I know the meaning of the idiomatic phrase "the winning horse take the cakes", but is "take the cakes" instead of "takes the cakes" old English? I am talking about "s" in takes.

Source from an ELU question :

They got up a horse and fifty dollars in money a side,… each one to start and ride his own horse,… the winning horse take the cakes. — W. T. Porter, Quarter Race Kentucky, 1847.

A fuller excerpt from the book, A Quarter Race in Kentucky: And Other Sketches, Illustrative of Scenes, Characters, and Incidents, Throughout "The Universal Yankee Nation", 1846, edited by William T. Porter:

. . . But the boys said that was all gas, to scare them off; but 'twouldn't work! The old cuss had got to be skinned or back out.

The result was, they got up a horse and fifty dollars in money a side, to run on Saturday at two o'clock, each one to start and ride his own horse, judge tops and bottoms--the winning horse take the cakes--and no back out! Either party refusing to run forfeits the whole stakes.

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    It's the subjunctive mood. This usage of it is gone in current-day English except for set phrases like "long live the King" and "devil take the hindmost". Commented Sep 13, 2014 at 13:57
  • What @PeterShor said. FWIW, the expression I hear most often in this regard is "takes the cake" -- singular cake. (But it's not important.)
    – Drew
    Commented Sep 13, 2014 at 17:12

2 Answers 2


This is a subjunctive form of the verb used to describe a future possibility.

We shall overcome this foe, come hell or high water!


Let the winning horse take the cake.

Winner take all.


The "cakes" is "British speak" for the prizes. So the sentence should read, "the winning horse takes the prizes (usually a sum of money, and for his master.

Kentucky was a "southern" state, and in 1847, one of the more Anglophilic parts of the United States.

  • If you look in Google Books for "takes the cake(s)" in the 19th century, you will find that virtually all the citations that use this idiom are American (the one the OP is asking about being the earliest, both in Google books and the OED). This is not a British idiom; it is an American idiom that the British have adopted. Commented Sep 13, 2014 at 21:13
  • @PeterShor: Fair enough.
    – Tom Au
    Commented Sep 13, 2014 at 22:11

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