Top 10 best racehorses of all time

April 11th, 2024

Ranking the greatest racehorse of all time is an exercise fraught with challenges and subjectivity.

There are many types of racehorse—Thoroughbreds, Standardbreds, Quarter Horses, and more. They race around the globe across many distances and surfaces. The organized sport of horse racing dates back centuries. How can we possibly compare such a wide variety of horses from far-reaching places and eras?

The answer is, perhaps, to narrow the criteria. Here in the U.S., Thoroughbred racing reigns supreme, and flat racing (as opposed to hurdles or steeplechases) draws much of the attention. Thoroughbred flat racing is where we find the coveted Triple Crown, comprised of the Kentucky Derby (G1), Preakness S. (G1), and Belmont S. (G1).

I’ve long been an avid fan of horse racing history, and now I’ve been asked to compile a list of the Top 10 best racehorse of all time. While it’s tempting to embark on a worldwide tour of racing’s greatest across all breeds and competitions, American flat racing is my strongest area of expertise, and this is where I’ll focus in compiling my Top 10 list.

So technically speaking, the following list is more of a “Top 10 Best U.S. Flat Racers of All Time.” Naturally, the list is my personal opinion and comes with subjectivity; ask 10 racing fans to compile the same list, and I’m sure you’ll receive 10 different rankings. Do we favor raw talent or overall accomplishments? I lean toward the latter, since accomplishments can’t come without talent, but a healthy mix of both is ideal.

Of course, ranking elite racehorses is only one goal of the exercise. The other goal—indeed, the primary goal—is to take a trip through history and recount the extraordinary exploits of unforgettable equine athletes.

Without further ado, let’s begin:

1. Dr. Fager (born 1964)

Lifetime record: 22 starts, 18 wins, 2 seconds, 1 third
Earnings: $1,002,642

Blinding speed was Dr. Fager’s greatest weapon, and he could carry it over an impressive array of distances. He set or equaled five track records over distances from seven furlongs to 1 1/4 miles, including a legendary mile in 1:32 1/5 that remains the unbroken American record on dirt. Dr. Fager carried in excess of 130 pounds to victory on seven occasions (including 139 pounds in a record-setting Vosburgh H. triumph) and did so while facing elite rivals like Hall of Fame inductee Damascus.

Voted champion sprinter in 1967, Dr. Fager enjoyed his greatest season in 1968, when he went 7-for-8 and earned an unprecedented four championship titles: Horse of the Year, champion handicap horse, champion sprinter, and champion grass horse. No horse before or since has won a similar variety of titles.

2. Secretariat (born 1970)

Lifetime record: 21 starts, 16 wins, 3 seconds, 1 third
Earnings: $1,316,808

The legendary Secretariat set still-standing stakes records in all three legs of the 1973 Triple Crown, winning the 1 1/4-mile Kentucky Derby (G1) in 1:59 2/5, the 1 3/16-mile Preakness S. (G1) in 1:53, and the 1 1/2-mile Belmont S. (G1) in 2:24. The latter victory—achieved by 31 lengths—might be the single greatest performance ever seen at a U.S. racetrack.

Secretariat won five championships during his two years of competition, including back-to-back Horse of the Year titles. Following his Triple Crown heroics, Secretarat won the Man o’ War S. (G1) and Canadian International (G2) on grass, exhibiting multi-surface talent on his way to being voted champion grass horse.

3. Kelso (born 1957)

Lifetime record: 63 starts, 39 wins, 12 seconds, 2 thirds
Earnings: $1,977,896

The great gelding Kelso was as durable and consistent a racehorse as you’ll ever hope to find. For five straight years, he won the historic Jockey Club Gold Cup, a race then contested over the testing distance of two miles. And incredibly, Kelso was voted Horse of the Year five straight times from 1960-64, establishing a standard for sustained excellence that may never be matched.

High weights didn’t faze Kelso, who routinely toted more than 130 pounds to victory. In 1961, he swept the elusive Handicap Triple Crown comprised of the Metropolitan H., Suburban H., and Brooklyn H. And although Kelso campaigned primary on dirt, he set an American turf record when winning the 1 1/2-mile Washington D.C. International in a blazing 2:23 4/5.

4. Man o’ War (born (1917)

Lifetime record: 21 starts, 20 wins, 1 second, 0 third
Earnings: $249,465

Although Man o’ War raced more than 100 years ago, his brilliance still shines bright. His jaw-dropping 20-for-21 resume was marred only by a famously troubled runner-up finish in the Sanford S. as a juvenile behind the appropriately-named Upset. The majority of his victories were achieved in effortless fashion, including the Preakness S. and Belmont S., and he likely would have swept the Triple Crown had he started in the Kentucky Derby.

Man o’ War carried 130 pounds or more to victory on nine occasions, including 138 pounds in the Potomac H. He won the Lawrence Realization by a margin estimated at 100 lengths, and he set eight track records during 11 starts as a three-year-old. Man o’ War capped off his career by beating Triple Crown winner Sir Barton in a match race, cementing his legendary status.

