"Upset" in horseracing

George Thompson george.thompson at NYU.EDU
Wed Nov 13 00:19:00 UTC 2002

You-uns may recall that six months or so ago the question was raised here as to whether it was really possible, as is commonly said, that the term "upset" in the sense of an unexpected victory by a seemingly lesser opponent in a sporting event was not used until after 1919, when a colt named Upset beat Man o' War in the Sanford Stakes.  The application seems obvious, yet the earliest citation in the OED for this particular sense is 1924, as I recall, with reference to a tennis match.  Larry Horn objected that since Man o' War was just a 2 year old at the time, his defeat could not have seemed as astonishing as it later appeared.  I rummaged around in some of the newspapers of 1919, the NYTimes and several others, and showed that in fact the sporting crowd was shocked and horrified at the outcome.

It seemed to me then to be significant that none of the reports said anything like "Upset lived up to his name yesterday".  I concluded "These accounts of the race suggest that the word "upset" was not familiar in the sense of "unexpected victory or loss" before this event.  The World stated: "One might make all sorts of puns about it being an upset, but Man o' War in the opinion of nine out of ten observers was far the better colt in the race. . . .  (August 14, 1919, p. 11, col. 1)  The pun did not occur to the reporters from the Tribune or the Times.  It occurred to the reporter for The Sun also: "Upset's victory was a big upset to all racegoers, even his famous trainer, James Rowe"; and "Golden Broom caused more than an upset", but he seems to have been thinking of "upset" as in "distress", for instance "upset stomach"."  (Golden Broom was a colt thought to be nearly Man o' War's equal, and carried an identical weight as he did, 15 pounds or more more than any of the other colts, but he ran poorly and finished thoroughly beaten.)

However --

I have been checking the NYTimes database for the 19th century for the word "upset" in the same story as the word "racing" and have found that the obvious application was indeed obvious to the horse-players of the latter 19th C.  The earliest occurence was 1865.  It and the next few appearances were in statements to the effect that that the outcome of a race "upset the calculations" of the experts and this seems the original idea.  The earliest occurence I noted of "upset" appearing as a noun in this context was 1877.  I didn't find the word at all used as a verb in a sentence like "This horse upset that horse."

1865:   The racing was of the highest order; the contests being close and exciting, and the judgment of the knowing ones fairly upset by the unexpected results.
        New York Times, September 13, 1865, p. 5
1867:   JACOB PINCUS, his clever trainer, smiles grimly when told of the dangerous representatives of the Holmdell string, and whistles with a strange self-consciousness of superior knowledge, as if he had heard and seen of as great pretensions being upset and blasted by a "dark horse" on previous occasions.
        New York Times, June 2, 1867, p. 5

1867:   Notwithstanding the prestige of Mr. MORRIS' pair, that numerous class of betters termed the "fielders" maintained in some slight degree their proverbial characteristic to "take odds," and took many of the bets offered at one hundred to sixty, one hundred to fifty and at last one hundred to forty offered on MORRIS' pair against the field.  They depended mainly upon the "dark horse" Baywood, sent on by Mr. ALEXANDER, the great Kentucky turfman, to represent his stable. . . .
        New York Times, June 5, 1867, p. 8.  I note that the OED has "dark horse" in this sense from 1831, 1860 & 1865, but all from English sources, and its first U.S. source is 1884, so that this is an antedating for the U. S.  The OED has "fielder" in this sense from 1844, from a U. S. source.

1870:   It is quite possible that one of the despised outsiders, Sanford or Legatee or Flora McIvor may upset the calculations of the knowing ones, and triumph over the cracks.
        New York Times, June 17, 1870, p. 2
1872:   There were many who considered Tubman so well in that he was liable to win, and consequently he was made a great favorite, but the calculations of the knowing ones were upset, for the winner turned up in Alroy, who sold lowest in the pools, who won a fast race in the mud.
        New York Times, June 7, 1872, p. 2
1874:   The second affair, a dash of a mile and an eighth, for three-year olds, upset the calculations of the posted division, and the lucky McDaniel won the prize with Madge, beating the favorites easily in the fast time of 1:57 ¼, equaling the time of Experience Oaks two years ago over the same course.
        New York Times, August 14, 1874, p. 5
1875:   The second event was the four-mile dash, between Wild Idle and Rutherford, which resulted in a complete victory for the former, and upset the calculations of the wise-acres, who backed Rutherford strongly to win until just before the start when Wild Idle came into favor.
        New York Times, August 22, 1875, p. 12

1877:   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.
        New York Times, July 17, 1877, p. 8  The other instances of "upset" being used as a noun are May 17, 1883, August 11, 1888, October 11, 1890 & November 18, 1890.

1881:   Wyoming upset all calculations by winning the Nursery Stakes, being cleverly ridden by Shauer.
        New York Times, October 2, 1881, p. 5
1883:   This proved another upset for the favorites, Rosary, a very cheap one, winning in 1:17 ¼, Andrian second, and Eva S. third.
        New York Times, May 17, 1883, p. 2
1885:   . . . the running this season has been so perplexing to the students of form as to upset the nicest calculations and theories of racing philsophers.
        New York Times, August 23, 1885, p. 5
1888:   Long before the race had started . . . , it was common property among the select few that Referee was the "good thing" for the jumping race, and that it was one that could not be upset, as Mr. J. G. K. Lawrence's horse Burr Oak had upset the good thing in the hurdle race on Thursday.
        New York Times, July 8, 1888, p. 3
1888:   Had Huntoon behaved himself he might have upset the calculations of the wise ones, for he showed a great burst of speed in his two breakaways.
        New York Times, August 1, 1888, p. 3
1888:   Only two outright favorites won, but in most cases the winners were well backed and the only big upset was when Youghiogheny secured second position in the third race and paid his place backers $106 55 for a five-dollar ticket.
        New York Times, August 11, 1888, p. 3
1890:   These two heart-breaking upsets coming in quick succession caused a veritable cyclone of adverse comment.
        New York Times, October 11, 1890, p. 3
1890:   Kitty Van began the upsets in the opening dash by running in front of the field and winning as she pleased by three lengths from the favorite, Mabel Glenn, who only beat Lakeview out for the place after a hard struggle.
        New York Times, November 18, 1890, p. 2

So now I would be interested to find a source stating as a fact that this sense of the word "upset" was owing the colt Upset upsetting Man o' War.  I have read it somewhere, but I don't remember where .  I should check Flexner's "I Hear America Talking" and his other book, since I have them, but the statement must be in something I could have read in the 1950s.  One of Charles Funk's books perhaps?

Evidently "Spirit of the Times" is available in the American Periodicals database, and if so it might give an even earlier citation.  Perhaps the NY Times of the 1850s and 1860s was not the newspaper to turn to if one was a horse-player.


George A. Thompson
Author of A Documentary History of "The African Theatre", Northwestern Univ. Pr., 1998.

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