Q: Why do people say “I don’t have a dog in this race” when the word should be “fight,” not “race”?
A: Those people may be conflating two figurative expressions that mean the same thing: “I don’t have a horse in this race” and “I don’t have a dog in this fight” (“this” is often replaced by “that” or “the.”)
Those two expressions, as well as “I don’t have a dog in the hunt” and “I don’t have skin in the game,” mean the speaker doesn’t have a personal interest or stake in the outcome of the matter.
However, it’s possible that some of the people who say “I don’t have a dog in this race” may be referring figuratively to dog racing.
Despite the folksy, old-time sound of these metaphorical expressions, all of them are relatively new. They didn’t show up in writing until the second half of the 20th century, according to our searches of various databases. (A variation of the “dogfight” expression appeared in the early 1900s.)
We could find only one of these expressions in our language reference sources. The Oxford English Dictionary says “to have (one’s) skin in the game and variants” originated as a colloquial North American business usage.
The OED defines the expression as “to have a stake in the success of something, esp. to have a financial or personal investment in a business; to be closely involved in something.”
“It is not clear,” the dictionary adds, “whether the metaphor underlying this phrase is to do with putting oneself at risk … or with risking one’s money.” Both possibilities, Oxford says, have been suggested. (The word “skin,” as the dictionary explains elsewhere, can refer to one’s identity as well as one’s money.)
The earliest Oxford example for the usage is from the March 1976 issue of Infosystems: “I suggest that the various groups of participants should consider that they do not have any skin in the game.”
The latest OED example refers to an orchestra’s financial contribution to the performance of a piece of music commissioned by a patron: “We’ll pay for the commission, but we want the orchestra to have some skin in the game” (from the Jan. 23, 2005, issue of the New York Times).
The oldest “dog hunt” example we’ve seen is from an Aug. 10, 1988, op-ed column in the State Journal-Register (Springfield, IL) about the opposition of a state official, Jim Edgar, to a constitutional convention:
“That’s one reason Edgar has gone public on the constitutional reform issue, even though the conventional wisdom would be that he doesn’t have a dog in the hunt—that he doesn’t need to run the risk of making unnecessary enemies.”
The earliest “dogfight” example we’ve found is a comment by Vice President George H. W. Bush about financial questions concerning Geraldine Ferraro, the 1984 Democratic candidate for vice president, and her husband, John Zaccaro:
“I don’t have a dog in that fight” (from an Aug. 20, 1984, report on the United Press International newswire).
However, we’ve found a much earlier variation on the “dogfight” theme in the Aug. 28, 1919, issue of the Philadelphia Inquirer, which quotes a school official about the awarding of building contracts:
“ ‘I sympathize with the union men,’ he said, ‘but there is another dog in this fight—the non-union man—and we must consider him.’ ”
The oldest “horserace” example we’ve seen is a comment by Marlin Fitzwater, the White House press secretary for President George H. W. Bush, on the choice of David Duke, a former Ku Klux Klan leader, as the Republican candidate for governor of Louisiana:
“Basically, we don’t have a horse in that race” (from the Oct. 22, 1991, issue of the Houston Chronicle).
We found an earlier variation on the “horserace” usage in a Feb. 13, 1983, UPI report on the views of Democratic officials around the country about the 1984 Democratic National Convention:
“The highlight in Des Moines was a private luncheon with key state Democrats including former Iowa governor and senator, Harold Hughes, who still hasn’t picked his horse in the race.”
Finally, the earliest example we’ve come across for the “dog race” expression is from an article in the March 6, 1986, Seattle Times about plans to build new naval bases around the country:
“Rep. David Martin, R-N.Y., also defended the home-porting plan. While one big base is to be built at Staten Island, N.Y., Martin noted his district is 300 miles from there. ‘I don’t have a dog in this race,’ he said.”