Compiling a definitive list of the greatest racehorses in history is no easy feat. After all, the sport has been around for hundreds of years, and that’s just if we only focus on events that continue to be held today, not including competitions that were held by ancient civilizations.
Although horse races are essentially the same format today as they were centuries ago, many studies have shown that the horses themselves have gotten faster over the years. For example, Kentucky Derby winning times today are more than 10 seconds faster than they were in the early 1900s, and modern-day Epsom Derby winners clock in nearly 40 seconds faster than they did in the 1800s.
Combine that with the fact that increasingly lucrative purses and massive improvements to transportation make it more common for elite horses from across the world to compete in the same races, and it’s obvious that an apples-to-apples comparison of horses from across various eras is simply impossible.
However, we still wanted to recognize and celebrate the horses who have dominated their individual eras over the years. So with that criteria in mind, here’s our list of the 15 most famous racehorses in history (listed in no particular order).
One of the most dominating horse racing careers of all time nearly never even happened. When Secretariat was a young horse, his owner strongly considered having a dispersal sale for his stable after falling ill, and only his daughter Penny Chenery prevented Secretariat from being sold away.
After an inauspicious racing debut when he finished fourth in a maiden special weight race at Aqueduct, Secretariat never looked back. He won all of his other eight races as a two-year-old (although his win at the Champagne Stakes was later demoted to second due to disqualification) to earn American Horse of the Year honors, something only one two-year-old has done since.
That set the table for Secretariat’s phenomenal three-year-old season. He first burst onto the national scene with easy victories at the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes, winning both by 2 ½ lengths while setting track records in the process. Secretariat then cemented his legendary status by completing the Triple Crown with a dominating performance at Belmont, finishing 31 lengths ahead of his nearest competitor. Not only was it a record for both margin of victory and fastest time in the Belmont Stakes, but his 2:24 clocking was also two seconds faster than any horse had ever posted in a 1 ½ mile race on dirt.
Secretariat was eventually euthanized in 1989 after contracting laminitis, a painful hoof condition. Though the veterinarian who performed the autopsy did not weigh Secretariat’s heart, he later estimated that the horse’s heart weighed approximately 2.5 times more than average. Whether that enabled Secretariat to run faster than any of his rivals is unclear, but there’s no debating his place in horse racing’s all-time record books.
A protective owner and poor execution by a race starter may be the only reasons some people don’t place Man o’ War on the same level as Secretariat when it comes to the greatest racehorses in history.
Samuel Riddle chose to keep Man o’ War out of the 1920 Kentucky Derby because he felt the 1 ¼ mile distance was too far to run his horse that early in his career. That decision proved to cost Man o’ War a shot at becoming the second horse ever to win North America’s Triple Crown, since the Kentucky-born chestnut went on to win the Preakness Stakes and Belmont Stakes that season (posting a 20-length victory in the latter). Riddle also opted to cut Man o’ War’s racing career short after his three-year-old season, not wanting to have his stallion carry what would have been record weights in handicapped events.
Meanwhile, the lone blemish on Man o’ War’s record came as a two-year-old in the Sanford Memorial, when he finished a neck behind Upset. That race was marred by a controversial re-start when Man o’ War wasn’t in proper position and had to overcome an early two-length deficit. When given a fair start in races both immediately before and after the Memorial, Man o’ War finished at least one full length ahead of Upset.
Despite his shortened career, Man o’ War was listed as the top Thoroughbred of the 20th century in separate rankings by Blood-Horse magazine, the Associated Press, and Sports Illustrated. He also left his mark through his bloodlines, helping produce such future champions as 1937 Triple Crown winner War Admiral and world two-mile dirt record holder Kelso.
Before Seattle Slew even made his racing debut in 1976, he was so fast in workouts that a clocker actually added several seconds to his recorded time, feeling his actual time was unbelievable. He ran to a five-length victory in his maiden race as a two-year-old at Belmont Park, then later dominated the Champagne Stakes with a then-record time of 1:34.40, winning by 9 ¾ lengths.
