Top 10 Race Horses
June 10, 2015
American Pharoah excited everyone with his impressive win at the Belmont Stakes, becoming the first winner of horse racing’s Triple Crown in 37 years. His finish was the 6th fastest time ever in the race, which begs the question: how great of a horse is he? I don’t want to take anything away from the accomplishment because it is truly an impressive feat. For a horse, the Preakness is essentially a sprint and the Belmont, a long distance race, so to be able to win both in the span of a few weeks against specialist competition is an incredible accomplishment. Making it even more daunting is that the jockey can be just as much a factor as the horse, especially negatively. There have been many great horses who failed to win one of the legs because of jockey mismanagement or miscalculation. So, yes, American Pharoah is a great horse. But does this accomplishment put him in the top 10 all-time?
One of the challenges in ranking horses is that the Triple Crown can only be won by 3-year olds, but a thoroughbred’s career often spans from age 2 through ages 7 or 8. So horses like Kelso, Tom Fool and Cigar who got late starts before they really hit their stride are often unfairly judged because they didn’t show in the Triple Crown races. Those races are clearly important but I’m not going to limit the evaluation to them. So without further ado, let’s take a look at the competition (with the year that they were foaled in parenthesis):
10) Ruffian (1972)
She is the only filly on the list and she didn’t run in any of the Triple Crown races – fillies rarely do – but she never lost a race until her final one. She did however, win the filly equivalent of the Triple Crown (nicknamed the Triple Tiara) and in the process set many track records that still stand. She won each of those races by at least 8 lengths. Her 6 furlong time at Saratoga as a two-year old was one of the fastest ever, besting the times set by immortals Man O’ War and Secretariat. Unfortunately, most people will remember her for her final tragic match race against Kentucky Derby winner Foolish Pleasure. She was the favorite to win that race and even the jockey of Foolish Pleasure said that he didn’t think he had enough horse to stay with her. She was leading by a length when her gruesome fatal injury occurred. It was a nightmare to watch and since then match races, which often cause horses to over-exert themselves to the point of injury, have been all but banned.
9) Spectacular Bid (1976)
He might have won the Triple Crown if not for stable mismanagement during his Triple Crown run, and jockey error during the Belmont. He already had impressive wins at the Kentucky Derby (nearly 3 lengths) and Preakness (more than 5 lengths) and was preparing for the Belmont when he stepped on a safety pin that became imbedded and later infected. The vet drilled his hoof to help cure the problem and Bid seemed ok enough to race. During the Belmont, his jockey took him out too fast in an effort to match what Secretariat had done in 1973 and it ended up exhausting the horse before the stretch, where he finished 3rd. After a two-month recuperation, however, he proved how great he truly was, setting numerous track records at several distances – he still holds the record for the fastest mile and a quarter ever - and finishing his career with a record of 26 wins, 2 places and one show in 30 starts.
8) Seattle Slew (1974)
He was the only horse to win the Triple Crown undefeated. He is often remembered for his particularly muscular build and for his pre-race “dance” in which he tiptoed onto the track. After his 3-year old season, he twice defeated 1978 Triple Crown winner Affirmed and finished with a career record of 14 wins and 2 places in 17 starts.
7) Native Dancer (1950)
Nicknamed the “Grey Ghost of Sagamore” for his pale color, Dancer won all of his starts as a 2-year old and was the favorite to win the Triple Crown. Unfortunately those dreams ended with a loss at the Kentucky Derby where he was fouled twice and his jockey, as one observer opined, “took him everywhere but the ladies room”. Still, he finished a close second. That would be the last taste of defeat he would experience in his career. He is one of only six horses in history to win the Preakness, the Belmont and the Travers Stakes. In 22 career starts, he finished first 21 times with one second place finish. Twice named as Horse of the Year, he is the grandfather of Ruffian, Affirmed and Alydar.
6) Dr. Fager (1964)
Primarily known only by race aficionados because he did not race in the Triple Crown races, Dr. Fager still owns the fastest mile on dirt in history. He was a tremendous horse that ran on all tracks and all distances. He won 19 of 22 races, finished 2nd twice and 3rd another. He is the only horse to win Horse of the Year, Champion Handicap Horse, Champion Sprinter and Champion Grass Horse in the same year.
