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This question regards an recurring theme from lots of music I hear.

She had a ticket for the races just like me she was a victim of the night
- Tunnel of Love, Dire Straits

And I'm off to the races
- Off To The Races, Lana Del Rey

A Day at the Races
- Album by Queen

Many more examples exist, though I can't come up with a lot (I always notice them in passing).

Since it's so common, I'm certain there's some kind of metaphorical meaning to it - is there? What is it? What happens there?

  • I don't think it's a metaphor and in each case it refers to the competition sense of the word. In tunnel of love (to rhyme with faces) and in Off To The Races in the context of gambling and casinos. In the case of Queen's Album it refers to horse racing. Queen’s album takes its name from the Marx Brother's film A Day at the Races, which is about a horse race. – None Aug 9 '14 at 11:05
  • When The Queen has "a day at the races" it means she has a day watching the races at Ascot. – None Aug 9 '14 at 11:11
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"The races" means an event at which several races are run; usually horse races, though greyhound races may be meant. (Human or car races are extremely unlikely to be what is meant, in my experience, though it's possible that this differs regionally.)

Going to the races also tends to imply gambling on the outcome(s). I don't think there's any single metaphor that attaches to "the races", though.

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