Tic-tac is a collection of phrases and signs that were traditionally used by bookmakers to communicate the odds of horses (or greyhounds) prior to a race. Seldom seen nowadays, it once proved an efficient, practical way of letting a bookmaker know when a horse or greyhound was moving in the market or a particularly large bet had been taken.
Before modern technology took over, a tic-tac man was probably the most important part of the racing industry for a bookie. It was essential for a tic-tac man to pay great attention to detail and to be very alert at all times.
They would generally dress smartly and wear brightly coloured (often white) gloves so as to remain as visible as possible and so that hand signals could be seen clearly from a distance. A tic-tac man had several uses. His first responsibility was to his bookmaker. A bookmaker may have had two tic-tac men at different ends of the betting ring. They needed to be able to signal when a horse or greyhound was moving in the market and help to manage liabilities on the book. It also involved taking bets. A tic-tac man would enable bookmakers to hide what they were showing and trading. If a “market move” was afoot, they would be able to help their bookmaker understand the potential size of the move and establish whether they needed to take evasive action.
There is a slang term and signal for almost every different price available. For example, a horse at even money would be represented by the index finger on each hand being moved vertically up and down alternately. This signals one for one (1/1). The slang name is levels but is known to punters as evens. The slang is similar to cockney rhyming slang; odds of 2/1 are a bottle (bottle of glue, two) and the signal is putting the hand out in front, then tapping the nose and releasing the hand in front again. Some can be a little more like cryptic crossword clues. 3/1 is known as a carpet. This comes from when people did a 3-month stretch in prison, something commonly referred to as a “lay down”. What does one do with a carpet? Lay down. There are different signs and signals for the majority of prices and stakes and they can differ in different regions of the country.
John McCririck could be seen practicing tic-tac when on terrestrial television. However, some of his attempts at the art were frowned upon amongst tic-tac professionals. Unfortunately, the tic-tac signals seem to have become obsolete, with computers taking the reins but slang continues to be heard to this day.