5) Phar Lap (1926)
His name means “lightning” in the Thai and Zuang languages. “The Red Terror” as he was nicknamed, was foaled in New Zealand and is certainly Australia’s greatest contribution to horse racing. He is so revered there that his heart, skeleton and body are on display in three separate museums and are among the most visited places in the country. There are some who saw both Man O’ War and Secretariat race who maintain Phar Lap was even faster, although there is little evidence to prove this claim. Adding to his legend is that there has been considerable debate as to whether he was deliberately poisoned with arsenic by gangsters – a massive dose was discovered in forensic testing - to prevent him from winning more North American races after he spent a career whipping all the Australian competition despite handicaps as great as 138 pounds. As a point of reference, typically a three-year old will carry 119 pounds and a 4-year old will carry 124. His early career was inauspicious but he won 32 of his final 35 races.
4) Count Fleet (1940)
Before Secretariat’s epic run at the Belmont, it was Count Fleet’s victory margin of 25 lengths at the same race that was the standard for true greatness. Noted racing expert Andrew Beyer created a statistic called Speed Figure which is a rating for a horse’s performance for a particular race based on the time, distance, the speed of the track and the time of day in which it was raced. Great horses often achieve a rating of 115 whereas an average horse usually achieves a score between 60-80. Secretariat’s Belmont Stakes achieved a rating of 139, which is the highest ever recorded but Beyer’s data only goes back to the 1970s. By some calculations, Beyer estimated that Count Fleet might have achieved scores as high as 150. As a point of reference, American Pharoah’s run at Belmont scored a 105 because of the exceptionally fast surface that day. In 21 career starts, Count Fleet won 16 races, placed 4 times and showed once and never lost as a three-year old. He was retired after that season due to a leg injury but lived to the ripe old age of 33.
3) Citation (1945)
It might be hard to believe today given that horse racing has taken a back seat in the public mind to other sports, but in the late 1940s Citation was as famous a sports figure as anyone in any professional sport. Citation was the first horse to earn more than a million dollars despite missing a year to osselets, an arthritis that affects the front legs of a horse. He is also one of three horses to win 16 consecutive major stakes races. During that run, he defeated other Horse of the Year honorees three times. He won 27 out of 29 starts and finished second in the two he didn’t win. His time at the Belmont matched that of Count Fleet which was the fastest recorded until 1957 and remained second fastest until 1968.
2) Man O War (1917)
The original “Big Red” won 20 of the 21 races he entered and the only one he didn’t win was because of the start. Race gates were not used back then; instead the horses basically milled around behind a rope until the bell sounded. Man O’ War was turned the wrong way when the starting bell sounded and was already two lengths behind from the start. There was also so much traffic that some observers thought that maybe the race was fixed, although no impropriety was ever proven. He finished just a nose behind the winner, a horse named Upset, from which we get the term used for a surprise winner of a contest. At the Kenilworth Park Gold Cup, which was essentially a match race, he defeated Sir Barton, the very first Triple Crown winner, by seven lengths in the first ever horse race captured on film in its entirety. At one point during the race, Man O War was ahead by 15 lengths but his jockey eased him back for the easy victory. One of his more impressive feats was winning the Belmont Stakes, so named for the family that bred him, by 20 lengths back before it was extended to a mile and a half, when the race distance was only a mile and three eights.
Other horses have since beaten his track times so there will be arguments that he might be over-rated. But consider that race tracks are faster now due to improved drainage and technology with synthetic surfaces, and that Man O War’s shoes were made from steel, a material twice as heavy as today’s glued-on aluminum shoes, which became standard in 1935. In one of the great ironies of horse racing history, Man O’ War, who was foaled in Kentucky, never raced in the Kentucky Derby because his owner, Samuel Riddle, felt - as many in the eastern horseracing establishment did - that the state was too far west to offer respectable competition or purses. How times have changed.
1) Secretariat (1970)
Secretariat is the easy choice for most people but he’s not the slam dunk he might seem. He was not undefeated in his career. He finished fourth in his very first race, which was the only time in his career he did not finish in the top three. As a two-year old he finished second in one race because he was disqualified despite finishing two lengths ahead of the rest of the field. His only third place finish came at the Wood Memorial just weeks before the Kentucky Derby, a loss to his Triple Crown rival Sham. However, his sub-par performance has been primarily attributed to a large abscess in his mouth from which he was suffering.
His reputation is firmly cemented in his Triple Crown performances, each one more impressive than the last. He opened slowly in the Kentucky Derby entering the first turn near the rear of the pack. On the back-stretch he made his first move into 6th. As they began the final turn, he moved into 4th and by the time they entered the final stretch he was in first and never relinquished it. When the time keepers broke down his performance they discovered that each of his furlong times were faster than the previous one which means he was still accelerating when the race finished.
