The Myth about Upset, 1919

Aug 13th 2009 11:10 pm |

If you had opened your Daily Racing Form on August 13, 1919, you would have seen these past performances for race four at Saratoga:

OK, who do you like?

Of course, we all know what happened, Man O’ War, the great two-year-old colt owned by Sam Riddle, was beaten by H.P. Whitney’s Upset. This unlikely result is one of the most legendary “upsets” in American sports history and has inspired an often repeated tale about the origins of that very word.

Most of us have heard the story that Man O’ War’s loss in the Stanford was the reason the term “upset” became part of American sports vernacular. A good story – no doubt – but easily proven false with a little digging in primary sources.

In 2006, when Dorothy Ours published her superb book about Man O’ War she buried this little nugget in the end notes:

Sports headlines predating the 1919 Sanford Memorial prove the term upset for an unexpected result did not originate with Upset beating Man o’ War. For example, ‘Days of Upsets at Belmont Park….’ New York Herald, Sept 7, 1918 and ‘Upsets at Jefferson Park,’ Daily Racing Form, March 16, 1919.

Image: Upset beating Man O’ War (Associated Press)

Laura Hillenbrand in her wildly popular Seabiscuit also acknowledged the myth. While she didn’t offer any examples, she did write “…reporters covering the [1919 Sanford] noted how coincidental it was that Man o’ War should lose to a horse with such a name.”

According to the book Word Myths: Debunking Linguistic Urban Legends, a researcher found a “sporting use” of the term as early as 1865 and found this in the New York Times from July 17, 1877:

The program for today 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.

With the availability of full-text searching for the New York Times and the Daily Racing Form, it is possible to do a little debunking from the comfort of your own home.

A quick search of historic DRF online at Kentuckiana Digital Library finds these:

April 4, 1908:

The biggest upset of the afternoon came with the running of the last race in which Poquessing was a pronounced favorite. Park Row raced the favorite into defeat in the first half but was forced to do his best at the end to withstand the game challenge of Killiecrankie

June 25, 1908:

No three-year-old has carried off the Royal Hunt Cup at Ascot England since Refractor upset the heavily weighted Eager in 1899.

June 11, 1913:

The $1,000 handicap at one mile and a eighth that served as a feature in today’s racing at Latonia furnished a big upset…

August 13, 1918:

The Seneca Stakes…resulted in a big upset in the victory of Sweep Up II…

These are just a few of the many examples that predate the 1919 Stanford.

Image: The Magnificent Man O’ War (Keeneland Library)

Upset – the horse – will forever live in the lore of racing for being the only blemish on the record of one of racing’s all-time greats. But claiming he made a contribution to the language of American sports, while it makes for a good story, is absolutely false.


Dorothy Ours book about Man O’ War is a must read for any fan of racing history. Her meticulous research and ability to tell a good story, makes the book a real joy.

David Wilton wrote Word Myths: Debunking Linguistic Urban Legends published by the Oxford University Press in 2002

Quotes from the Daily Racing Form and the past performances from the 1919 Sanford are from the highly touted online version of DRF


Filed in Man O' War,racing lore,racing myths,Sanford Stakes,Upset

12 Responses to “The Myth about Upset, 1919”

  1. o_crunk says:

    Imagine the shots the Sanford would take today if 4 of 7 entrants were maidens.

    Love the old PP's. Amazing that the nuts and bolts of them have remained pretty much unchanged for a century.

  2. Elizabeth says:

    Very interesting reading…Thanks for an enjoyable post!

  3. bill says:

    Great stuff, I wrote a much shorter post about this last month here:

  4. KARMINA says:

    I recently came accross your blog and have been reading along. I thought I would leave my first comment. I dont know what to say except that I have enjoyed reading. Nice blog. I will keep visiting this blog very often.


  5. Anonymous says:

    It's amazing that they had the technology in those days to enable us to know every horse that ran 4th to Man O' War. I guess it may have been a money thing when they changed to our present day format of listing the top three finishers. We do have computers now so how hard would it be to change back?

  6. Glenn Craven says:

    As a lover of both horse racing and language, this was great reading.

    I've added you to my "Railbird's Row" of blogs because your writing is routinely so worthwhile.

  7. Glenn Craven says:

    P.S. Notice you have two juveniles here, Man O'War and Golden Broom, each apparently assigned 130 pounds. … One-hundred-thirty!

    Why they did that to Golden Broom, who was 1-for-2 lifetime, I dunno. But these days can you imagine assigning 130 to any 2-year-old?

  8. Steven says:

    What a fascinating story. Thanks for posting it.

  9. Anonymous says:

    Golden Broom
    There are no dates in the past performances. GB's win was the Saratoga Special on August 9th where he won easily over King Thrush and Bea Mary(had defeated Upset). The Saratoga Special was(I think) a more prestigious race than the Sanford Memorial. From Man O'War and Golden Blossom used the same training track in MD. Matched in 3 trials Golden Blossom took the first two and Man O'War took the third. GB developed a quarter crack after the Saratoga Special(before the Sanford??) In 6 races the Saratoga Special was his only win.

  10. Anonymous says:

    I'm sorry I didn't proof read that very well. Golden Blossom should read Golden Broom.

  11. Joan Wolfe says:

    Both jocks(M.O.W & Upset) were immediately suspended.
    The stewards suspected race track larceny.

    Why isn't anyone upset at that?

  12. Teddy Lopez says:

    I have talked to alot of experts all over the country and, have always heard and, read that the reason man of war lost that only race, was simply because he turn to the side. Just wanted to say for the great kelsos’ greatgrandfather that all these people that talk all that baloney that man of war didn’t face much competition in his time are a bunch of jokers. After a while nobody wanted to run againt him. What a bunch of jokers. They also wanted to put 150 pounds on man of war and, the owner said that they could go fly a kite. Man of war was a big horse yes, he did have a stride of 28ft, sopposedly the biggest srtide of any racehorse of all-times. That does mean he was covering more ground when he ran then alot of horses and, yes it was an advantage but, back when he raced the tracks were in worst conditions no doubt, there were no starting gates and, he wore iron shoes, all which would slow you down. More great horses came out of man of war than any other racehorse of all-times, which includes the great kelso who ofcaurse was his great -grandson. As far as I have read secretariat produced over 600 gouls and only 10pct of them added any real glory to his name. I just wanted to say about how much baloney the blood horse top 100 horses of all-times when the horse that they 3rd best of all-times, just before the great kelso, citation, never won carrying more than 129 pounds! That’s the same horse Eddie Arcaro who rode the great kelso rode and, said that ‘kelso would have beaten the shit out of citation’. The great kelso also did a better jockey gold cup than citation and, forego or any darn horse who ran the 2 miles. Goes to show you how opinions are. Opinions are like butts, everybody has one, when it comes to facts, very few people have any. Most of these people who think some other horse was greater than the great kelso don’t know hell about the great kelso. They might be able to pull crap on someone who doesn’t know much about the great kelso just like them. Let them try to downplay the great kelso with me. I’m even wiling to give them my phone number. Kelso’s biggest fan, Teddy.