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The Greatest Racehorse of All Time + 9 Contenders Examined.

Last updated: May 15, 2024

By: Miles HenryFact Checked

After a heated debate with friends about the greatest racehorse of all time, I dove into horse racing history and examined the careers of legends like Secretariat, Man o’ War, Seabiscuit, and Count Fleet to come up with one clear winner.

I’ve determined that Man o’ War stands out as the greatest racehorse ever. A titan of the track, his legacy in the racing world is unparalleled. Boasting unmatched speed, enduring stamina, and an impressive winning record, he outclassed the majority of his competitors.

While Man o’ War stands supreme in my books, the horse racing world has been graced by numerous champions, each leaving their unique hoof print on the sands of time. In this article, you’ll encounter tales of these equine giants, their legendary races, and the impact they’ve had on the sport we so dearly love.

Here is a quick look at the greatest racehorses of all time.

HorseRecordColorSexYears raced
1. Man O’ War21-1-0ChestnutStallion1919-1921
2. Secretariat16-3-1ChestnutStallion1972-1973
3. Citation32-10-2Bay Stallion1947-1951
4. Zenyatta19-1-0BayFilly2007-2010
5. Dr. Fager18-2-1BayStallion1966-1968
6. Black Caviar25-0BayFilly2009-2013
7. Seattle Slew14-2-0BayStallion1976-1978
8. Kelso39-12-2BayGelding1959-1966
9. Kincsem54-0ChestnutFilly1876-1880
10. Eclipse18-0Chestnut Stallion1769-1770
10. Ruffian10-0-0 (1DNF)BayFilly1974-1975
Picture of Man o' War winning the Belmont Stakes.

1. Man O’ War- Greatest Racehorse of All Time

Man O’ War is the greatest racehorse of all time. In his short career, he won 20 of his 21 races, including the 1920 Preakness and Belmont Stakes. His strides, famously longer than any other horse of his time, his fiery spirit, and his stunning speed left an enduring mark on horse racing.

His prowess on the race track was unmatched and captured the heart of the racing public.

Why Man O’ War is the top horse.

  • Man O’ War raced carrying 138lbs, the most of any horse at that time.
  • Man O’ War could win at any distance and over any surface.
  • Set the record for one mile in 1:35 4/5 at the Withers Stakes
  • Set the record for one mile and 3/8 at the Belmonts Stakes carrying 128 lbs. 2:14 1/5
  • Set a new record for one mile and 1/8 at the Dwyer Stakes in a time of 1:49 1/5
  • Sets new world record for one mile and 5/8 at Belmont in a time of 2:40 4/5
  • Set a track record carrying 138 lbs
  • Man O’ War won sixteen stakes races.
  • Man o’ War was the North American leading sire in 1926 and was runner-up in 1928, 1929, and 1937. 
  • American Champion Two-Year-Old Colt 
  • American Champion Three-Year-Old Male Horse
  • American Horse of the Year 

Interesting facts about Man O’ War:

  • Man O’ War skipped the Kentucky Derby because Mr. Riddle felt the distance was too long for young horses.
  • Man O’ War won the Belmont Stakes by 20 lengths and set a World Record.
  • Man O’ Wars’ only loss came because he was facing the wrong direction at the start; he still came in second place.
  • Man O’ War once won a race by 100 lengths, a feat never matched.
  • Man O’ War sired 64 champions.
  • Man O’ War died one month after his long-time handler died.
  • Voted co-athlete of the year in 1920 by the New York Times, sharing the honor with Babe Ruth
  • Had an unusually long stride, some say the longest of any racehorse.
  • Man O’ War raced carrying 138lbs, the most of any horse at that time.
  • Man O’ War could win at any distance and across turf or dirt.
Picture of a statute and tribute to Secretariat, one of the greatest racehorses of all time,

2. Secretariat

Secretariat, also known as “Big Red,” is remembered for his incredible Triple Crown victory in 1973, setting records in all three races—some of which still stand today. Secretariat’s 31-length win at the Belmont Stakes remains one of the most iconic moments in sports and made him one of the most famous racehorses of all time.

Secretariat had it all, perfect physical conformation, huge heart, and competitive nature; the racing gods must have built him. When owners talk about racehorse conformation, they describe Secretariat.

Why Secretariat is one of the greatest racehorses.

