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What Is a Dark Horse?

By Bethney Foster
Updated May 17, 2024
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There are two common uses of the idiom “dark horse” that might be the meaning when the phrase is used in modern English. Both meanings refer to a competitor and are similar, though slightly different. The phrase is commonly used, with both meanings, to describe an opponent, especially in a political race, when it is uncertain how the opponent will perform.

The first and most common meaning is to describe an opponent who is a mystery. The person is not well known, and the person's abilities, or lack of abilities, cannot be judged. In politics, this use of the term might describe a candidate who has little name recognition at the beginning of a race but who rises to prominence and wins the election.

Although mystery is at the root of the first meaning, the second use of dark horse describes someone who is known, but what is known about him or her indicates that he or she is unlikely to win. To use another common idiom, this use of the phrase dark horse is similar to the phrase underdog. In this sense, it is also sometimes used to describe a racehorse that is entered as a long shot but wins unexpectedly.

The use of the term to describe a competitor in a horse race is believed to be at the origin of the phrase. The dark horse at a racetrack was a horse that was not known. As its abilities and likeliness to win, as well as its history, were a mystery, there was no reasonable way to place odds on the dark horse. The earliest known usage of the phrase dates to 1831 with its figurative use, especially in elections, being found as early as the 1860s.

James K. Polk, the 11th president of the United States, is often referred to as the dark horse president. This is because Polk did not seem like a promising candidate and was not known to most Americans at the time of his nomination. He didn’t even get his party’s nomination until the eighth ballot was taken. The opposing party used the slogan “Who is James K. Polk?” to play up his lack of name recognition. He defeated Henry Clay and won the presidency in 1844.

As with many common sayings, the term dark horse has lent itself to use in music and literature. A 1974 album by George Harrison and a 2008 album by Nickelback are titled Dark Horse. Many films, songs, and other albums also use the saying as their titles.

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Discussion Comments
By Kristee — On Jul 28, 2012

I don't think that a politician being known as a dark horse is necessarily a good thing. People generally want to know everything about someone before voting for them, and though it may work sometimes, I think that transparent politicians are the best kind.

There could always be skeletons lurking in the closet of a dark horse politician. I always expect them to come out before the election, and the closer it gets, the more I anticipate this.

I am very surprised if nothing surfaces and the candidate remains mysterious. I am even more surprised if they win the election.

By feasting — On Jul 27, 2012

I became known as the dark horse of the studio where I worked as a session musician and backup singer. People who paid us to record their music there were often impressed by my musical abilities, so I got the nickname “Dark Horse” from my coworkers.

The name stuck so well that they caught themselves telling their clients that they would get Dark Horse to come in and sing and play piano on their tracks. People were usually a bit put off by my name, and I think that they expected someone covered in tattoos and piercings to walk in, because they always commented on how I didn't look like what they had expected.

It was a bit sad to always be the mysterious person in the background. However, it was a bit flattering at the same time.

By wavy58 — On Jul 26, 2012

I think that “Dark Horse” as an album title is a bit overdone. Seriously, if more than one person uses it, then it tends to get old.

I just dislike the phrase in general. I have heard it used on so many reality competition shows on television that it has lost its punch. If they keep referring to so many different competitors as dark horses, then no one is really it anymore.

This phrase is just too cliché for me. I think that people need to find more creative ways to refer to the mysterious and unknown. Mysteries deserve better than an overused phrase.

By lighth0se33 — On Jul 25, 2012

I have heard so many “dark horse” lyrics in songs throughout the years, and each time, I wondered what the phrase meant. I get what they were referring to now, though I'm still a little fuzzy on the origin of the phrase.

So, gamblers called the mysterious horse the “dark horse.” Does anyone else ever wonder why? Was the horse always actually black, or was this just a way of making it seem ominous?

To me, “dark” means “scary.” I don't find anything scary about black horses, and I wonder if maybe other people did, and that's why they started this phrase. People are often intrigued by scary things, and they often find them mysterious.

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