A dark horse
We use this phrase figuratively to describe someone who has won unexpectedly or has displayed previously unknown or well-hidden talents.
I enjoy occasionally going to horse races. There is something thrilling and deeply fascinating about seeing magnificent beasts in prime condition battling it out for a prize. I’m not much of a student of equestrian form, more of a pin sticker or one who is attracted to a name. My last excursion to the bookies, for the 2018 Grand National, saw me walk away with a handsome profit – a case of luck triumphing over judgment.
A regular sight in pubs until fairly recently were sad old men hunched over their pint, frantically poring over the pages of the Sporting Life. This was enough to convince me that the sport of kings and rigorous analysis were uneasy bed fellows. After all, there are too many imponderables – equine or human error, the ground conditions and, dare I say it, the suspicion that forces unknown can have an influence on the outcome.
And then there is always the dark horse – the horse that was little fancied but which ran the race of its life to upset the punters’ and bookmakers’ calculations. Almost certainly our phrase originates from the world of horse racing. It first appeared in print in a sporting context in Benjamin Disraeli’s The Young Duke, published in 1831 to finance his grand tour around the Mediterranean; “a dark horse, which had never been thought of, and which the careless St. James had never even observed in the list, rushed past the grand stand in sweeping triumph.”
Following up closely, perhaps a furlong behind, is this reference in Pierce Egan’s Book of Sports, published in 1832; “Moonraker is called a dark horse; that is neither his sire nor dam is known.” The inability to ascertain the horse’s pedigree meant that it was difficult to assess how it was going to perform and to determine what odds it should attract.
Stories abound of unscrupulous racehorse owners visiting towns on race day and entering their heavily disguised thoroughbred in a race in the hope of obtaining more favourable odds and thus scooping a bigger pot. This may well have happened and may even be the source, at least in everyday parlance, of the phrase. We cannot tell but Disraeli’s and Egan’s usage clearly root it in the world of horse racing. I don’t think we need to take dark as necessarily referring to colouration. Dark as in secret or hidden is just as apposite.
By the 1840s the phrase was being used in American politics, specifically to describe James Polk who broke the stalemate between Van Buren and Lewis Cass to win the nomination of the Democratic Party for the Presidency in 1844 on the ninth ballot. In 1893 the Wall Street Journal, commenting on the Democratic national convention, observed “Cool-headed leaders say the convention may last over Sunday barring a stampede for a dark horse.”
The phrase was also used to describe academic preferment; “A Headship … often given by the College conclaves to a man who has judiciously kept himself dark” noted the Saturday Review in 1860. In 1865 Sketches from Cambridge reported, “Every now and then a dark horse is heard of, who is supposed to have done wonders at some obscure small college.”
These days the phrase has a much broader application but the sense is still the same.