  • Ran the greatest triple crown races of all time
  • Set a Kentucky Derby record in 1:59 2/5. The first horse to run a mile and a quarter under two minutes.
  • Won the Kentucky Derby running each quarter of a mile faster than the previous, only horse ever to accomplish this feat. He ran thirty-six miles an hour past the stands the first time and thirty-nine at his second pass.
  • Won the Preakness and broke the track record.
  • Set a world record in the Belmont Stakes winning by 31 lengths.
  • Won 15 Stakes races.
  • Became only the ninth horse to win the Triple Crown Champion 
  • Awarded Champion Two-Year-Old Colt 
  • Awarded Champion Three-Year-Old Male Horse 
  • Awarded Champion Male Turf Horse
  • Awarded Horse of the Year in 1972 and 1973
  • Name leading broodmare sire in North America in 1992

Interesting facts about Secretariat:

  • Secretariats’ stride angle was 110 degrees; Man O’ War was 88 degrees.
  • A coin toss determined the owner of Secretariat.
  • Secretariat always started slow and got faster as the race went on.
  • In Secretariat’s first race, he got hit hard and almost fell; he got straight and still finished fourth.
  • First horse unanimously voted horse of the year as a two-year-old
  • Secretariat was syndicated for six million dollars; the money was used to pay federal taxes owed by its owner. Secretariat saved the farm.
  • Secretariat ran third in the Wood Memorial, his last race before the Kentucky Derby.
  • Secretariat was on the cover of Time magazine, Newsweek, and Sports Illustrated in the same week. No entity had ever been featured the same week in all three magazines before Secretariat.
  • Secretariat’s heart was 18 to 20 lbs; the average heart of horses is 8 to 12 lbs.
  • Secretariat was euthanized because of complications from laminitis at 19 years old.
Portait of the great racehorse, Citation,
https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=11488978

3. Citation

Citation, racing in the late 1940s, became the first horse to win a million dollars. He clinched the Triple Crown in 1948, and his record of 16 consecutive victories in major stakes races is rarely matched, showcasing his remarkable consistency and durability.

Why Citation is one of the greatest racehorses.

  • Citation was the eighth Triple Crown winner.
  • Won his first five races as a two-year-old.
  • Citation won 16 races in a row.
  • Won 19 of 20 races as a three-year-old
  • Champion 2-Yr-Old Colt
  • Champion 3-Yr-Old Colt 
  • Champion Male Handicap Horse
  • 1948 Horse of the Year
  • 1951 Champion Older Male Horse

Interesting facts about Citation:

  • Citation was the first horse to earn a million dollars.
  • Citations’ regular Jockey went missing on a fishing trip shortly before the Kentucky Derby and was never found.
  • Eddie Arcaro became Citations’ jockey.
  • In one Stakes race, he had no competitors. He was so dominant no one wanted to race against him.
  • Citation took a year off after his three-year-old season because of an injury.
Picture of Zenyatta running down the racetrack,
Zenyatta: By Raistlinsdaughter

4. Zenyatta

Zenyatta’s unconventional style, coming from behind to win in the final moments, captivated fans worldwide. She was nearly unbeatable, with 19 wins in 20 starts. In 2009, she became the first mare to win the Breeders’ Cup Classic, demonstrating the power of female racehorses at the highest level.

Why Zenyatta is one of the greatest racehorses.

  • Zenyatta has the North American record for consecutive wins at nineteen races.
  • She holds the record for consecutive graded stakes victories.
  • Zenyatta set the world record for most consecutive Grade I stakes wins at thirteen.
  • Set a new track record at Del Mar.
  • Set a new stakes record in the Lady’s Secret Stakes race
  • Zenyatta was the first mare to win the Breeders Cup Classic.
  • Her lone loss was by a neck in her second Breeder Cup Classic.
  • Zenyatta was the all-time money earner breaking the records of John Henry, Alysheeba, and Tiznow.
  • Zenyatta was the all-time Breeders Cup money earner.
  • Named Champion Older Female Horse
  • Awarded Horse of the Year

Interesting facts about the great racehorse Zenyatta:

  • Zenyatta was named after “the Police” album Zenyatta Mondatta
  • Zenyatta was a big horse, weighing over 1200 pounds and standing more than seventeen hands tall.
  • Zenyatta contracted a skin disease shortly before the yearling auction she entered to be sold.
  • She didn’t race as a two-year-old.
  • She often pranced in the paddock. Some people commented that Zenyatta seemed to dance for the crowds before each race.

