A group of us once got into a long argument about the quality of the thoroughbred name “Seattle Slew.” The people on my side of the argument believed that the name was awesome. The people on the other side of the argument believed that the name, well, was not awesome at all. The argument solved absolutely nothing, of course, because you can’t win or lose an argument about an entirely subjective thing like Ginger or Mary Ann, Unitas or Montana, or how good a name sounds. This, I think, is why many sports fans love to stay in the realm of the subjective. Nobody can ever lose an argument.
But my point here is not to explain why I think Seattle Slew is a great name (you either get that or you don’t) but to point out right at the start that I’m the kind of person who will waste numerous hours pointlessly arguing about it. I romanticize thoroughbred names. I can’t help it. OF COURSE, Secretariat ran away from Sham — how could it be any different? He was Secretariat. And he was Sham.
To me, the marvelously named Whirlaway HAD TO BE a wildly inconsistent horse — how could a horse named Whirlaway be anything but wildly inconsistent? Whirlaway would tend to drift in his races, as if daydreaming, and he lost plenty that he should have won. But, when right, when locked in, Whirlaway was unbeatable, as he was in the 1941 Kentucky Derby when he ran 2:01.4, a record at the time. He won the Preakness and the Belmont too.
Spectacular Bid made a spectacular bid for the Triple Crown, but lost the Belmont to Coastal. Is it a coincidence that Silver Charm, after winning the first two legs of the Triple Crown, lost the Belmont to Touch Gold? Zenyatta, after 19 consecutive victories, lost her final race on Saturday despite a remarkable closing charge down the stretch. What horse beat Zenyatta and sent horse racing fans into a Saturday night depression? Blame Blame, of course.
Think about the power of names like Northern Dancer and Majestic Prince and Damascus and Alysheba. One of the great questions in sports, is this: Do the names make the horses? Or do the horses make the names?
“What’s in a name? that which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet;”
— Romeo and Juliet
“A rose by another other name would wither and die.”
— Alan Swann, My Favorite Year.
So what is it? Is Affirmed a great name? Is Seabiscuit a great name? Maybe, maybe not, but those horse were so wonderful that their names took on power.* Those BECAME great names.
*Though an inarguably bad name — like A.P. Indy or Buckpasser or Tom Fool — stays bad no matter how great the horse.
All of which finally leads us to our point: You probably know the story of Man O’ War, one of the great racehorses of all time. Man O’ War won 20 of his 21 races. Most people probably assume that Man O’ War won the Triple Crown — he did not. He probably would have won it, but his owner — Samuel D. Riddle — did not enter him in the Kentucky Derby. Riddle supposedly had something against the great state of Kentucky*. Anyway, Man O’ War did go to the Preakness where he breezed to a length and a half victory. He then went to the Belmont and won by 20 lengths. He won every race for the rest of his career, including the Dwyer Stakes, the Travers and so on. He retired after that year, universally celebrated as the greatest race horse of the age.
*Seventeen years later, Riddle’s horse War Admiral — sired by Man O’ War — was entered in the Kentucky Derby and did win the Triple Crown.
Man O’ War was so great and overwhelming that The Associated Press named him Horse of the Century AHEAD of Secretariat.
OK, so that’s background. Well, as you probably know, a legend has built up around Man O’ War — a legend so powerful and convincing that people simply refuse to believe it isn’t true. As mentioned, Man O’ War lost only one race in his extraordinary career. That was at Saratoga Springs, in New York, at the Sanford Memorial on August 13, 1919.
He lost the race to a horse named “Upset.”
Now, I had always been told and always believed that this event — Upset beating Man O’ War — was so shocking that the sports word “Upset” (meaning “an unexpected defeat of the favorite in a game”) was popularized that day. The legend is that every time you hear the word upset — like you do 4,853,953 times during the college football season — it goes back to that day when a little horse called Upset beat the great Man O’ War.
It’s a beautiful little story. It perfectly fits the imagination. Imagine it: A horse named Upset so shocks the world by beating an unbeatable horse, that his very name becomes a noun representing shock. It would be like calling modern upsets “Eruziones” or “Busters” — which would be awesome, by the way. But so far we are sticking with “upset.” And that was the name of the horse that beat Man O’ War. And yes, it’s a great story.
Unfortunately, it isn’t true. And, if you do a little bit of research, you will find that it’s not even close to being true and there’s no way it even could be true. We’ll get to all that in a second.
