August 13th, 1919. Saratoga Race Course, New York. The legendary horse, Man o’ War, comes into the race as the heavy favorite and boasts an undefeated record. But this story isn’t about Man o’ War, it’s about a horse named Upset who surprised everyone and cemented its place in history. This chapter of SBS Remembers takes us back almost 100 years for an underdog tale that still manages to be relevant today.
Let’s really set the stage. Man o’ War won 20 of 21 races in his lifetime. With his only loss coming from the hooves of Upset on that fateful day. Plus, Upset had already lost to Man o’ War in six prior contests. So no one, I mean no one, thought Upset had a snowball’s chance in hell of beating Man o’ War. But history has a funny way of making itself. The horses and jockeys lined up and waited for the start.
BANG, they were off. Everyone but Man o’ War, who was the last horse to leave the line. Upset shot ahead to the front of the pack. But Man o’ War is a champion for a reason. He battles back and closes in on Upset whose lead is almost totally gone. The two stallions gut out the last stretch and Upset wins by a nose. Experts argue that with a slightly longer track that the heavier (by around 15 lbs) Man o’ War would have caught up and won. But the track wasn’t longer and Upset is the unlikely winner. Forever tying the name Upset with a surprise outcome.
I just love this story. An epically huge win and we get a new word added to the sports lexicon forever. A term we really use and not just in athletics. Upset is part of the normal vocabulary and we have horse racing to thank. A Cinderella story is nice, but I’ll take the underdog tale born out the hearts of thoroughbreds.
I wish this was the end of the adventure. But I stupidly did more research and was horrified to discover that this event is NOT the original origin of the term “upset” as a reference to a shocking outcome. This news was really deflating. I mean the story was so perfect but it was not to be. There are records going back to 1877 that predate this race and other historical documents that use the verbiage. What a total bummer.
After processing all this, I still make the claim that it took the high profile win of Upset over the Hall-of-Fame Man o’ War to really popularize the “upset” term. Just think of all the newspaper headlines. Those old sportswriters must have had a field day. And that’s when the word really stuck in people’s minds. So maybe the horse didn’t coin the phrase but it for sure made it a household expression. And here at ScoreBoredSports, we think that is still worthy of recognition.
So we take out hats off to a horse named Upset and the jockey, Willie Knapp, for pulling out a great win and giving us an even better word.