5. Dr. Fager

Dr. Fager is likely the most talented twentieth-century racehorse you’ve never heard of. In 1968, Dr. Fager had an extraordinary year, becoming the only horse to win four championships in a single season. His record-setting mile in 1:32 1/5, accomplished while carrying 134 pounds, remains unbeaten on the dirt.

YouTube video

Why Dr. Fager is one of the greatest, even though he is not one of the triple crown winners.

  • 1967 Champion Sprinter
  • 1968 Horse of the Year,
  • 1969 Champion handicap horse,
  • 1968 Champion sprinter,
  • 1968 Co-champion grass horse
  • Set a new world record in the mile at 1:32​15. He performed this feat carrying 134 pounds.
  • Set the American record for seven furlongs

Interesting facts about Dr. Fager:

  • Won four titles in one season: Horse of the Year, Champion handicap horse, champion sprinter, and co-champion turf horse.
  • Dr. Fager was club-footed.
  • Dr. Fager was named after the neurosurgeon who saved the life of its trainer.
  • Dr. Fager missed the Kentucky Derby because he was sick.

6. Black Caviar

Australia’s Black Caviar is a marvel in modern horse racing. She retired undefeated, winning all 25 of her races and setting numerous records. Her victories spanned multiple countries, highlighting her adaptability and showcasing her talent on a global stage.

Why Black Caviar is one of the greatest.

  • She retired with a record of 25-0.
  • Black Caviar was the Australian Champion Sprinter
  • Black Caviar was named Australia’s Racehorse of the Year in 2011, 2012, and 2013.
  • She won Europe’s premier race, the Diamond Jubilee Stakes in England.
  • Black Caviar was named the European Champion Sprinter, the first horse to win the award outside of Europe.
  • She won 15 Group I races, which is similar to U.S. stakes races. This is an Australian record.
  • Sixty percent of her wins were in Grade I races.
  • Black Caviar broke the course record at the Lightning Stakes that had stood for twenty-five years.

Interesting facts about Black Caviar:

  • The two great fillies, Black Caviar and Zenyatta, raced during the same period.
  • Black Caviar broke Zenyatta’s record of consecutive wins.
  • Although Black Caviar was durable, she did tear a muscle during her win of the Royal Ascot and had to take some time off to recover.
  • When Black Caviar was shipped to England to race, she wore a compression suit for the thirty-hour trip. The suit was worn to help blood circulation.
Picture of Seattle Slew,

7. Seattle Slew

Seattle Slew’s rags-to-riches story captured hearts when the modestly bred horse won the 1977 Triple Crown. He was the first horse to win the title while undefeated, a testament to his exceptional abilities.

Why Seattle Slew dominated race tracks.

  • Seattle Slew won the Triple Crown.
  • He was named Champion Juvenile Colt.
  • Seattle Slew was the Champion Three-Year-Old and Older Male Horse in 1976, 1977, and 1978.
  • Seattle Slew was named American Horse of the Year in 1977.
  • Won ten major stakes races

Interesting facts about Seattle Slew:

  • Seattle Slew was not a pretty yearling and had a turned-out front foot.
  • Seattle Slew was purchased for just $17,500 at a yearling sale.
  • One of the owners of Seattle Slew was a lumberman from Washington State. Seattle Slew was named after the city of Seattle and a play on the word sloughs, a term used to describe a slow-moving waterway used to transport heavy logs. 
  • Seattle Slew contracted a career and life-threatening illness in his prime. The illness was attributed to an injection that missed the vein.
  • Seattle Slew recovered and ran a 1 1/8th mile in 1:45​4⁄5, just shy of the world record by 2/5ths of one second.

8. Kelso

Kelso’s career was marked by durability and consistency. He raced for eight seasons and won Horse of the Year five times—a record that still stands. Known for his adaptability, Kelso proved his greatness on dirt and turf, at various distances, and against formidable competition.

YouTube video

Why Kelso is one of the greatest racehorses.

  • Kelso beat more Hall of Fame racehorses than any horse ever has.
  • Kelso was named Three-Year-Old Champion Male.
  • He won six stakes races in 1960 and won the American Horse of the Year award.
  • Set a world record for two miles.
  • He set an American record for a mile and a half on turf.
  • Kelso set nine track records.
  • He won Horse of the Year honors five times, the most of any racehorse.
  • Upon his retirement, he was the highest money earner of all time.

Interesting facts about Kelso:

  • Kelso was called Kelly by his owners.
  • He was gelded because of his temperament; it didn’t help.
  • Kelso was considered a runt when he was young.
  • Kelso was the grandson of Triple Crown winner Count Fleet.
  • Kelso raced for eight seasons.

