Over the centuries, the sport of kings has spawned its share of horse slang including DEAD RINGER. The phrase originated in the U.S. during the late 19th century meaning a dishonest substitution of a better horse in a race in an effort to dupe the bookies. The substitute needed to look like the less talented horse in order to successfully pull off the ruse.
DEAD RINGER means “a substitution that seems exactly like something else”. Individually, the words DEAD and RINGER have historically duplicitous meanings in slang.
In the 19th century, the verb “ring” meant to exchange or substitute with deceitful intent. “Ring Castors” was a phrase that described the surreptitiously exchange of beaver pelt hats (popular in the day) called Casters. In 20th century Australia the phrase “ring in the gray or knob” meant to substitute a double-sided penny for a genuine one. Today “ringing a car” is the illegal practice of stealing a vehicle’s ID numbers and applying them to a stolen car to make it appear genuine.
“Dead” has more meanings than the obvious unfortunate one. It also means “exact” or “precise” as in “dead center” or “dead heat”.
DEAD RINGER has been part of our vernacular for several centuries and racing officials have had plenty of time to institutionalized procedures to mitigate temptation. It certainly seems DEAD RINGER is a phrase from by-gone-days but that isn’t actually the case. Just last year a DEAD RINGER won a race in the UK.
Mandarin Princess won a race at the Yarmouth Racecourse at 50/1 shocking everyone at the track. A subsequent investigation found that the horse that won was actually Millie’s Kiss, a similar looking stablemate. In a rush to get to the starting gate on time, the trainer did not notice that his groom had tacked up the wrong horse. It was determined that the switch was an honest mistake but the win stood as recorded as did the winnings of anyone lucky enough to have placed a bet on those odds.