Greatest Racehorses of All Time
Winston Churchill once remarked that the outside of a horse is good for the inside of a man. At its best, horse racing embodies that spirit, with four-legged athletes streaking across the track and leaving thousands of two-legged spectators in awe.
Of course, like any competition based on speed, some horses are faster than others. The fastest win lots of races, make lots of money and become world-famous.
These are the top thoroughbreds of all time, and they brought out the best of what horse racing has to offer.
Born: Feb. 21, 1975
Died: Jan. 12, 2001
Career record: 29 starts, 22 wins
Bottom Line: Affirmed
Affirmed became racing’s 11th Triple Crown winner in 1978.
In doing so, he repelled several challenges from longtime rival Alydar, who ran second in the Kentucky Derby, Preakness, and Belmont Stakes.
Affirmed may have been even better as a 4-year-old in 1979, when he won the last seven starts of his career (including six Grade 1 races).
Born: Feb. 2, 2012
Career record: 11 starts, 9 wins
Bottom Line: American Pharoah
After Affirmed’s Triple Crown sweep in 1978, it took nearly 40 years for another horse to accomplish the trifecta and win the Kentucky Derby, Preakness Stakes and Belmont Stakes.
That thoroughbred was American Pharoah, who achieved the feat in 2015 while in the care of Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert.
The horse retired in style later that year after cruising to victory in the Breeders’ Cup Classic.
Born: April 11, 2013
Career record: 11 starts, 7 wins
Bottom Line: Arrogate
Arrogate debuted late for a thoroughbred, in April 2016 of his 3-year-old year. But he quickly made up for the lost time.
Just four months after his beginning, he set a new track record in winning the Grade 1 Travers Stakes at Saratoga, which was the first of four straight Grade 1 wins for him.
This stretch included wins in the world’s three richest dirt races and ended with a last-to-first rally in the 2017 Dubai World Cup.
Born: Aug. 18, 2006
Career record: 25 starts, 25 wins
Bottom Line: Black Caviar
Black Caviar is regarded as one of the best horses in Australian racing history. She was never beaten in 25 career starts.
Her legend was cemented when her connections shipped her to historic Royal Ascot for the 2012 Diamond Jubilee. Despite dealing with a trip of more than 11,000 miles and suffering several injuries during the race, Black Caviar got her nose down over a top-class group of sprinters.
Upon the unbeaten Australian mare's retirement, her trainer Peter Moody admitted that the super sprinter "has done everything we asked her to do."
Born: Feb. 18, 2011
Career record: 27 starts, 16 wins
Bottom Line: California Chrome
California Chrome was racing’s ultimate "rags to riches" story. He had a modest pedigree, with connections unknown to all but the most hardcore racing fans.
The California-bred horse burst onto the scene with wins in the 2014 Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes.
His campaign earned him Horse of the Year honors, and he won that trophy for a second time in 2016.
Born: April 18, 1990
Died: Oct. 7, 2014
Career record: 33 starts, 19 wins
Bottom Line: Cigar
Much of the first half of Cigar’s career was unremarkable, winning just two of his first 12 starts.
But beginning in late 1994, the Bill Mott trainee went on one of the most dominant runs in the history of horse racing.
He won 16 consecutive races, including the 1995 Breeders’ Cup Classic, and earned Horse of the Year in both 1995 and 1996.
Born: April 11, 1945
Died: Aug. 8, 1970
Career record: 45 starts, 32 wins
Bottom Line: Citation
Calumet Farm was one of the most successful owners of the 1940s, and they capped off the decade by putting their silks atop Citation.
He won the Triple Crown in 1948 and set an American record by winning 16 consecutive races.
In 1951, Citation became the first thoroughbred ever to record more than $1 million in career earnings when he won that year’s Hollywood Gold Cup.
Born: March 25, 2004
Career record: 16 starts, 11 wins
Bottom Line: Curlin
Up until Justify in 2018 (more on him later), no 3-year-old since Apollo in 1882 had won the Kentucky Derby without at least one start as a 2-year-old.
Many thought Curlin had a chance to break the famed Apollo Curse in 2007.
He settled for third that day, but wound up earning a pair of Horse of the Year titles in 2007 and 2008 after wins in the Preakness Stakes, Breeders’ Cup Classic, and Dubai World Cup (among other Grade 1 events).
Born: April 30, 1970
Died: Aug. 27, 1997
Career record: 57 starts, 34 wins
Bottom Line: Forego
Secretariat is the best-known foal of 1970, but Forego’s trophy case may be just as distinguished.