The following season, Seattle Slew won all six of his races, improving to a perfect 9-0 in his career. The last three victories were the Kentucky Derby, Preakness Stakes, and Belmont Stakes, making Seattle Slew the first horse to win North America’s Triple Crown while being undefeated at the time.
The first loss of Seattle Slew’s career came less than a month after his win at Belmont, and it also came with an asterisk. He was fourth at the Swaps Stakes at Hollywood Park, but trainer Billy Turner blamed the poor performance on sedatives Seattle Slew had received during his participation in a Xerox ad, then again on his flight to California. When Seattle Slew was back to full health the following year, he won five of seven races (finishing second in the two others) before retiring from competition in the fall of 1978.
Though Seattle Slew died in 2002, his legacy has lived on through his descendants. His granddaughter Rags to Riches was just the third filly to win the Belmont Stakes when she finished first in 2007, and he is also the ancestor of 2013 and 2014 Kentucky Derby champions Orb and California Chrome.
Citation’s best-known claim to fame may be that he was the only horse to win the North American Triple Crown for a 25-year span from 1948-73, but his achievements go far beyond that.
His greatest single season came in 1948 when he overcame the tragic drowning of his long-time jockey to win the Kentucky Derby, Preakness Stakes, and Belmont Stakes, then went on to finish the year with a 19-1 record. Citation was so dominant in many of his races (he won the Preakness by 5 ½ lengths, claimed the Belmont Stakes by 8 lengths, and beat 1947 Preakness winner Phalanx by 7 lengths in the Jockey Club Gold Cup) that it became difficult to find horses to challenge him, evidenced by his walkover victory in the Pimlico Special.
After taking the 1949 season off due to arthritis in his legs, Citation returned in 1950 to claim his 16th consecutive victory (and 28th in 30 career starts) before age began to catch up with him. Still, he concluded his career in 1951 with three straight wins, including a triumph at the Hollywood Golf Cup that made him the first horse in history to earn $1 million. His 16 straight victories were also a record that went unmatched for 46 years.
Affirmed’s Triple Crown win in 1978 may not have been as celebrated as others, considering that Seattle Slew had accomplished the same feat the previous year. However, Affirmed got his dues for the next four decades as the last horse to win the Kentucky Derby, Preakness Stakes, and Belmont Stakes until American Pharoah broke the 37-year Triple Crown drought in 2015.
On the rare occasions that the Florida product lost as a two- or three-year-old, it was often because he was beaten by another great horse. Three of his second-place finishes came behind only Alydar, who was second to Affirmed in all three Triple Crown events and in 7 of their 10 all-time meetings. Another of Affirmed’s losses came to Seattle Slew in the Marlboro Cup Invitational Handicap, the first time that former Triple Crown winners had faced each other in a race.
Affirmed finished his career with 22 wins, 5 seconds, and 1 third, finishing in the money in 28 of 29 starts.
To say Kelso was a late bloomer would be a huge understatement. But once he hit his stride late in his three-year-old season, the Kentucky product enjoyed the best twilight to his career of any racehorse in history.
After posting a victory and two second-place finishes as a two-year-old, Kelso didn’t begin his three-year-old racing season until after all of the 1960 Triple Crown races had been held (which explains why he never won the Kentucky Derby, Preakness, or Belmont). Beginning with a win at Monmouth Park, however, he posted eight wins and a second-place finish in nine outings. Included in that span were the fastest mile ever recorded by a three-year-old at Aqueduct and wins over older horses at the Hawthorne Gold Cup Handicap and Jockey Club Gold Cup.
Kelso only got better with age, winning seven of nine starts as a four-year-old and claiming Horse of the Year honors in each of his next four seasons to become the only five-time winner of the award. His time of 3:19.1 in the 1964 Jockey Gold Cup set a world record for the fastest two miles on dirt, and 11 days later, he set a new American record for the fastest 1 ½ miles on grass at the Washington, D.C. International. It took a hairline fracture on his right hind foot to force him into retirement in 1966, when he was the sport’s all-time leader in earnings.
