There is no thrill on earth like that of watching a supreme athlete fly past, defying all odds to claim not only the victory but the hearts and minds of those who watch. Being the best or the greatest is rarely about cold hard statistics; more often than not, greatness is intrinsically linked to these consummate athletes’ tenacious heart and fierce spirit.
15 Best racehorses in history:
- Man O’ War
- Northern Dancer
- Red Rum
- Sea Biscuit
- Bold Ruler
- Seattle Slew
- Phar Lap
- Count Fleet
Naming the top 15 racehorses of all time is quite honestly an impossible task, as demonstrated by the numerous forums debating this topic. Is it the fastest horse, the most influential sire, the most wins, or the horse that captured the hearts of a nation? Regardless of which yardstick you use to measure for greatness, the 15 horses on this list are undoubtedly some of the greatest athletes of times gone past.
Life: 30 March 1970 to 4 October 1989
Secretariat is undoubtedly one of the most famous racehorses ever to have lived. His hope-filled story, against-the-odds ownership, and unparalleled world record-breaking performances ensured Secretariat’s legendary status.
In 1968, Penny Chenery sent two mares, Hasty Matelda and Somethingroyal, to be covered by the Phipps Family’s stallion Bold Ruler. In 1969, Somethingroyal was returned for breeding along with another mare, Cicada; however, Cicada did not take.
Ownership of the subsequent foals was still to be determined by the fickle hand of fate. A coin toss determined ownership of the foals, the winner got the first pick of the 1969 foals, and the loser got the unpicked 1969 foal and the unborn 1970 foal.
Penny Chenery lost the coin toss, but luck was on her side; Somethingroyal’s unborn foal was Secretariat. “Losing” that coin toss was the greatest win of Penny’s life!
Secretariat put on many spectacular performances, the greatest of which was his record-breaking run at Belmont. His decisive wins at the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes set him up as a contender to break the 25yr dry spell of Triple Crown winners.
Secretariat’s record-breaking 31-length victory in the Belmont Stakes obliterated his competition and clinched his victory as the 1973 Triple Crown winner. Secretariat’s performance in the Belmont Stakes left no doubt in anyone’s mind that they had witnessed the finest performance by one of the greatest racehorses ever to live.
Secretariat was inducted into the Racing Hall of Fame in 1974. The legend was euthanized in 1989 at the age of 19yrs after a month-long battle with laminitis.
2. Man O’ War
Life: 29 March 1917 to 1 November 1947
If Man O’ War did not make the list of the best racehorses of all time, then surely the author was drunk when they compiled it! This outstanding stallion proved not only to be an almost unbeatable competitor but also a potent sire.
Bred by the Nursery stud, he was sold as a yearling to Samuel Riddle for the sum of $5,000 (the modern-day equivalent would be approximately $86,000). Samuel’s faith in the yet-unproven colt was well-founded when Man O’ War went on to win 20 of his 21 starts, most of which he led from start to finish.
Man O’ War’s only loss came at the hands of the colt named, Upset; however, Man O’ War clawed back his number 1 position when he left Upset eating dust the following year during his run in the Preakness Stakes.
Man O’ War’s most notable wins included the Belmont Stakes, which he won by 20 lengths, a record which would only be beaten many years later by the legendary Secretariat.
Once retired, Man O’ War became one of the most influential sires in the past century; 17% of his direct sons and daughters became stakes winners. Man O’ War’s legacy continues to live on in horses like War Admiral, Sea Biscuit, Da’ Tara, and Tourist.
3. Northern Dancer
Life: 27 May 1961 to 16 November 1990
Country: Born in Canada, but raced in the USA
Northern Dancer was a horse who should not have won. Bred by Windfields Farm in 1965, Northern Dancer failed to meet his reserve price of $25,000 due to his small stature and cracked heels.
He was returned to the stud farm, who then placed him in training with Horatio Luro, who thankfully saw past Northern Dancers’ diminutive 15.1hh and quirky temperament to the heart of a warrior.
