In the world of British horse racing, a traditional system of hand signals known as Tic-tac (or tick-tack) has long been used by bookmakers. This method allows them to communicate the odds of horses discreetly across the racecourse. While its use has declined with the rise of mobile technology, Tic-tac remains an interesting part of racing history. This blog post explores the history, function, and examples of these unique hand signals.

The Origins of Tic-Tac

Tic-tac has a long history, dating back to the late 19th century. In a 1937 interview, Charles Adamson, a retired bookmaker from Ashford, Middlesex, claimed that he and his brother Jack invented the Tic-tac system in 1888. They created it to communicate quickly and clearly across the noisy racecourses.

The Function of Tic-Tac

Tic-tac hand signals were used for several purposes:

  1. Setting Odds: Bookmakers signaled the odds they were offering on a horse.
  2. Adjusting Bets: They could quickly change the odds based on incoming bets.
  3. Relaying Information: Bookmakers, often working in teams, used the signals to share important information like large bets or changes in odds.
  4. Maintaining Discretion: The signals allowed bookmakers to keep their strategies private.

Common Tic-Tac Signals

Bookmakers wore bright white gloves to make their hand movements more visible. Here are some common Tic-tac signals and their meanings:

  • Odds of 9/4 (“top of the head”): Both hands touching the top of the head.
  • Odds of 2/1 (“bottle”): Right hand touches the nose.
  • Odds of 10/1 (“cockle” or “net”): Fists together with the right-hand thumb protruding upwards, resembling the number 10.
  • Odds of 11/10 (“tips”): Hands together with all fingers touching.
  • Odds of 5/4 (“wrist”): Right hand moved to touch the left wrist.
  • Odds of 33/1 (“double carpet”): Arms crossed, hands flat against the chest.

There are regional variations in some signals. For example, in the south of the UK, odds of 6/4 are signaled by touching the opposite ear (“ear’ole”), while in the north, the same odds are shown by touching the opposite elbow (“half arm”).

The Role of Tic-Tac in Betting

Tic-tac allowed bookmakers to keep their odds consistent with competitors, preventing punters from exploiting differences. If one bookmaker received a large bet, they could signal others to adjust their odds accordingly.

The Decline of Tic-Tac

With mobile technology, the need for hand signals has decreased. By 1999, only a few practitioners, such as Micky ‘Hokey’ Stuart, Billie Brown, and Rocky Roberts, were still using Tic-tac on southern UK tracks. Despite this decline, many of the terms and some signals remain in use today, preserving a link to the past.


Tic-tac hand signals are a unique part of British horse racing history. While modern technology has reduced their use, the signals and the terms associated with them remain an interesting aspect of the sport’s heritage. Understanding Tic-tac offers a glimpse into the traditional methods bookmakers used to manage their bets and maintain fair play on the racecourse.