5. Citation (born 1945)

Lifetime record: 45 starts, 32 wins, 10 seconds, 2 thirds
Earnings: $1,085,760

The first two years of Citation’s career were breathtaking. He won 27 of his 29 starts and was considered to have had valid excuses in his two defeats. He swept the 1948 Triple Crown in effortless fashion, trounced past or future Horses of the Year Armed and Coaltown, and won over distances from 4 1/2 furlongs to two miles.

Citation missed his four-year-old season and lacked some of his sparkle when returning at ages five and six, losing more races than he won. But he recaptured his elite form during the summer of 1951, capping off his career with a four-length Hollywood Gold Cup romp that made him the first Thoroughbred to win more than $1 million in career purse earnings.

6. Affirmed (born 1975)

Lifetime record: 29 starts, 22 wins, 5 seconds, 1 third
Earnings: $2,393,818

Renowned for his rivalry with fellow Hall of Fame inductee Alydar, Affirmed got the better of his rival in all three legs of the 1978 Triple Crown, including a thrilling edition of the Belmont S. (G1) that saw Affirmed prevail by a hard-fought head.

Affirmed’s heroic Triple Crown sweep might have been the highlight of his career, but it was far from the only bright spot. He earned five championships (including two Horse of the Year titles) during three seasons of racing, won Grade 1 races over distances from 6 1/2 furlongs to 1 1/2 miles, and ended his career with a tenacious victory over fellow legend Spectacular Bid in the Jockey Club Gold Cup (G1). For good measure, Affirmed retired as the first horse to win more than $2 million.

7. Spectacular Bid (born 1976)

Lifetime record: 30 starts, 26 wins, 2 seconds, 1 third
Earnings: $2,781,608

A champion at ages two, three, and four, Spectacular Bid was utterly spectacular while compiling a nearly flawless 26-for-30 record. He dominated the Kentucky Derby (G1) and Preakness S. (G1) and would have swept the Triple Crown if not for a third-place performance in the Belmont S. (G1), which some attributed to an unsuitable trip and a hoof issue stemming from a loose safety pin in his stall.

Spectacular Bid couldn’t quite get the better of older rival Affirmed in the 1979 Jockey Club Gold Cup (G1), but as a four-year-old in 1980, he was unstoppable. An undefeated 9-for-9 campaign included a terrific victory in the 1 1/4-mile Charles H. Strub S. (G1), in which Spectacular Bid stopped the clock in the still-standing American record time of 1:57 4/5. By the end of the year, no one was willing to face Spectacular Bid, and his final start produced a walkover victory in the Woodward S. (G1) at Saratoga.

8. Forego (born 1970)

Lifetime record: 57 starts, 34 wins, 9 seconds, 7 thirds
Earnings: $1,938,957

Cut from the same cloth as Kelso, Forego was a tough-as-nails handicap star whose terrific resume would surely be even greater if he hadn’t been burdened with carrying significantly more weight than his rivals. Forego carried 130 pounds or more on 24 occasions and famously won the 1976 Marlboro Cup H. (G1) when toting 137 pounds, 18 more than champion and Kentucky Derby runner-up Honest Pleasure.

At one time or another, Forego won all three legs of the Handicap Triple Crown, and he was voted Horse of the Year three straight times from 1974-76. For good measure, Forego earned champion older male honors four times from 1974-77 and was voted champion sprinter in 1974, a testament to both his talent and versatility.

9. John Henry (born 1975)

Lifetime record: 83 starts, 39 wins, 15 seconds, 9 thirds
Earnings: $6,597,947

Kelso and Forego may have won more Horse of the Year titles, but no horse has ever earned the title at an older age than John Henry. The seemingly ageless gelding was primarily known as a turf star, earning champion grass male honors in 1980, 1981, 1983, and 1984. But he also took champion older male honors in 1981 and was twice voted Horse of the Year, at age six in 1981 and age nine in 1984.

Between 1980 and 1984, John Henry plied his trade from coast to coast, winning Grade 1 races with relentless regularity. Many came on turf, but he also won the Jockey Club Gold Cup (G1) and two editions of the Santa Anita H. (G1) on dirt. By the time he retired, John Henry had won 16 Grade 1 races, which remains an unmatched standard among North American racehorses.

10. Native Dancer (born 1950)

Lifetime record: 22 starts, 21 wins, 1 second, 0 thirds
Earnings: $785,240

If not for a troubled head defeat in the 1953 Kentucky Derby, Native Dancer would be an undefeated Triple Crown winner possibly renowned as the greatest horse of all time. Even with this defeat, Native Dancer’s 21-for-22 resume is tremendous, highlighted by victories in the Preakness S. and Belmont S.

Injuries unfortunately limited Native Dancer’s forays in the handicap ranks, and he raced only three times at age four. Nevertheless, his four-year-old season included a fiercely determined win in the Metropolitan H. and a nine-length romp in a Saratoga handicap while toting 137 pounds, performances sufficient to land Native Dancer his second of two Horse of the Year titles.

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