Despite being plagued by lameness issues in his 2-year-old season, he won 7 of his 9 starts. Eventually, the little stallion was retired to stud due to a tendon injury in the July of his 3-year-old season.
Despite his short racing career, the true brilliance of this pocket-rocket stallion was not revealed until his progeny began hitting the race track. 23% of Northern Dancer’s first-generation progeny went on to become stakes winners; of 645 foals born to Northern Dancer, 411 went on to take their place in the winner’s circle, with 147 being stake winners.
After failing to meet his reserve price of $25,000, Northern Dancer’s progeny routinely fetched an average price exceeding $3,000,000! In his later years, a covering to Northern Dancer was reported as a never-before-heard-of (or since repeated), $1,000,000.
Life: 19 April 1957 to 31 May 1970
Earnings: £95,198 ($130,423)
Arkle was so far above his competition that the rules of handicapping had to be adjusted for Arkle’s phenomenal talent; after all, the spectators wanted a race, not a lone horse so far out in front it would take an act of God to change the results!
Despite his heavy handicaps and carrying more weight than any other competitor on the field, Arkle continued to dominate the competition, merrily sailing over the jumps and powering home on the straights.
In December 1966, Arkle fractured his pedal bone during the race. Humans and nature tried to handicap this horse, but Arkle was a horse of true courage. He continued to run and claimed 2nd place despite the fracture.
He was placed in a cast and returned home, where he healed well enough to continue in light work, but he never raced again. His life was cut short at 13yrs due to debilitating arthritis, most like the result of his prolific racing career.
However, perhaps the most distinguishing feature of this larger-than-life character was one that the public rarely saw. Arkle was frequently described as a saint and retained the innate gentleness needed to give children rides!
Arkle was so beloved that even 40yrs after his death, people continue to talk about the legend known simply as “Himself.”
Life: 17 April 1972 to 7 July 1975
Sometimes a horse is not great because of how much they have earned or how many wins they claimed but rather because of how bright their star burnt. Ruffian was one such mare, the Marilyn Munro of horses. She was a one-of-a-kind whose life and career, while tragically short, remains indelibly inked in the hearts and minds of all who saw Ruffian run.
Ruffian’s rise to greatness was perhaps not such a surprise, considering her relationship to Secretariat through her grandsire and Secretariat’s sire, Bold Ruler. Standing one inch taller than Secretariat’s 16.2hh, Ruffian was made to run.
Ruffian was known as the mare of all 1’s; not only did she win 10 places, most of them she led from wire to wire. Even more impressive than 10 consecutive wins is that 5 of those wins were in Grade 1 races.
Tragically the mare of all 1’s was brought low in her 11th race. On 5 July 1975, Ruffian was pitted against Foolish Pleasure, the current Kentucky Derby winner. The matched race was highly publicized as “The Great Match” and the “Ultimate Battle of the Sexes.”
Ruffian bumped her shoulder as she left the starting gate but held her own against Foolish Pleasure. In true Ruffian fashion, she set her mind and heart on gaining and keeping the lead.
At approximately 3 furlongs, both jockeys heard an audible “CRACK” as Ruffian fractured both sesamoid bones in her right foreleg.
Ruffian was rushed to the hospital. After flatlining twice, the undefeated mare was moved to the recovery room post-surgery. The disorientated and distressed filly destroyed the surgeon’s work and further compounded her injuries by shattering her elbow as she came around from the anesthesia.
At 2:25 am on 7 July 1975, the decision was made to humanely euthanize Ruffian. At only 3yrs, Ruffian stood shoulder-to-shoulder with the all-time racing greats. Her legacy continues to live on in those who remember the mare who never gave up!
Life: 17 March 1874 to 16 Match 1887
Few people would have heard of Kincsem, a mare who lived more than a century ago; however, her century-long record has earned her a spot on this list.