9. Eclipse

Eclipse, a dominant racehorse in the 18th century, is the foundation sire for many modern Thoroughbreds. Although he raced before formal records, his reputed victories and vast influence on Thoroughbred lineage secured his place among the greatest.

Eclipse won horse races of various distances, some as long as four miles.

  • He competed in eighteen races during his life, winning all of them, and was often ridden to the track.
  • Eclipse also won seven heats for a total of 25 wins.
  • Eclipse won eleven King’s Plates.
  • Eclipse won the Great Subscription Purse race—the most prestigious race of its time.
  • Eclipse beat the great racehorse Bucephalus in a match race.
  • A sampling of famous racehorses and successful sires that trace their lineage to Eclipse includes Bold Ruler, Secretariat, Mr. Prospector, American Pharoah, Danzig, Storm Cat, A.P. Indy, Giant’s Causeway, and Tapit. 

Interesting facts Eclipse:

  • Eclipse was foaled during a solar eclipse on April Fool’s Day in 1764.
  • He was sold to a sheep farmer.
  • Eclipse was worked hard and used by poachers before his racing career began.
  • Races were sometimes four miles long. In his eighteen races, he covered over 60 miles for an average distance of 3.3 miles.
  • Eclipse didn’t run his first race until he was five years old.
  • Eclipse retired from racing because no one wanted to race against him any longer.
  • It’s believed that over ninety percent of Thoroughbred racehorses have Eclipse in their pedigree.
  • An Eclipse Award Trophy is presented to each Thoroughbred racing division winner. It is voted on by the National Thoroughbred Racing Association, Daily Racing Form, and the National Turf Writers Association.

10. Kincsem

Kincsem, a Hungarian mare from the late 19th century, holds the unbeaten record for the most wins—54 victories in 54 races. Her story transcends borders, as she defeated male horses across Europe, and her legacy influenced breeding lines worldwide.

Why Kincsem is one of the greatest racehorses.

  • Kincsem was undefeated in 54 races. A record never matched by another racehorse.
  • Kincsem won Europe’s premier race at the time, the Goodwood Cup. This was a race open to all horses over three years old.
  • Kincsem won ten races as a two-year-old.
  • Kincsem won seventeen during her three-year-old campaign.
  • Kincsem won fifteen races as a four-year-old.
  • Kincsem won twelve races during her five-year-old season.

Interesting facts about Kincsem:

  • Kincsem won races in England, France, Germany, and Hungary.
  • Kincsem’s owner tried to sell her as a yearling, but she was rejected because prospective buyers thought her inferior.
  • Kinscem was a finicky horse; she only ate hay or grain from her stables.
  • Kinscem had a companion cat that traveled with her. Legend has it that Kinscem would refuse to move unless her cat was nearby.
  • Kinscem often traveled long distances by rail and ship to her races, which resulted in her losing weight.
YouTube video

Bonus: Ruffian

Ruffian stands out as a symbol of power and grace among the many names in horse racing history. With her brilliant racing record and indomitable spirit, this filly deserves recognition among the sport’s greatest.

Ruffian was a force to be reckoned with right from the start. She broke or equaled track records in her first eight races, becoming the first 2-year-old filly to win the Sorority Stakes, Spinaway Stakes, and Fashion Stakes. Her first year on the track was simply dazzling, earning her the 1974 Eclipse Award for Outstanding Two-Year-Old Filly.

As a three-year-old, Ruffian kept her winning streak alive, sweeping the New York Filly Triple Crown (now known as the Triple Tiara) in 1975, setting new stakes records in each race. Since the series was established, she was the first filly to accomplish this feat.

Ruffian’s raw talent was undeniable, but her unique racing style set her apart. She was known for her ‘wire-to-wire’ victories, leading the race from start to finish. Her power, speed, and determination were unmatched, making her a crowd favorite and a formidable opponent.

However, not just her victories and records make Ruffian a contender as the best racehorse. It’s also her impact on the sport and the wider world. Although tragically cut short, Ruffian’s career ignited a conversation about the welfare and treatment of racehorses.

Her legacy continues to influence policies and practices in horse racing today, and her story poignantly reminds us of the need for care and respect in the sport. Ruffian’s influence, combined with her extraordinary record and unforgettable spirit, rightly positions her among the greatest racehorses of all time.

Her name is more than just a footnote in racing history; it symbolizes strength, courage, and the raw, thrilling power of horse racing.