In the Preakness, he got off to his usual slow start and at the first turn was in last place. By the time they entered the back stretch, Secretariat was in the lead. He accelerated just that fast and never let go of the lead. Sham tried to challenge him but never got closer than a length and a half.
The Belmont was a departure in that Secretariat and Sham were battling for the lead entering the first turn. By the time they entered the backstretch, they were 10 lengths ahead of the rest of the field. Most observers thought they could not keep up such an insanely fast pace; they were almost four seconds faster through the first mile than the pace set by American Pharoah. Sham, a truly great horse in his own right, would have set track records in the Derby and Preakness had it not been for Secretariat. Until Monarchos accomplished it in 2001, he and Secretariat were the only horses to finish the Kentucky Derby in under two minutes. However, he could not keep up with the tremendous machine that was Big Red, and his jockey eased him up to prevent an injury once he was already 5 lengths behind on the back-stretch. Secretariat’s margin of victory (31 lengths) was so large that the tv camera tried to pan out to keep him in the same frame as the other horses. It could not, ultimately focusing on the star of the day, then swinging back to wait for the rest.
Each of Secretariat’s Triple Crown race times are still the records for that race. His Belmont stakes record (2:24.00) is still 2 full seconds faster than the second best time ever (Easy Goer) and his jockey hand-rode the horse the entire race (which means he could have gone even faster). To put an exclamation point on it, the second place finisher, Twice a Prince, finished the race in 2:28.20, which is the same time that Citation and Count Fleet finished it in and faster than 11 of the 15 most recent winners of the race.
His post-Triple Crown career was not as stellar as some of the other horses on this list, but was still very strong. In total, he started 21 races, won 16 of them, placed in three and showed once. There’s no question that some of his reputation is due to hype but what separates him from other horses is that he not only lived up to the hype in the biggest races, but so far surpassed it with his Belmont performance that it entered into the realm of surrealism and fantasy. Even long time race aficionados were left speechless and wondering if they really saw what they saw. Performances like that are incredibly rare in any arena, much less sports where hype is the rule of the day. It is akin to Babe Ruth hitting five home runs to win Game 7 of the World Series or Michael Jordan scoring 110 points to win the NBA Championship or Rafael Nadal winning the French Open by defeating Novak Djokovic, 6-0, 6-0, 6-0.
Carl Hanford, trainer of the great Kelso, was once asked if he thought Secretariat was a great horse. He replied, “They have to come up with a bigger word for him.” When asked if he thought he was better than his own immortal horse, he stated, “I hate to say it, but I have to: Secretariat is the greatest I’ve ever seen.” Eddie Arcaro, widely considered one of, if not the greatest jockey in the history of the sport, who is the only jockey to ride two Triple Crown winners (Whirlaway and Citation) and who rode Kelso during his peak, rated Secretariat as the best he had ever seen as well. It’s one thing for an unbiased observer to hold that view but when people who have an incentive to be biased against him admit he was better, that reveals how great he really was.
American Pharoah’s performance was undoubtedly stirring, in part because it was a masterful and impressive and partly because it released a national anxiety that people thought they would never see another Triple Crown winner. How we’ll ultimately see this horse will depend on what happens over the next few years but I assume he’ll be considered one of the top 25 or close to it. He’ll join the ranks of other illustrious mounts, like five-time Horse of the Year Kelso, Triple Crown winners Affirmed, War Admiral and Whirlaway, the inspirational Seabiscuit, Affirmed’s famous foil Alydar, the oft-injured but incredible Swaps and the under-appreciated Point Given. Triple Crown winners tend to come in bunches – six came in the span from 1935 to 1948, and another three from 1973 to 1978 – so hopefully we’ll get another opportunity soon to enjoy contemplating their greatness.
Addendum: It has come to my attention that many feel Kelso is deserving of a top 10 rank, perhaps as high as #3. His resume is impressive, no doubt. He didn’t race in any of the Triple Crown events, yet the second half of his three-year old season was so impressive that he was named Horse of the Year anyway. He is the only horse to be named Horse of the Year five times; no other horse has won it more than three times. But here’s the thing and there’s no way of getting around it: the horses he is noted for beating while solid are not really in anyone’s top 25, maybe not even in the top 50. Look at the times recorded at the Triple Crown events during his peak of the early-mid 1960s. None of them were particularly fast. And the few horses that were really good during that span he either didn’t race or didn’t beat. It’s true that he was heavily handicapped quite often but he raced 63 times in his career yet won just 39 and in ten races finished completely out of the money. He was a great horse and certainly worthy to be in a top 10; just not mine.