The 12 Greatest Race Horses of All Time

The recent rise of Arrogate ignited some controversy among racing fans. There were some people who were willing to proclaim Arrogate as the greatest race horse of all time, even above Secretariat. While there are many opinions about which horse is best, there is one benchmark that none can deny: winning the Triple Crown. If the greatest honor in horse racing was used to define which horses are the best, here is a complete list of the 12 greatest race horses of all time.


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12—Sir Barton 1919

In 1919 Sir Barton would become the very first winner of the Triple Crown. John E. Madden bred his colt in Kentucky and decided to retain an ownership interest as the horse began his racing career. The decision initially looked to be a poor one. Sir Barton was relatively unimpressive in his two-year-old year and entered the Kentucky Derby without a single win to his credit. This would be unheard of today.

Sir Barton captured the Kentucky Derby and then a mere four days later won the Preakness. By the time he captured the Belmont Stakes, Sir Barton had won four races in just 32 days. This is also something that most horsemen would not even think of doing today.

11—Gallant Fox 1930

His career only lasted from 1929 to 1930 but Gallant Fox managed to win 11 of his 17 career races. These wins included the 1930 Kentucky Derby, Preakness, and Belmont, making him the second horse to capture the Triple Crown. This feat was still so fare at the time that the term Triple Crown was not actually in use. It was invented by a reporter who used the term to describe the achievements of Gallant Fox.

Gallant Fox was trained by “Sunny Jim” Fitzsimmons. The horse was placed in the Racing Hall of Fame in 1957 and even has a street named after him in Bowie, Maryland. Even though he was an amazing horse, Gallant Fox is often overlooked by those who try to recall the winners of the Triple Crown.

EZ Horse Betting Fun Fact

In the early days of the Triple Crown the Preakness was the first race in the sequence. Many argue this would make more sense today because the Preakness is also the shortest event in the current Triple Crown series. Today the Kentucky Derby kicks off the series on the first Saturday in May

10—Omaha 1935

Omaha is another Triple Crown winner that is overlooked. The chestnut horse was bred by Claiborne Farms and only won nine of his 22 races. Omaha also is noteworthy as the first son of a Triple Crown winner. He was sired by Gallant Fox. The horse gave trainer James Fitzsimmons his second Triple Crown victory.

Like Secretariat, Omaha failed to win the Wood Memorial in the weeks leading up to the Kentucky Derby. It was also considered early in his career to send him to England but this plan never panned out. Omaha did eventually reach the UK in four-year-old year and managed to fare well in important races like the Ascot Gold Cup. Plans for Omaha to compete in his five-year-old year were abandoned when the horse came up lame and did not recover. He was sent to begin stud service at five but never matured as a stallion.

9—War Admiral 1937

The 1930’s proved to be one of the golden decades of horse racing. While Gallant Fox and Omaha were impressive runners, the decade would be brought to a close by a horse the likes of which racing had never seen. At almost 17 hands tall War Admiral was a monster, and he had the temperament to back it up. Few people enjoyed working around War Admiral, and he could also be an intimidating foe on the track.

War Admiral was owned by Samuel Riddle and trained by George Conway. He breezed through the three races of the Triple Crown with ease and was poised to dominate his way to retirement. Then came a small horse named Seabiscuit. The owners of Seabiscuit pursued War Admiral and pressed Riddle for a match race. Eventually, Riddle consented. It would be a mistake he regretted for many years.

Seabiscuit and War Admiral faced off at Pimlico Racecourse in a match race that drew the attention of America. Attendance records were broken at Pimlico that day and many more tuned in to their radios for a live broadcast. Seabiscuit handed War Admiral a sound defeat and established himself worthy of consideration as the greatest ever even though he didn’t even compete in the Triple Crown series.

8—Whirlaway 1941

If the 1930’s were a golden age for horse racing, the 1940’s could be considered platinum. It began in 1941 with Whirlaway. The colt was a superstar who lends credence to the theory that thoroughbreds are quirky creatures. Whirlaway had multiple habits. Some were good and some were bad. He was notorious for “drifting” during a race, meaning that he would often find himself in the lane of another horse.

Whirlaway was owned by Calumet Farms and trained by Ben A. Jones. Trainer Jones found ways to deal with Whirlaway’s drifting problem. He outfitted the horse with a blinker over his right eye and cut a small hole in it to permit just a tiny field of vision. When preparing for the Kentucky Derby Jones would have jockey Eddie Arcaro gallop Whirlaway along the rail while he stood ten feet to the outside. This helped the horse to focus and remain on a straight path.

Eddie Arcaro was the jockey who rode Whirlaway to his Triple Crown conquest, but in 1942 the horse continued to race with jockey George Woolf. He would ultimately retire with an amazing 32 wins to his credit. For all of those wins he only earned $561,161. Most horses today don’t even race 32 times in the career, much less win that many.

7—Count Fleet

Count Fleet became the first Triple Crown winner that was owned by a woman. Many people also forget that he won the Belmont Stakes by 25 lengths, the largest margin until Secretariat’s victory in 1973. By all standards, Count Fleet could be considered the best horse of his generation.

