUg: Well, I use both the dead and the racing varieties. In descending order of frequency, probably dead cert, racing certainty, racing cert, dead certainty. I never use just cert on its own, but I'm quite likely to say something is a certainty. I think my usage just reflects the average of what I encounter in others. –  FumbleFingers Jan 29 '13 at 3:35
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Perhaps the abbreviated cert was used often enough in racing that there was simply no need to specify it as a racing cert. Perhaps that's was only needed when it was applied figuratively outside of racing to other sports and things. –  Hugo Jan 29 '13 at 6:23

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