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The term began as horse racing parlance for a race horse that is not known to gamblers and thus is difficult to place betting odds on.
The earliest-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."
In the political arena
Politically, the concept came to America 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 as a result of the presidential election.
- Franklin Pierce, chosen as the Democratic nominee and later elected the fourteenth president in 1852.
- Abraham Lincoln, chosen as the Republican nominee and elected as the sixteenth president in 1860.
- Rutherford B. Hayes, elected the nineteenth president in 1876.
- James A. Garfield, elected the twentieth president in 1880.
- Warren G. Harding, elected the twenty-ninth president in 1920 after his surprise nomination.
- Jimmy Carter, elected the thirty-ninth president in 1976; in the beginning of that same year, Carter was relatively unknown outside his home state of Georgia.
- Barack Obama, elected the forty-fourth president in 2008; Obama had just come to prominence in 2004 with his speech at the Democratic Party convention. He was first elected as a senator for the state of Illinois.
Outside of the United States, the dark horse status also attributed to Alberto Fujimori, who rose to the Presidency in Peru. In Nigeria, Goodluck Jonathan can be referred as a dark horse, as he is not only the first president from the historically marginalized Niger-Delta region, but he rose through three political offices (from Deputy Governor of Bayelsa State to Governor, from Governor to Vice-President, and from Vice-President to President) through unusual circumstances.
Several government ministers, who were appointed to the third cabinet of Russian prime minister Dimitri Medvedev on 21 May 2012, were also described as "dark horses" due to lacking experience, for instance, Olga Golodets, Vladimir Medinsky and Alexander Novak. Some of the candidates for the presidency of Iran in 2013 were labelled as dark horse, including Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf, Mohsen Rezai, Mostafa Pourmohammadi, Mohammad Saeedikia and Mohammad Gharazi. In the United Kingdom, Jeremy Corbyn, who won the 2015 Labour Party leadership election despite struggling to secure enough nominations from the Parliamentary Labour Party to stand as a candidate, has also been described as a dark horse.
Use in music, television, and film
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 to release both an album and a song named "Dark Horse."
The first episode of the second season of Frisky Dingo is called "Behold a Dark Horse."
'Dark horse' is the name of a song recorded by American metalcore band The Ghost Inside.
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- "Origins of Sayings - A Dark Horse". Trivia Library.
- "Who Will Be Iran's Next President?". Radio Free Liberty. 6 January 2013. Retrieved 19 April 2013.
- "Invest in Philippines, the 'Dark Horse' of Asia". CNBC. 17 November 2011.
- Tikhomirov, Vladimir (22 May 2012). "Putin names a technocrat Cabinet". Equity. Retrieved 28 March 2013.
- "Profiles: Iran's presidential candidates". Al Jazeera. 11 June 2011. Retrieved 16 June 2013.
- Whitaker, Andrew (15 July 2015). "Andrew Whitaker: Don’t rule out Labour dark horse". scotsman.com. Retrieved 14 September 2015.
- "Celebrations as Jeremy Corbyn elected Labour leader with landslide win". Green Left Weekly. 13 September 2015. Retrieved 14 September 2015.
- "Nickelback Discography, official band website.