The late-running gelding won Horse of the Year honors for three years in a row (1974 through 1976) and won a total of eight Eclipse Awards (given to the top horses in each division).
He won races ranging in distance from seven furlongs to two miles, and he was inducted into racing’s Hall of Fame in 1979.
Born: Feb. 11, 2008
Career record: 14 starts, 14 wins
Earnings: £2,998,302 ($3,974,840)
Bottom Line: Frankel
Named for Hall of Fame trainer Bobby Frankel, this son of Galileo is considered one of the best horses in European racing history.
He was never defeated in 14 career starts, and Timeform (which ranks horses in that part of the world) made Frankel its highest-rated thoroughbred ever.
When he crossed under the wire in the 2012 Champion Stakes, which doubled as his final career start, the track announcer summed it up brilliantly: "All grounds, all comers, all beaten."
Born: April 6, 2000
Career record: 11 starts, 9 wins
Bottom Line: Ghostzapper
When Ghostzapper emerged from Bobby Frankel’s barn in the early 2000s, many thought he was a sprinter. He proved to be a good one, winning the Grade 1 Vosburgh at Belmont Park.
But Frankel stretched him out in 2004. The result was a tour de force performance in that year’s Breeders’ Cup Classic, where he set a track record for the race’s 1 1/2-mile distance.
"I told everyone, 'This was the best horse I ever trained,' " Frankel once said.
Born: March 28, 2015
Career record: 6 starts, 6 wins
Bottom Line: Justify
Remember the Apollo Curse mentioned when we talked about Curlin? Justify took things several steps further in 2018.
Not only did he go from being an unraced 3-year-old to a Kentucky Derby winner in less than four months, but he went on to become horse racing’s 13th Triple Crown winner.
Justify was retired shortly after the Belmont, and we never got to see him run against older horses. We may never see such a rapid ascent to the top of the sport again.
Born: April 4, 1957
Died: Oct. 16, 1983
Career record: 63 starts, 39 wins
Bottom Line: Kelso
A racing stalwart in the early-to-mid 1960s, Kelso set a career earnings record that stood for more than a decade (until Affirmed eclipsed the mark in the late 1970s).
A sizable portion of the total came in five renewals of New York’s then-flagship race, the Jockey Club Gold Cup.
Kelso won that race every year from 1960 through 1964, each time capping off a Horse of the Year campaign.
Man o' War
Born: March 29, 1917
Died: Nov. 1, 1947
Career record: 21 starts, 20 wins
Bottom Line: Man o' War
Man o' War raced a century ago, yet is still regarded as one of the most accomplished thoroughbreds of all time.
He won some of the biggest races of his era, including two-thirds of the 1920 Triple Crown (he did not contest the Kentucky Derby), and that year’s Jockey Club Gold Cup.
His lone defeat, at the hands of Upset in the 1919 Sanford Stakes, helped establish Saratoga’s reputation as a "Graveyard of Champions."
Born: Jan. 29, 2006
Career record: 19 starts, 13 wins
Bottom Line: Rachel Alexandra
Rachel Alexandra fashioned one of the best campaigns ever by a 3-year-old filly in 2009.
After winning the Kentucky Oaks by more than 20 lengths, she was sold and transferred to trainer Steve Asmussen, who guided her to wins in the Preakness, the Mother Goose, the Haskell, and the Woodward Stakes.
The Woodward came against older males, and despite being forced to set a blistering pace, the younger filly defeated her male elders in one of the greatest performances in Saratoga history.
Born: April 17, 1972
Died: July 7, 1975
Career record: 11 starts, 10 wins
Bottom Line: Ruffian
This one hurts. Ruffian may have been the best female racehorse of all time.
She eclipsed stakes-record times in all eight of her stakes victories, which came at distances ranging from 5 1/2 furlongs to 1 1/2 miles.
Everything came to an unfortunate end in the summer of 1975, when she suffered fatal injuries in a match race against Foolish Pleasure, that year’s Kentucky Derby winner.
Born: Feb. 15, 1974
Died: May 7, 2002
Career record: 17 starts, 14 wins
Bottom Line: Seattle Slew
Seattle Slew became racing’s 10th Triple Crown winner in 1977.
In doing so, he became the first horse to capture the Kentucky Derby, Preakness, and Belmont without a single loss on his ledger (and remains one of only two thoroughbreds to do so, along with Justify).
