Sports Legend Revealed: Did the term 'upset' in sports derive from a horse named Upset defeating Man o' War?
There are certain sports stories that are just so good that you almost feel bad debunking them. This is one of those stories.
As you are all well aware, one of the meanings of the word "upset," especially when applied to the world of sports (although politics, or really, anything involving competitions between people, has latched on to the word, as well), is to describe situations where a favored team/athlete/horse loses to an underdog opponent.
The origin of the term is thought to have derived from one of the biggest upsets in horse racing history. Man o' War is one of the greatest Thoroughbred racehorses history (amusingly enough, with the 2011 Kentucky Derby just being run, Man o' War never actually competed in the Kentucky Derby, so he never had the chance to win the Triple Crown), with a 20-1 record. Blood-Horse magazine named him the #1 Racehorse of the 20th Century. And yet, on August 12, 1919, Man o' War lost its only race ever - to a horse that it had already defeated six times before! There are plenty of places that tell how this story led to the term "upset," so I'll just pick literally the first result that came up for me when I did a web search. Here, from the official Secretariat website, in an article about how Secretariat also lost to a severe underdog in 1973 is a description of Man o' War's loss:
It was at Saratoga, in 1919, that the word “upset” entered the American sports lexicon. That’s when a horse named Upset beat the mighty Man o’ War. It was the original Big Red’s only defeat. In those days, the word upset had a more literal meaning, along the lines of tip over, or capsize. But it had no particular connection with sports. Then came Upset’s victory over the seemingly invincible Man o’ War. So shocking was Upset’s triumph over Man o’ War, that sports scribes began to describe unexpected outcomes in other sports like football and basketball by saying so-and-so “pulled off an Upset.” Eventually, the capitalized “U” in Upset became lower case as upset became a part of regular usage, and a word we know well today.
So, is that true? Read on to find out!
First off, a little bit about that race itself. You see, while Man o' War DID lose the race, it was clearly the best horse in the race that day. What happened was that there was a mix-up at the start of the race. They did not have starting gates back then - the horses were just lined up behind a barrier and then told to go. Well, the horses on that day in August 1919 were not lined up well at all. As Fred Van Ness of the New York Times described it at the time:
For those who had hoped for a pretty race without anything to mar it, it was unfortunate that the acting starter, C.H. Pettingill, one of the placing judges, spent several minutes trying to get the horses lined up and then sent them away with only those near the rail ready for the start.
So when the race began, a bunch of horses had a wide lead on Man o' War, with Upset being the best of that bunch. However, to the astonishment of the crowd, Man o' War was so fast that the horse nearly caught up to Upset and clearly would have overtaken the lead horse if the course was twenty or so feet longer.
Now as to the origins of the word "upset." The first problem with the idea that Upset originated the term is the fact that if you look at the meaning of the word, the usage of "upset" to mean "an overthrowing or overturn of ideas, plans, etc." had long in use. So just keeping that in mind, it does not exactly take a lot of stretching to get that meaning applied to the world of sports. It is not like the horse was named, say, Mailbox and suddenly people were saying "that horse pulled a mailbox" or "The Braves really mailboxed the Phillies today." A long accepted meaning of the word was quite similar to its usage in relation to sports.
However, the main evidence that the term did not originate from Upset's upset of Man o' War was discovered by researcher George Thompson. He found the following citation in a July 1877 edition of the New York Times referring to the horse racing that day:
The programme for to-day at Monmouth Park indicates a victory for the favorite in each of the four events, but racing is so uncertain that there may be a startling upset.
There, plainly stated, is the modern sports-related usage of the word "upset," and it is is a newspaper a full forty years before Upset defeated Man o' War.
Now, this does not mean that Upset's defeat of Man o' War did not popularize the term, but despite it being such a great story that you almost want to follow the advice of the newspaperman at the end of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance ("when the legend becomes fact, print the legend"), it is not true.
Man o' War and Upset raced again, by the way, and Man o' War avenged his loss. Again, it was the only loss of his career.
Thanks to Secretariat.com for the quote, thanks to Fred Van Ness and the New York Times for the story of the 1919 race and thanks to George Thompson and the New York Times for the evidence of the term's 19th Century usage.
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Photo: Upset defeats Man o' War. Credit: Associated Press.