Laurence Horn laurence.horn at YALE.EDU
Sat Mar 2 19:32:52 UTC 2002

At 1:43 PM -0500 3/2/02, Fred Shapiro wrote:
>Perhaps Joanne Despres can tell us what the earliest in the M-W files is
>for the sports sense of "upset."  And perhaps Jesse can tell us what OED
>has in its files.
>I used to think it remarkable that a horse named Upset would have pulled
>off perhaps the greatest upset in sports history.  But I'm guessing that
>it's not so remarkable, that this horse's name contributed to the rise of
>the term.
I'm sure that contributed, one way or another.  I wonder whether this
was really "perhaps the greatest upset in sports history" at the
time, though.

When Man O' War finished second to Upset by half a length in the
Sanford in August 1919 he was racing as a two-year-old, in just his
seventh race.  I don't know that much about it (and no, I don't
remember it), but judging from the size of the purses involved (see
http://www.secondrunning.com/Man%20o'%20War.htm), none of the six
races Man O' War had won previously was really a major stakes.  The
Hopeful and Futurity stakes he claimed at Saratoga and Belmont soon
after the Sanford brought far larger purses than any of his earlier
races, and then as a three-year-old (after skipping the Derby; he
seems to have been an inveterate northeasterner) he won the Preakness
and Belmont, the latter by 20 lengths, and his reputation was made.
He entered eight more races as a three-year-old, winning them all,
and that was that.  But somehow finishing second at the stage of his
career in which that occurred doesn't strike me as constituting a
huge upset in the modern sense.  (Compare the upset of a dominating,
unbeaten, and putatively "unbeatable" UNLV basketball team by Duke in
1991 in the national semi-final; what made it an upset is what the
teams, in particular UNLV, had done before that game.  If the defeat
had come earlier in the season, when UNLV was 6-0, it wouldn't have
been that much of an upset (even leaving aside the impact of losing
in the elimination tournament rather than the regular season).  So
I'd (gingerly) wager that if the view of Upset's 1919 win as a huge
upset is largely through hindsight.


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