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
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 adieu, 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
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
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
4) Count Fleet (1940)
Before Secretariat’s epic
run at the
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
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
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.