The metaphor is not accidental. 'Career' derives from the French carriere, the word for a racecourse (it comes originally from the Late Latin carraria, which means 'carriage road'). The word fairly quickly comes to have a larger sense as 'the course over which any person or thing passes' but its early meanings are principally equine.
As well as describing the course itself it is also used to describe a short gallop at full speed, a meaning which probably comes from its use in jousting (to 'pass a career' is to make a charge in a tournament). Imagine half a ton of armoured horse-flesh kicking up the dirt as it thunders towards you and you can see why it isn't a good idea to get in the way of somebody who is 'in full career'.
It is striking, incidentally, how horsy our language is when it comes to notions of power and control: to be unseated, to be in the saddle, to hold the reins, to give someone his head, to go full tilt - in different ways all these phrases preserve the idea that the governance of a horse is a model of authority.
The associations of headlong motion and brevity survive in the word 'career' for some time, even when the element of combat has been removed. The 1751 Chambers Cyclopaedia notes that as well as describing the track, the word can be used 'for the race, or the course of the horse itself, provided it do not exceed two hundred paces'. Coleridge writes of the 'mad careering of the storm' to describe violent changes of wind direction.
Such meanings could hardly be further from the sense the word has when applied to a working career. Instead of a burst of unsustainable energy2 you have the idea of patient application, a calculated steady progress along a well-marked route. The first citation the Oxford English Dictionary offers for 'career' is from Wellington in 1803, though it's a fair bet that it had been current for some time before he used it.
The word has a rather institutional flavour at first, being associated with formal hierarchies and professions - a 'career diplomat', then as now, was one who had worked his way up by the book. It is associated with those who have the privilege of predicting the course of their lives with some degree of assurance - they know their station all the way along the line.
These days many more people can have careers, even in the absence of any obvious career structure. Actors and footballers both have careers, an idea that would have been far-fetched in the 19th century. Plumbers3 and newspaper vendors, on the other hand, still cannot have careers, which tells you something about the class prejudices of the word.
That said, if either of them expanded their businesses sufficiently they would almost certainly be retrospectively awarded a 'career' as a businessman. 'Malcolm Dignall's distinguished career as Britain's leading media distributor began on the corner of Charing Cross Road', the profiles would read. Indeed, of all careers, that of 'businessman' is most broad-minded about what can be included as part of the curriculum vitae.
As long as you arrive at the winning-post it is generally assumed that that's where you intended to go in the first place and irregularities on the way won't matter. Sir Ralph Halpern's career leapt over the hurdles of kiss-and-tell with hardly a falter.
Politics, law and the armed forces are sterner about the rules; far more likely to disqualify those who break them. The only consolation then, as Profumo proved with his charity work, is that there is usually another race to run just around the corner.
1 From the Latin stinguere, originally 'to prick' or 'to stick' but usually 'to quench'. Distinguish can also mean 'to punctuate text', so the meaning perhaps derives from some system of marking or setting apart text.
2 From the Greek en, in, inside and ergon, work.
3 From the Latin plumbum, lead. Thus a worker in lead.Reuse content