The Meaning of Dark Horse: What It Is and How To Use It

Have you ever wondered about the definition of dark horse? This article will provide you with all of the info you need on the word dark horse, including its definition, etymology, usage, example sentences, and more!

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What does the term dark horse mean?

According to Merriam-Webster, Collins English Dictionary, and the American Heritage Unabridged Dictionary of the English Language, the term dark horse is a noun and idiomatic expression that refers to a little known or unknown contender that against all odds comes through to triumph over the frontrunners. This is often used in political nominations for a senator, president, mayor, or any other such seat. Stories usually say that the competitor wins on talent and not popularity in these cases. 

Many different presidents have come out of obscurity to be dark horse candidates throughout American History such as Abraham Lincoln, Jimmy Carter, and Barack Obama. This can happen for a Democratic nominee in the Democratic party or a Republican nomination at the national convention. UK candidates can also have dark horse status. There are many more examples of dark horses that just an American presidential dark horse.

What is the origin of the word dark horse?

According to Dictionary, this metaphoric expression was originally used in Benjamin Disraeli’s novel entitled The Young Duke, published in 1831. In the novel, this earliest recorded use alluded to an unknown horse winning a race – a real dark horse. Some people also think this could come from a racehorse owner dying a horse’s hair to disguise it and to get better odds. It could also refer to the practice of a particular American horse trader who made his fast black stallion look just like an ordinary saddle horse. He then rode into town, set up a race, and came out in first place. Soon after, it began being used for political candidates, the first of whom was James Polk who won the 1844 Democratic Presidential nomination on the eighth ballot and later went on to win the election. This nineteenth century metaphor first used in the late 1840s has risen to popularity to discuss unlikely nominations with interesting qualities throughout the years.  While this term is not of precise origin, it is interesting to postulate! We do know that the ancestry of this term dates to the 19th century.

How can the term dark horse be used in a sentence?

The term dark horse can be used in many different ways in British English and American English – and not only to refer to a horse’s hair! Using words in a sentence is a great way to memorize their definitions. You can also try creating flashcards or a quiz for yourself in order to test your knowledge of the definitions of different words. Try using this new word of the day in a sentence today! Below are a few different examples of the term dark horse to help get you started with using this new term.

Bryan was a dark horse candidate for the senate seat, but his achievement in the democratic nomination was inspiring for future successful entrants.

The dark horse of the international tennis circuit was Clare Cheri from Australia. She beat out the frontrunner Angela in the first round in her dark red outfit and went on to win the whole tournament.

Nobody saw the dark horse Christine Ammer coming. She had beautiful sculptures of a piano and such artistic talent was evident. She beat out the frontrunner William Randolph.

What are synonyms and antonyms of dark horse?

There are numerous different words and phrases that someone could choose to use in place of the term dark horse. These are called synonyms, which are words that have the same definition as other words. Learning synonyms for different words is a great way to expand your vocabulary in a quick and easy way. Learning synonyms can also help you avoid repeating yourself. This list of synonyms of the term dark horse is provided by Power Thesaurus.

  •  sleeper
  •  oppositionists
  •  person who gets the nomination unexpectedly
  •  unexpectedly nominated candidate
  •  person who has unexpected abilities
  •  political candidate who is not well known
  •  dark-horse
  •  stalking horse
  •  poor possibility
  •  candidate who is nominated unexpectedly
  •  dark house
  •  underdogs
  •  contender
  •  candidate who is unexpectedly elected
  •  unexpected success
  •  small chance
  •  person who reveals little about himself
  •  brash newcomer
  •  unexpected winner in a horse race
  •  long shot
  •  poor bet
  •  hopeful
  •  candidate
  •  poor lookout
  •  unknown
  •  gray man
  •  unexpected winner
  •  little opportunity
  •  unknown quantity
  •  candidate who is unexpectedly nominated
  •  person who keeps his ideas secret
  •  almost unknown contestant
  •  applicant
  •  person who keeps his interests secret
  •  poor prospect
  •  person who has unexpected talents
  •  seeker
  •  longshot
  •  aspirant
  •  hole card
  •  bottom dog
  •  little guy
  •  entrant
  •  joker in the pack
  •  improbability
  •  also-ran
  •  underdog
  •  favorite son
  •  wild card
  •  little chance
  •  david

There are also many different words and phrases that have the opposite meaning of the term dark horse. These are known as antonyms, and learning antonyms is also a great, quick and easy way to expand your vocabulary. This list of antonyms is also provided by Power Thesaurus.

  •  favorite
  •  doer
  •  high achiever
  •  established candidates
  •  go-getter
  •  commander
  •  winner
  •  favoured
  •  best in class
  •  succeeder
  •  pacemaker
  •  odds-on
  •  forefront
  •  leader
  •  pioneer
  •  bookmark
  •  number one
  •  champion
  •  love
  •  pet
  •  conqueror
  •  shoo-in
  •  champ
  •  blue-eyed boy
  •  fave
  •  lead
  •  facilitated
  •  darling
  •  leading
  •  pick
  •  alpha
  •  victor
  •  preferred
  •  probable winner
  •  high-flier
  •  pacesetter
  •  idol
  •  choice
  •  paramour
  •  success story
  •  prime candidate
  •  favored
  •  finalist
  •  frontrunner
  •  avant-garde
  •  front-runner
  •  favourite
  •  self-starter
  •  leadership
  •  pioneering
  •  achiever
  •  toe-cap

Overall, the phrase dark horse means an unexpected potential winner. This horse-racing slang is used on both sides of the Atlantic.


  1. Dark Horse synonyms – 134 Words and Phrases for Dark Horse | Power Thesaurus 
  2. Dark Horse antonyms – 46 Opposites of Dark Horse | Power Thesaurus 
  3. Dark Horse | Definition of Dark Horse | Merriam-Webster 
  4. Dark horse Definition & Meaning | Dictionary