Kincsem was a sensitive, quirky mare who was criticized for her less-than-perfect conformation throughout her career. As a yearling, a potential buyer rejected her and one other filly when the stud offered a package deal of 6 yearlings for $793.
Her lack of appeal to potential buyers meant that Kincsem was raced as a homebred youngster, starting her career in Germany.
Thankfully, a lack of human belief in her capabilities did not hold Kincsem back. Of the 54 races Kincsem ran, she claimed 54 wins. Her record for 54 consecutive victories by an undefeated horse has yet to be broken.
Kincsem was devoted to her groom; her loyalty was so legendary that eventually, her groom was nicknamed Frankie Kincsem.
The only other undefeated flat racer to come near to Kincsem’s record for consecutive wins was Black Caviar, who claimed 25 victories from 25 starts.
7. Red Rum
Life: 3 May 1965 to 18 October 1995
Earnings: £146,409 ($198,633)
Red Rum was a horse who lived to defy expectations; bred to be a 1-mile sprinter, Red Rum’s greatest races were won over distances greater than 4 miles.
Unlike Arkle, Red Rum was a steeplechaser who did not win the majority of his races, but his gentle temperament and never-say-die attitude won the hearts of many who watched him run.
Red Rum was passed from trainer to trainer until eventually finding his way to Ginger McCain after Noel Le Mare purchased him as a Grand National prospect. Two days after his purchase and move to Ginger’s yard, Red Rum came down with a case of laminitis.
Laminitis is almost always a career and often life-ending condition. Ginger shod him in special shoes and trained the horse along Southport beach. Defying all odds, Red Rum successfully returned to racing.
Red Rum won the Grand National Race 3 times with two additional 2nd place finishes, yet this champion steeplechaser was sweet enough to give the stable boy his first riding lesson! The first time Red Rum won the Grand National, he made up 30 stride lengths to overtake the leader, claiming the win by ¾ of a stride.
Red Rum is credited with saving the Grand National and making it the race it is today.
8. Sea Biscuit
Life: 23 May 1933 to 17 May 1947
Sea Biscuit was heavily raced during his first two years. Placed with Jimmy Fitzsimmons, he was regarded as the stable joke; he was small (15.2hh), lazy, knobby-kneed, and worst of all, failed to place in his first 17 races.
During his second year, he was raced 35 times, winning 5 races and being placed second in 7 others. In 1936, the no-hope horse was purchased by Charles Howard and moved to trainer Tom Smith.
Unlike Fitzsimmons, Tom Smith didn’t judge a horse on what he had done but on what he could do in the future. Under the guidance of Tom Smith and Canadian Jockey, Red Pollard, Sea Biscuit found a new gear.
The little stallion began to excel on the field, claiming win after win. At the end of his 5yr old season, Sea Biscuit suffered a ruptured suspensory ligament. While the injury was not life-threatening, it was almost certainly career-ending.
During this time, Pollard was recuperating from a badly fractured leg. The Canadian Jockey would often joke that the pair had four functional legs between them.
Against the odds, both Sea Biscuit and Pollard returned to racing in 1940, where Sea Biscuit and Pollard went on to claim two more wins. After his last win, Sea Biscuit was retired as the top money earner on 10 April 1940.
9. Bold Ruler
Life: 6 April 1954 to 11 July 1971
Some horses are elevated to the status of legend not through their efforts but through the achievements of their offspring. Bold Ruler was a stallion who seemed to possess magical genes that consistently produced superstars!
Bold Ruler was trained by Sea Biscuit’s first (unsuccessful) trainer, Jimmy Fitzsimmons. The well-built stallion was plagued throughout his racing career with a painful mouth and chronic arthritis; despite this, the father of legends went on to claim 23 wins before retiring to stud.
Bold Ruler was known for his courageous running efforts and raw speed, which he unerringly passed onto his offspring.
23% of Bold Ruler’s direct progeny became Stake’s winners, the most famous of which was Secretariat.