Sports Illustrated once declared Zenyatta to be the greatest filly of all time, and it’s difficult to argue. Despite not running her first race until the age of three, the Kentucky Thoroughbred went on to win 19 straight races before coming within a nose of finishing her career with a perfect 20-record.
Zenyatta didn’t fatten up her record against lightweights, either. She defeated many former Grade 1 champions from both North America and Europe, and in 2009 became the first female to ever win the prestigious Breeders’ Cup Classic. That win came on the heels of her 2008 win in the Breeders’ Cup Ladies Classic, making her the first horse to win two different Breeders’ Cup races. One year later, a second-place finish to Blame in the Classic marked the first and only time that Zenyatta didn’t end up in the winner’s circle.
In addition to the numerous accolades Zenyatta received throughout her career for her many unprecedented achievements, she was nearly the first horse to be named US Athlete of the Year by the Associated Press. Zenyatta finished second to Serena Williams in voting for the female award in 2009, then finished behind only Lindsey Vonn the following year as well.
If it weren’t for a freak injury suffered on the morning of the 1979 Belmont Stakes, Spectacular Bid may have been the sport’s third consecutive Triple Crown champion and fourth of the decade.
Even after stepping on a safety pin that lodged in his hoof, Spectacular Bid led the Belmont at the race’s halfway point before fading down the stretch and finishing third. His jockey was also criticized for driving him too hard too early over the 1 ½ mile distance, derailing the Triple Crown hopes of a horse who had won the Kentucky Derby by 2 ¾ lengths and the Preakness by 5 ½.
The injury at Belmont and a resulting infection hampered Spectacular Bid for the rest of his three-year-old season, but he returned the next year with a flourish. He won all of his nine races that year, setting five track records in the process before another injury (this time to his ankle) forced him into retirement. He finished with a record of 26 victories, 2 seconds, and 1 third in 30 races, and one of the four races he didn’t win was a close loss to 1978 Triple Crown winner Affirmed.
Black Caviar’s name may not be too recognizable to North American racing fans, but that’s only because she ran all but one of her races in her native Australia. Not only did the filly go an incredible 25-0 throughout her five-year racing career (including 15 Grade 1 wins), but she’s also considered one of the greatest sprinters of all time.
If her career was in need of a legitimizing victory in international competition, Black Caviar got it as a five-year-old at the Royal Ascot in 2012. Despite a grueling 30-hour flight from Australia to the United Kingdom and a quadriceps tear that was suffered during the race, Black Caviar won the Diamond Jubilee Stakes by a head over France’s Moonlight Cloud. Later that season, Black Caviar became the first non-European horse to be named European Champion Sprinter at the Cartier Racing Awards.
No horse has ever come close to matching Kincsem’s undefeated record, and it’s hard to imagine that anyone ever will. The Hungarian mare’s 54 races without a loss is more than double the number of any other unbeaten flat racer, with Black Caviar’s 25-0 record the closest.
Competition may not have been as stiff in the 1800s, but Kincsem still deserves credit for taking on all of Europe’s top challengers, both male and female. Her greatness is commemorated by a life-sized statue of her at Kincsem Park in Budapest.
Just when North American racing fans were wondering if there would ever be another Triple Crown champion, American Pharoah delivered in 2015.
After winning the Kentucky Derby by 1 length and the Preakness by 7, the New Jersey Thoroughbred snapped a 37-year drought for Triple Crown winners with a convincing victory in the Belmont, going wire to wire with the second-fastest time of any Triple Crown champion. If that wasn’t enough, he became the first horse ever to win the unofficial Grand Slam of Thoroughbred racing when he beat out older horses in the Breeders’ Cup Classic several months later.
