Where does the phrase “an also ran” come from and What does “also ran” mean?

The phrase “an also ran” means: A loser in a contest; hence, an unsuccessful or insignificant person; a failure.

The term originated on the American turf, applied to any horse failing to take a place among the winners or to a jockey riding such a horse.

In political circles the term is applied to any unsuccessful candidate for office.

The earliest literary example of the political use appears to have been in a headline in the Cincinnati Enquirer of February 6, 1904, which read: “George B. Cox, He Heads the List of Also Rans.”

Now, George B. Cox, saloonkeeper, was long the notorious political boss of Cincinnati; he determined who should be candidates for office, but never ran for any office himself.

And there were no candidates for any office in February of 1904. So we wrote to the Enquirer for an explanation. Here is the answer to our query, printed in the issue of April 8, 1954:

On the above date under a heading: “Hoodoo Of the Race Horse” “Having A Horse Named After You Is Bad Luck.” The Enquirer reprinted a New York Sun story about a horse that had been named “George B. Cox” after the famous boss of Cincinnati, evidently without his knowledge or consent. Early in its career the horse had won a number of races and had captured the fancy of horse-players, especially Cincinnatians, and every time the horse went to post the home folks bet heavily on him. But they over-raced the old plater and he couldn’t win a race.

Finally the notoriety that resulted from the continual losses of the horse became so derisive (as) to arouse the newspapers opposed to Boss Cox, and they seized on every loss during an election period to manufacture opprobrious slogans calling attention each time to such loss in page one headlines; while covering the election of Cox’s candidates under a small head somewhere in the middle of the paper.

At what should have been the peak of its career, however, the horse disappeared from the tracks, but writers of the period reported a ringer as having been seen on several tracks in Ohio. Boss Cox had tried to get the owner of the horse to change its name.

Whether he had succeeded or not was mere conjecture.