Bold Ruler was also the grandsire of Ruffian and great grandsire of Seattle Slew. Lucian Laurin, the trainer of Secretariat, believed that Ruffian was the better horse when compared to her famous uncle, Secretariat.
It could be argued that Bold Ruler was the greatest racehorse sire ever to live, considering that he was the sire and grandsire of not one but two once-in-a-lifetime racing legends.
Life: 1 April 2004, retired to be a broodmare in
Everyone dreams of striking it lucky; some people play the lotto, and others buy a racehorse. For Zenyatta’s owners, the dream became a reality when they purchased the mare for a bargain price of $60,000.
Zenyatta was a huge mare that required time to grow into her oversized frame. At maturity, she stood at 17.1hh and had a stride length of 26 feet.
Zenyatta would often approach the ring with an elevated bouncy trot, similar to the passage of an elite dressage horse. Her passage-like trot allowed her to stretch and warm up before a race without tiring herself out.
Zenyatta was known to cede large early leads to her competitors, only catching up and overtaking towards the middle and late-race stages. Unlike Ruffian, who led from wire to wire, Zenyatta preferred to race from the back.
In 2019, Zenyatta became the first mare to claim a victory in the Breeders Cup Classics. Zenyatta broke the record for the number of Grade 1 wins (she claimed 13 Grade 1 wins) for a mare and became the North American all-time highest-earning female flat racer.
Her achievements on the racetrack saw her named 2010, American Horse of The Year, and inducted into the American Hall of Fame in 2016.
11. Seattle Slew
Life: 15 February 1974 to 7 May 2002
Seattle Slew’s start to life was not the stuff of legends; the little colt became known as Baby Huey due to his mule-like appearance. However, this homely little colt quickly developed a powerful front-running style that more than made up for his inauspicious start to life.
Despite a noticeably turned-out hindfoot, Seattle Slew achieved great things both as a competitor and as a sire.
Seattle Slew is only one of two horses to enter and win the Triple Crown as an undefeated 3yr old. The only other horse to perform this feat was one of Seattle Slew’s progeny, proving Seattle Slew’s worth as a sire.
Seattle Slew’s contributions to the sport are so significant that he was listed 9th by the Blood-Horse Magazine during their 1999 edition of the top 100 racehorses of the 20th century.
Life: 4 September 2011, retired to be a broodmare on 13 April 2019
Unlike many winning racehorses who demonstrate a freakishly long stride (28ft), Winx’s stride length was more moderate. Measurements showed that Winx’s average stride length at full gallop was an underwhelming, 22.2ft.
The secret to Winx’s winning prowess was her cadence, adjustability and heart. She had an unusual running style’; she could easily complete 14 strides every 5 seconds compared to her competitors, who did an average of 12 strides every 5 seconds. Winx’s adjustability meant that she could just as easily accelerate as settle.
Winx set a new world record by winning 33 consecutive races, including 25 Group 1 races. She obliterated Black Cavier’s longstanding record of 25 successive wins.
Before her retirement, Winx accumulated an impressive list of accolades, including but not limited to:
- The only horse to have one 4 WS Cox Plate races
- Only unplaced in 3 of 43 races
- Highest prizemoney winner in Australia
- Ranked as the number one filly and turf horse in 2016 and 2017 by Longines World’s Best Racehorse Ranking
13. Phar Lap
Life: 4 October 1926 to 5 April 1932
Country: New Zealand
Earnings: $44,020 ($A66,738)
Phar Lap shared the nickname “Big Red” with two other racing greats, Man O’ War and Secretariat. They say a child (or horse) of many names is well-loved; in addition to “Big Red,” Phar Lap was also known as “The Red Terror,” “The Wonder Horse,” and “Bobby.”
A not very successful horse trainer, Harry Telford convinced one of his few remaining owners, David Davis, to buy Phar Lap sight unseen. The colt was a massive disappointment when he arrived at Telford’s yard for training.