Picture of a thoroughbred stallion.

FAQs

What horse holds the most track records?

Secretariat holds the most track records. The chestnut colt set a still-standing record of 31 lengths in the 1973 Belmont Stakes, and his time in the Kentucky Derby also stands. He also set the track record at the Preakness in 1:53 flat.

How fast can a horse run?

The top speed of any racehorse is 55 mph, achieved by a quarter horse running in a 440-yard race. The top speed of a thoroughbred racehorse is 43.97 by Winning Brew, which is recognized in the Guinness World Records as the fastest horse.

What are the best horse racing breeds?

The best breed for horse racing is thoroughbreds; they’ve been bred to run for centuries. Quarter horses also race and typically compete at shorter distances and at a faster pace. Other breeds that race are the American Paint Horse, Arabian, and Appaloosa breeds.

The Criteria for Greatness in Racehorses

Determining the greatest racehorses of all time isn’t as simple as tallying up victories. There’s a lot more that goes into the equation. We must delve into a deeper understanding of horse performance, evaluating factors that extend beyond the track. Here are the main criteria we consider in our assessment.

Career Longevity

Consistency over time is a critical factor. Career longevity is often overlooked in the fast-paced world of horse racing, where new champions emerge every season. But a horse that can maintain its speed, strength, and agility over a significant period is a testament to its extraordinary prowess. It’s not just about one fantastic season; it’s about how long the horse can sustain its performance. A great racehorse won’t fade after a couple of seasons; it’ll keep on thundering down the track year after year.

Significant Victories

While we’re not simply counting wins, we can’t overlook the importance of landmark victories. Races like the Kentucky Derby, Preakness Stakes, Belmont Stakes, and Breeders’ Cup Classic are steeped in history and prestige. Winning these races requires exceptional talent and spirit. Therefore, these significant victories are substantial in determining a horse’s greatness.

Records Held

Holding a lifetime record is another sign of a horse’s extraordinary capability. This can include the fastest times on certain race tracks or the most earnings in a single season. These achievements demonstrate that the horse wasn’t just great—it was historically great. Records stand as benchmarks for future generations, marking the high points of the sport.

Impact on Horse Racing History

Finally, a horse’s impact on the sport is a defining measure of the greatest racehorses. Has the horse changed the way we view racing? Has it sparked a new generation of interest in the sport? Has it influenced breeding practices or training techniques?

The most impactful horses leave a lasting legacy, becoming icons that transcend their sport. The way we remember them, tell stories about them, and regard them in the annals of horse racing is a powerful marker of their greatness.

In conclusion, assessing the greatest racehorses isn’t an exact science—it’s a mixture of hard facts and subjective considerations. But when a horse has a prolonged career filled with significant victories, holds remarkable records, and leaves an indelible mark on horse racing history, it rightfully deserves a place among the greatest.

Conclusion

Horse racing is a captivating blend of raw power, strategic tactics, and unyielding spirit. At the heart of this thrilling sport lie these extraordinary horses that have etched their names in the annals of history. Each equine legend—from Man O’ War’s exceptional strides, Secretariat’s record-shattering Triple Crown, to Zenyatta’s nail-biting finishes—has contributed to the rich tapestry of horse racing.

Their records and victories testify to their prowess and the dedicated teams working behind the scenes. But beyond the statistics and accolades, these horses have left an indelible mark on the sport itself. They’ve influenced breeding practices and training techniques and reshaped the way we perceive the sport.

Though not officially on our top ten list, Ruffian’s story exemplifies the broader impact a racehorse can have. Her tragically brief career triggered essential conversations about the welfare of racehorses, reminding us that these animals’ well-being should always be at the forefront.

Horse racing isn’t merely a pursuit of the next record-breaker or the next great champion, although that thrill of discovery is a vital part of the sport’s appeal. It’s also about the stories that unfold on the racetrack—the underdog’s triumph, the dynasty’s formation, the unexpected comeback, the poignant end.

The enduring appeal of horse racing lies in these narratives, told through thundering hooves and the strength of a horse’s spirit. As we celebrate the greatest racehorses of the past, we also look forward to the potential legends of the future, waiting to make their mark on this exhilarating sport.

Through every race, every season, the legacy of these legendary horses lives on, inspiring new generations of horse racing enthusiasts and paving the way for future greatness. Here’s to the ongoing thrill of horse races and the exceptional athletes that make this sport truly remarkable.

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