That victory was the punctuation mark on a short but brilliant career, as American Pharoah was retired at the end of his three-year-old season, honoring a pre-existing stud agreement. His earnings of nearly $8.3 million in 2015 alone set a single-season record for race earnings, and he received 47% of online votes for Sports Illustrated’s Sportsman of the Year award.
Native Dancer was first to cross the finish line in all but one of the races in his career. Unfortunately, the one that he didn’t win was the Kentucky Derby, costing him the Triple Crown in 1953. Even more unfortunately, Native Dancer was bumped twice during that race, likely the reason he wasn’t able to beat out 24:1 longshot Dark Star and keep his perfect record intact.
Nicknamed the Grey Ghost, Native Dancer was immensely popular throughout his three-year career because races were first nationally televised during that time. Many of his descendants have gone on to enjoy success in Triple Crown events as well, including Kauai King, Dancer’s Image, Mr. Prospector, and Affirmed.
Count Fleet’s record of 16 wins, 4 seconds, and 1 third doesn’t quite reflect how dominant he actually was during his short career from 1942-43. He never lost a race that was a mile or more in length, and he was victorious in 12 of his last 13 races after winning just two of his first five.
His greatest feat was winning the 1943 Belmont Stakes by 25 lengths, a margin of victory that remained a record until Secretariat broke it 30 years later. Count Fleet’s Belmont win made him the sixth horse in history to claim the North American Triple Crown, following comfortable victories in the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes earlier in the year.
Remarkably, Count Fleet’s wins in those Triple Crown events came when he wasn’t even at his physical best. He suffered a slight injury to his left foreleg in the Kentucky Derby, then re-aggravated the injury in the Preakness. The latter injury led to a split in his right foreleg that would mark the end of his career. Ironically, despite suffering all of these injuries, Count Fleet lived until he was 33 years old, making him the longest-surviving Kentucky Derby champion in history.
A virus kept Dr. Fager from ever running in a Triple Crown event, but when it comes to single-season accomplishments, no horse may ever match the banner year that he enjoyed as a four-year-old in 1968. After winning seven of the eight races he entered that season and setting several records, the Florida-born stallion became the first horse to be named Horse of the Year, Champion handicap horse, Champion sprinter, and Champion male turf horse in the same season.
Dr. Fager’s 1968 campaign was highlighted by his world record-setting time in the Washington Park Handicap. Despite carrying 134 pounds in the handicap race, Dr. Fager completed the one-mile dirt race in a time of 1:32.20, four-tenths of a second faster than any other horse in history on any surface. That world record stood for 29 years, and it remains the American record for the fastest mile on dirt.
Dr. Fager also went out in style, winning the Vosburgh Stakes at Aqueduct in the final race of his career. His time of 1:20.20 set a track record (and was two-tenths of a second short of a new world standard) in the ⅞ mile race, and he retired with a lifetime record of 18 wins, 2 seconds, and 1 third in 22 races. The only time he didn’t show came in the 1967 Jersey Derby, when he posted what would have been an event record time but was disqualified for crossing in front of the field at the first turn.
No list of famous racehorses would be complete without a mention of the steeplechase, and Red Rum may have been the best ever to compete in that discipline. He is the only horse to ever win three championships at the prestigious 4.3-mile Grand National handicap in England, and he came within two second-place finishes of winning five consecutive titles.
As incredible as it was for Red Rum to win the 1977 Grand National as a 12-year-old, he is most remembered for the first time he won the historic Aintree competition. In that race, the Irish Thoroughbred trailed by as many as 30 lengths at one point and was 15 lengths behind leader Crisp at the final fence. But Red Rum overcame that gap on the final 500-yard sprint, beating Crisp by three-quarters of a length in a then-record time of 9:01.09.
Red Rum fell just once in more than 100 career races, and his greatness is commemorated through his burial at the winning post of Aintree Racecourse, statues at various racetracks throughout England, and having a race and even a train named after him. You may not think of steeplechase when you consider the greatest racehorses in history, but Red Rum clearly deserves mention on any all-time list.