The little colt was covered in warts, gangly, and showed no promise in his ability to move. Davis was understandably furious, which led to a rather unusual deal. Telford agreed to train Phar Lap for free in exchange for 2/3 of any prize money Phar Lap won.
Phar Lap was gelded and entered his first race, which he promptly lost. His next 3 races were hardly improvements as the gelding once again failed to place. However, Telford was determined and persisted with the unlikely racehorse.
On 27 April 1929, Phar Lap won his first race; this marked a turning point in Phar Lap’s career as the horse found his stride. Phar Lap claimed 37 victories in his 4 years of racing and was widely regarded as an upset to illegal betting syndicates.
Sadly, Phar Lap did not live long enough to see retirement. He was found in severe pain on 5 April 1932; a few hours later, this legendary horse had passed on.
It took more than 7 decades before science could provide clarity surrounding Phar Lap’s suspicious death. In 2006, scientists determined that this incredible horse died of gastroenteritis as a result of arsenic poisoning. Whether the poisoning was accidental or deliberate will remain one of the great mysteries of racing.
Life: 4 April 1957 to 16 October 1983
It is said that great horses are rarely easy; unfortunately, Kelso heard the old saying and truly tried his best to live up to the best and worst of the statement.
Kelso was highly problematic to handle, and his desperate owner had him gelded in an effort to make the unruly colt more manageable; it didn’t work. Kelso’s “private chaplain” was quoted as once saying he would sit in Kelso’s stable, cross his fingers and send a little hope heavenward for the temperamental colt.
Kelso won his first race and came second in the next two. In his third year, Kelso’s devilish temperament stood him in good stead as he proved time and again to the world that he was a force to be reckoned with.
His 3-year-old season saw him win 8 of 9 races and 11 consecutive races between the latter half of 1960 and early 1961. Kelso won 62% of his races and placed in 84%, i.e., this was a good horse to bet on!
Perhaps one of Kelso’s most notable achievements was his complete domination at the Jockey Club Gold Cup race. Ten horses claimed the victory twice, but only Kelso was able to claim 5 consecutive wins in the Jockey Club Gold Cup, a record which still stands!
On 15 October 1983, the 26yr old Kelso put in one last appearance at the parade grounds of the Jockey Club Gold Cup. The next day, the challenging but indisputably great Kelso breathed his last. Throughout his career, Kelso proved that great horses are rarely easy.
15. Count Fleet
Life: 24 March 1940 to 3 December 1973
Count Fleet was a slow-maturing, unattractive colt, known more for his challenging temperament than racing prowess.
His first two races saw him placed second, after which Count Fleet began to claim win after win; the stallion’s racing style was erratic, and he would often run off the rail during the race and refuse to slow after crossing the finish line.
Despite Count Fleet’s erratic racing style, he claimed numerous wins with significant leads. Count Fleet was the 6th Triple Crown Winner and held the record as the longest living (33yrs) Triple Crown winner for 14 years. His record was broken by Gallant Man, who outlived Count Fleet by one year (34yrs).
Greatness often runs in families. Secretariat, Ruffian, and Seattle Slew are all related through Bold Ruler. Northern Dancer appears in Winx’s pedigree. Secretariat and Zenyatta are distantly related through their dam lines, and Man O’ War is Sea Biscuit’s grandsire.
Another family known for their long lives, quirky temperaments, and outstanding performances on the track are those descending from Count Fleet.
The greatest horse coming from Count Fleet’s line was his grandson, Kelso. He was also the great-grandsire of Mr. Prospector, one of the most influential breeding stallions to grace the racetracks; Mr. Prospector’s sons were known as triple-crown specialists and sire of sires.
The 15 racehorses featured on this list have not only broken records and changed the face of racing but have demonstrated an abundance of that elusive charisma that inspires people to be more than they are.
These horses have left an indelible legacy amongst the racing fraternity. The greats of this sport are far more than mere horses; they embody the best of what we hope; to be courageous, resilient overcomers who defy the odds to achieve unsurpassed excellence!