Upset Beat Man o’ War, But Did He Really Coin A New Sportswriting Phrase?

On Oct. 12, 1920, the race of the century took place at Kenilworth Park just outside Windsor, Ontario. It was between the first ever Triple Crown winner, Sir Barton and the incomparable ‘Big Red’ ­­– Man o’ War. It was a match between two champions: a battle of titans.

It was also Man o’ War’s last race before he went off to stud. ‘Big Red’ won it easily by an impressive margin of seven lengths.

The race captured the imagination of a continent 100 years ago. There would be nothing like it until a grandson and son of Man o’ War squared off 18 years later, in Maryland. The son was War Admiral and the grandson was Seabiscuit.

The 4-year-old Sir Barton was thought to be a worthy opponent for Man o’ War. Even though Sir Barton took the first Triple Crown in 1919 and won more money than Man o’ War that year, he lost seven races in 1920. Yet he had beaten Exterminator in the Saratoga Handicap, carrying 133 pounds, and set a world record for the classic distance of 1 3/16 miles in the Merchants and Citizens Stakes at the Spa on Aug. 20, 1920.

Those who seek perfection might find it unfortunate that the mystique of being undefeated evaded both horses. Man o’ War had also tasted defeat.  It happened on Aug. 13, 1919, at the hoofs of an unlikely opponent whose name was Upset – a horse he had beaten easily on four other occasions.

He should have won.

Here is how Fred Van Ness of the New York Times chronicled Man o’ War’s only lifetime defeat in the Sanford Stakes:

“He was forced to bow to Harry Payne Whitney’s Upset in a neck-and-neck finish in this six-furlong dash. Though defeated, Man o’ War was not discredited. On the contrary, the manner in which he ran this race stamped him, in the opinion of horsemen, as the best of his division without question. Though failing to get his nose in front, he stood out as the best horse in the race by a large margin, for he had all the worst of the racing luck.” 

Did Upset’s victory originate the term ‘upset’?

The controversy surrounding Man o’ War’s unfair start against Upset is long over, but a minor controversy remains: Was Man o’ War’s loss to Upset the beginning of the term ‘upset’ in sports argot, used to denote an unlikely winner?

Lexicographer Ben Zimmer clarified the matter once and for all back in 2013:

“I surveyed New York Times articles that used the word upset, and it was clear that it was already in use in horse-racing and other sports like baseball before the famous 1919 race.”

I am fond of observing that “most famous quotes and coined terms get attributed to the most prominent person who used them.” (And if some well-known person repeats my little buzz phrase, it will doubtless be attributed to them, and not to me.)

The best example of this phenomenon is the celebrated admonition by John F. Kennedy in his 1961 inaugural address:

“Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.”

Certainly Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. and such lesser presidents as Warren Harding spoke much the same lines decades before. In fact, many of Kennedy’s most renowned phrases are characterized as fragmented misremembrances. Ralph Keyes noted this in The Washington Post in 2006:

“Even though JFK routinely garbled his quotations, it took us years to figure this out. Meanwhile, the young president launched any number of misworded, misattributed or completely mystifying quotations into the public conversation that have stuck around to this day.”

But who cares? The grainy film of that cold January day in 1961 and the magnificent delivery of those 17 words is what’s important.  Our language has a long and well-recorded history. No line of speech will ever be completely original.

What does this all mean for that one little word ‘upset’?

Many have viewed the horse named ‘Upset’ as being appropriately named. And many have inaccurately declared that Man o’ War’s defeat marks the origin of the term ‘upset’ to denote an unlikely winner.

But we overblow our need for originality in a term. Ben Zimmer went on to quote Washington Post sports columnist Bob Addie from 1962:  “The term ‘upset’ in sports gained considerable stature back in 1919 when a horse actually named Upset beat the wonder horse, Man o’ War.”

“That may in fact be true,” writes Zimmer. “Certainly upset gained traction in sports reporting starting in the ’20s, and Upset may have had something to do with that. So let’s give some credit to the scrappy colt…”

And as for Man o’ War, his legend only grew with his 14 consecutive victories following his ‘upset by Upset’. As we get closer to the 100th anniversary of Big Red’s monumental win against that first ever Triple Crown winner, Sir Barton, let’s remember that the origins of words and phrases are much less important than the memorable events and the heroes –  both human and equine – that bring focus and glory to their times and make a stamp on history.

2023 will mark an anniversary for another ‘Big Red’ – Secretariat. It will be the 50th anniversary of his last race, which he won in Canada by an identical seven lengths to Man o’ War’s win in his own last race, against Sir Barton. The celebration will be enhanced – not diminished – by the fact that the first Big Red won just as easily 100 years ago.

That’s also true of Upset’s historic race against Man o’ War. The great tale is in no way diminished by the fact that Upset’s name popularized, rather than originated, a sports term.

The origins of a term are an interesting thing to explore. But it’s the heroes, equine and human, that we celebrate in racing history.

John Stapleton is an income security benefit designer in Toronto. Stapleton’s work has appeared in the Globe & Mail, the National Post and the Toronto Star. He has owned racehorses for 37 years and is past president and current board member of the Canadian Horse Racing Hall of fame.

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