First, we look at the noun “upset.” According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the word “upset” as a noun meaning “an overturning or overthrow of ideas, plans, etc.” goes back to 1822 — almost 100 years before Man O’ War lost.
The OED offers three examples and the one in 1886 — “The result was a complete upset of all the predictions of the prophets” — seems pretty directly connected to the sports use of the word. So right away, we have get a pretty good hint that this story might not be true.
But, we can still argue that while the noun “Upset” might have been around for a long time, it might not have been used in a sports way before Man O’ War, right? Even the Oxford English Dictionary does not find a sports usage of the word until a 1921 tennis match (nice effort OED). So it’s possible …
No. It isn’t. For that we go to the Word Origins site, which tells us the story of researcher George Thompson. It seems that Thompson was one of the many people who believed this Upset story had to be bogus. But nobody had been able to prove it. Then, in 2002, given the full New York Times database for the first time, Thompson went back to look. And just in one paper, just in the New York Times, he found a whole bunch of sports uses of the word “Upset” that go all the way back to this in 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.”
Well, there you go. That’s a horse racing use of the word Upset, and that’s 1877 — more than FORTY YEARS before Man O’ War. And as mentioned, it was used just in the New York Times many, many times after that and before Man O’ War’s loss.* It’s unfortunate, yes, but the Upset story simply isn’t true.
But, here’s where we get to what I think is even more interesting: This thing doesn’t even make sense as a sports story. See, Man O’ War’s loss to Upset wasn’t even viewed as a crazy upset on the day of the race. What people forget is that the loss came in Man O’ War’s sixth race. He was not viewed as the greatest race horse of his time, not yet, not even close. His greatest victories were still months away. True, he was an extremely promising young thoroughbred. True, he was the odds-on favorite to win that race of 2-year-olds, going off at 1-2.
True, he was already viewed as one of the great two-year-olds in recent memory. But that’s like a pitcher being the best 19-year-old in recent memory. Upset was hardly a slug; Upset was also viewed as a promising horse and was third choice at 7-1. Another horse, Golden Groom, was considered a very promising two-year-old and he was a 2-1. Everyone knew then like they know now — two-year-old horses are unpredictable. Yes, sure, people thought Man O’ War would win. People bet on him to win. But this wasn’t exactly the Soviet Hockey Team in 1980.
Put it this way — after Upset beat Man O’ War there were hardly ANY stories about the loss in newspapers across America. And this was in a time when horse racing was a major sport in America. It simply wasn’t that big a deal. A potentially great two-year-old had been beaten. Happens all the time.
And even more to the point: Nobody was disappointed in Man O’ War’s performance that day. In fact, it was widely viewed as a Man O’ War triumph of the spirit:
New York Times headline: “Man O’ War Furnishes the Thrill of Race but is Beaten by a Neck.”
Washington Post headline: “Poor Racing Luck Beats Man O’ War.”
This was the wide view. Man O’ War was blocked “two or three times” by other horses, had to go way outside at the finish and still finished only a half length back. Also, Man O’ War was carrying 15 more pounds than Upset and, as the Times wrote, “on the very performances of the two today, (Upset) would not appear to have a chance to win under an even break.” Man O’ War made a spectacular comeback, so spectacular so that the few writers who did cover the race wrote about it as if Man O’ War had won.
“Though defeated, Man O’ War not discredited,” The New York Times wrote. “On the contrary, the manner in which he ran this race stamped him, in the opinion of the horsemen, as the best of his division without question.”
That doesn’t really sound like the sort of victory that would bring the word “Upset” to the masses, does it?
On Sunday, through a series of events that only seem to happen on Twitter, I found myself tweeting that the Upset story is a myth. I received numerous somewhat pointed responses and emails that it most certainly IS NOT a myth, that it is ABSOLUTELY TRUE, that I should GO STUDY MY HISTORY. We want very much to believe in what sounds good. This is true of sports. This is true of life too. The Upset story is a great story, it really is. But I’ll leave you with the lead paragraph written by Harry N. Price in the Washington Post that day of the race, lines that should pretty much shovel the last bit of dirt on the Upset myth.
“Man o’ War, the Glen Riddle farm’s splendid chestnut 2-year-old, although beaten in the Sanford memorial this afternoon, really clinched the championship among juveniles when, after a lot of bad racing luck, he finished only a half length behind Harry Payne Whitney’s Upset … One might make all sorts of puns about it being an upset, and in faith it was, but Man O’ War in the opinion of nine out of ten observers, was far the best colt in the race.”