Seattle Slew went on to a stellar 1978 campaign that included wins in the Marlboro Cup and Woodward Stakes.
He entered racing’s Hall of Fame in 1981.
Born: March 30, 1970
Died: Oct. 4, 1989
Career record: 21 starts, 16 wins
Bottom Line: Secretariat
There are many different angles we can take to dissect Secretariat’s historical significance.
He won Horse of the Year honors twice.
He ran each quarter-mile of the Kentucky Derby faster than the one before it.
He went from last to first in a sixteenth of a mile in the Preakness Stakes.
And then he won the Belmont by 31 lengths in a track-record time that has yet to be threatened.
At any rate, any list of top horses of all time that doesn’t have Secretariat on it is an incomplete list.
Born: Feb. 17, 1976
Died: June 9, 2003
Career record: 30 starts, 26 wins
Bottom Line: Spectacular Bid
Trainer Bud Delp remarked that he thought Spectacular Bid was the best horse to ever look through a bridle. That’s incredibly high praise, but if Delp was off, it wasn’t by much.
Spectacular Bid won two-thirds of the 1979 Triple Crown, and many feel a poor ride by an inexperienced jockey cost him that year’s Belmont Stakes.
As a 4-year-old, Spectacular Bid won all nine of his races, including a rare walkover against zero opponents in the 1980 Woodward Stakes.
Born: March 25, 1986
Died: Aug. 19, 2002
Career record: 14 starts, 9 wins
Bottom Line: Sunday Silence
Sunday Silence was part of one of the biggest rivalries in horse racing history.
In 1989, he locked up with Easy Goer four times. While Easy Goer thumped him in the Belmont Stakes, Sunday Silence got the better of him in the Kentucky Derby, Preakness, and Breeders’ Cup Classic, which ultimately earned him that year’s Horse of the Year trophy.
To this day, racing fans debate which horse was better.
Born: March 12, 1997
Career record: 15 starts, 8 wins
Bottom Line: Tiznow
Since 1984, the Breeders’ Cup Classic has acted as horse racing’s season finale of sorts. Only one horse has won the race twice. That’s Tiznow, who pulled it off in 2000 and 2001.
On both occasions, he fended off highly regarded European imports.
The 2001 renewal at New York’s Belmont Park took place mere weeks after the 9/11 attacks, and that Classic saw him edge Sakhee, with track announcer Tom Durkin punctuating the call with the phrase, "Tiznow wins it for America!"
Born: April 2, 1938
Died: April 6, 1953
Career Record: 60 starts, 32 wins
Bottom Line: Whirlaway
Whirlaway was an incredibly talented horse that swept the 1941 Triple Crown, and to this day, he’s the only Triple Crown winner to also annex Saratoga’s Travers Stakes.
However, he was also known for his quirks, and it took masterful work by trainer Ben Jones to have him ready to run. Most notably, Jones put himself on horseback 10 feet from the rail for Whirlaway’s final workout prior to the Kentucky Derby and instructed jockey Eddie Arcaro to ride the horse through the opening.
The jockey followed his orders, and Whirlaway wound up winning the Derby by eight lengths.
Born: Sept. 14, 2011
Career record: 41starts, 35 wins (still active)
Earnings: A$22,934,924 ($16,208,427)
Bottom Line: Winx
Australian superstar Winx picked up where Black Caviar left off.
Winx lost several races near the start of her career but has emerged as an unstoppable force over the past few years, winning 31 consecutive races (as of this writing).
This record includes four consecutive renewals of the Cox Plate (one of the continent’s biggest races), which she has won every year since 2015.
Born: Feb. 20, 2007
Career record: 31 starts, 23 wins
Bottom Line: Wise Dan
A fiery gelding with an affinity for turf, Wise Dan won back-to-back renewals of the Breeders’ Cup Mile in 2012 and 2013.
He was named Horse of the Year following both campaigns, and a stakes race at Churchill Downs already bears his name.
Additionally, Hall of Fame jockey John Velazquez has said he considers Wise Dan to be the best horse he’s ever ridden.
Born: April 1, 2004
Career record: 20 starts, 19 wins
Bottom Line: Zenyatta
Zenyatta is one of the most popular horses of all time, and for good reason. She won the first 19 starts of her career, a stretch that included a heart-stopping victory in the 2009 Breeders’ Cup Classic.
While a perfect ending was denied by a narrow defeat in the 2010 Classic, a statue at Santa Anita Park bears her likeness, and she earned a spot in racing’s Hall of Fame in 2016.
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