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Dark horse

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

A dark horse is a previously lesser-known person, team or thing that emerges to prominence in a situation, especially in a competition involving multiple rivals,[1] that is unlikely to succeed but has a fighting chance,[2] unlike the underdog who is expected to lose.

The term comes from horse racing and horse betting jargon for any new but promising horse. It has since found usage mostly in other sports, sports betting, and sports journalism and to lesser extent in nascent business environments, such as experimental technology and startup companies.


The term began as horse racing parlance for a race horse that is unknown to gamblers and thus difficult to establish betting odds for.

The first known mention of the concept is in Benjamin Disraeli's novel The Young Duke (1831). Disraeli's protagonist, the Duke of St. James, attends a horse race with a surprise finish: "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 grandstand in sweeping triumph."[3]


The concept has been used in political contexts in such countries as Iran,[4] Philippines,[5] Russia,[6] Egypt, Finland,[7] Canada,[8] the United Kingdom,[9] and the United States.

Politically, the concept came to the United States in the nineteenth century when it was first applied to James K. Polk, a relatively unknown Tennessee politician who won the Democratic Party's 1844 presidential nomination over a host of better-known candidates. Polk won the nomination on the ninth ballot at his party's national nominating convention, and went on to become the country's eleventh president.

Other successful dark horse candidates for the United States presidency include:

Perhaps the two most famous unsuccessful dark horse presidential candidates in American history are Democrat William Jennings Bryan, a three-term congressman from Nebraska nominated on the fifth ballot after impressing the 1896 Democratic National Convention with his famous Cross of Gold speech (Bryan would go on to receive the Democratic presidential nomination twice more and serve as United States Secretary of State), and Republican businessman Wendell Willkie, who was nominated on the sixth ballot at the 1940 Republican National Convention despite never having previously held government office and having only joined the party in 1939. U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders is another classic example of a dark horse candidate, whose grassroots campaign in the 2016 Democratic Party presidential primaries came much closer than initially expected to toppling front-runner Hillary Clinton for the party's presidential nomination.

Outside of the United States, the dark horse status also attributed to:

Use in music, television, and film[edit]

In addition, surprising or unlikely nominations for such prizes as the Academy Award (awarded by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences) are referred to as dark horses.

Guitarist and singer-songwriter George Harrison was nicknamed the "dark horse" of The Beatles, as his visibility as a songwriter and vocalist increased later in the Beatles' career, particularly on Abbey Road. Harrison went on to name his solo label Dark Horse Records and release both an album and a song titled "Dark Horse.”

Switchfoot's song "Dark Horses" was inspired by an organization called StandUp for Kids, which aids homeless and street children (the "Dark Horses") across America.

The 24th chapter of Mark Helprin's novel Winter's Tale is called 'White Horse and Dark Horse,' referring to the character of Praeger de Pinto as an outlier candidate for the Mayor of New York City.

Todd Solondz' 2011 drama film Dark Horse, whose protagonist is implied by the character's father to be "Dad's Dark Horse" in broader terms.

In 2013, a song by Katy Perry titled "Dark Horse" was featured on her fourth studio album Prism. It was the third single released from the album and topped the Billboard Hot 100 for four weeks.

Use in sport[edit]

The term has been used in sport to describe teams and athletes who unexpectedly outperformed their expectations in a competition. Examples include the Los Angeles Kings during the 2012 Stanley Cup playoffs (who placed 1st despite being an 8th-seed entry into the playoffs); Bulgaria at the 1994 FIFA World Cup; Croatia at the 1998 FIFA World Cup and 2018 FIFA World Cup (who placed 2nd despite being ranked 20th in the FIFA World Rankings); and Morocco at the 2022 FIFA World Cup (who placed 4th despite being ranked 23rd in the FIFA World Rankings).[18][19]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "A dark horse". The Phrase Finder. 11 December 2023.
  2. ^ "Dark horse". Merriam-Webster.
  3. ^ "Origins of Sayings - A Dark Horse". Trivia Library.
  4. ^ a b "Who Will Be Iran's Next President?". Radio Free Liberty. 6 January 2013. Retrieved 19 April 2013.
  5. ^ "Invest in Philippines, the 'Dark Horse' of Asia". CNBC. 17 November 2011. Archived from the original on 2013-05-23.
  6. ^ a b Tikhomirov, Vladimir (22 May 2012). "Putin names a technocrat Cabinet". Equity. Retrieved 28 March 2013.
  7. ^ Jussila, Osmo; Hentilä, Seppo; Nevakivi, Jukka (1999). From Grand Duchy to a Modern State: A Political History of Finland Since 1809. C. Hurst & Co (Publishers) Ltd.
  8. ^ "About". The Dark Horse Report. Archived from the original on 20 August 2018. Retrieved 18 February 2016.
  9. ^ a b Gauja, Anika (2017). Party Reform: The Causes, Challenges, and Consequences of Organizational Change. Oxford University Press. p. 184. ISBN 978-0-19-871716-4.
  10. ^ "Peru election: Socialist Pedro Castillo claims victory ahead of official result". The Guardian. 16 June 2021.
  11. ^ "Profiles: Iran's presidential candidates". Al Jazeera. 11 June 2011. Retrieved 16 June 2013.
  12. ^ Whitaker, Andrew (15 July 2015). "Andrew Whitaker: Don't rule out Labour dark horse". scotsman.com. Retrieved 14 September 2015.
  13. ^ "Celebrations as Jeremy Corbyn elected Labour leader with landslide win". Green Left Weekly. 13 September 2015. Retrieved 14 September 2015.
  14. ^ "Juan Guaidó, el desconocido que ahora toda Venezuela sabe quién es". La Nación, Grupo Nación (in Spanish). 23 January 2019. Retrieved 2020-12-26.
  15. ^ Herrero, Ana Vanessa; Casey, Nicholas (2019-01-22). "How Juan Guaidó Rose From Being Virtually Unknown to Lead Venezuela's Opposition (Published 2019)". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved 2020-12-26.
  16. ^ Krygier, Rachelle; Sheridan, Mary Beth; Gearan, Anne. "The accidental leader: How Juan Guaidó became the face of Venezuela's uprising". Washington Post. ISSN 0190-8286. Retrieved 2020-12-26.
  17. ^ Wemaëre, Alcyone (4 April 2019). "Ekrem Imamoglu: From opposition underdog to Istanbul mayor". France24. Retrieved 21 December 2022.
  18. ^ Staff, S. I. (29 June 2018), Croatia has a real shot at winning the World Cup, retrieved 2021-07-04
  19. ^ Holiga, Aleksandar. "Is Croatia Emerging as a World Cup Dark Horse?". Bleacher Report. Retrieved 2021-07-04.