He never lost a race in his three-year-old campaign on the way to taking the Triple Crown, and Count Fleet never finished worse than third in his entire career. He retired with 16 wins from 21 tries and earnings of $250,300. Studying the earnings of past Triple Crown winners provides a keen insight into how much race purses have grown in recent years.

In 1951 and 1963 Count Fleet was at the top of the stallion list in America. He sired winners of the Kentucky Derby and Belmont Stakes. When Count Fleet died he was 33 years old, making him the longest lived winner of the Kentucky Derby.

6—Assault 1946

One of the most legendary ranches in the United States is the King Ranch in Texas. It comprises multiple counties and over 800,000 acres. It has even been honored with its own line of automobiles. What many people may not know is that the ranch is also responsible for giving horse racing its 7th Triple Crown winner. Assault was bred and owned by King Ranch.

Trained by Max Hirsch, Assault was a strapping chestnut colt sired by Bold Venture. The horse was unlucky in his early years. Multiple injuries delayed the start of his racing career. At one point he stepped on a surveyor’s stake and badly injured his hoof. The hoof never healed properly and as a result Assault had a strange running style. He was nicknamed the “Club-footed Comet.” It is amazing to think of what a horse can accomplish despite physical ailments.

Assault is the only Triple Crown winner to have ever been bred in Texas. He earned over $675,000 in his career and was retired to stud at the King Ranch. His attempts to breed were unsuccessful. Apparently, the horse was sterile. It is believed that he may have bred some of the ranch’s mares in the pasture but no one knows for sure. What is known is that he died on the same ranch where he was born in 1971 at the age of 28.

5—Citation 1948

Citation brought the 1940’s to a close with a dominant 1948 sweep of the Triple Crown. Calumet Farm owned and bred the horse and he became the first horse to retire with earnings of more than $1 million. Citation was a bay horse trained by Ben A. Jones, the trainer of Whirlaway. The win gave Jones his second Triple Crown of the 1940’s.

Citation was also the next Triple Crown victory for Eddie Arcaro. The jockey was becoming a regular fixture in the winner’s circle at racing’s biggest events and would go on to be regarded as perhaps the greatest rider of all time. Arcaro regularly rode for Ben Jones and Calumet Farm.

Although Citation did not see racing action in 1949, he did return to the racetrack in 1950 for his 5-year-old season. He returned with a win at Santa Anita that was his 16th straight victory. That record would stand until Cigar equaled it in 1996. The injury that sidelined him in 1949 continued to bother him but Calumet continued to race the horse in 1951 as they chased the $1 million dollar earnings mark, a feat that was accomplished with a win in the Hollywood Gold Cup.

Citation did his stud service at Calumet Farm where he was reportedly terrorized by the owner’s Yorkshire Terrier named Timmy Tammy. He died at the age of 25 and was buried on the farm.

4—Secretariat 1973

It would be hard to disagree with the statement that Big Red was the best of the best. The Virginia-bred horse was owned by Penny Chenery’s Meadow Stable. Chenery and trainer Lucien Lauren were no stranger to making a run at the Triple Crown. They had made an attempt at the feat in 1972 with Riva Ridge and fell one race short. 1973 was to be the year, however, and Secretariat’s 30-plus length victory in the Belmont Stakes is one that will never be forgotten.

His legend has inspired movies and documentaries. The film footage of his amazing wins still thrill racing fans today. There are so many stories about Secretariat that it is hard to tell what is fact and what is fiction. One thing that is widely known is that when the horse passed away he was autopsied. It was discovered that his heart was about twice as large as that of the normal thoroughbred.

3—Seattle Slew 1977

Seattle Slew was bred by Ben S. Castleman and owned by Mickey and Karen Taylor. The two of them had been horse owners for several years but never approached anything like the success they would have with Seattle Slew. The owners were not very well known in thoroughbred circles and they chose to send Seattle Slew to a trainer who was almost as unknown. Billy Turner had trained horses in Maryland with moderate success before he took over the conditioning of the bay colt.

Seattle Slew raced a total of 17 times in his short career. He won 14 of those races to earn a total of $1.2 million. In his life after his Triple Crown Seattle Slew went on to face Affirmed in the 1978 running of the Marlboro Cup. Seattle Slew won that contest and also outran Affirmed in the Jockey Club Gold Cup although he lost the race to Exceller.

The horse was sent to stud at Spendthrift Farm and sired many successful race horses. Among these was Slew O’ Gold who garnered multiple Eclipse Awards. Seattle Slew also continued his male line through A.P. Indy who has also sired many great champions. He passed away at the age of 28 on the 25th anniversary of his Kentucky Derby win. As a tribute, Seattle Slew had his entire body interred.

2—Affirmed 1978

Just one year after the Triple Crown triumph of Seattle Slew, Affirmed appeared on the scene to once again claim the crown. This chestnut colt was bred and owned by Harbor View Farm. He was trained by Laz Barerra and ridden by Steve Cauthen.

Aside from his Triple Crown win, Affirmed is also remembered for his rivalry with Alydar. The horses met six times with Affirmed winning four of the contests. When Cauthen began riding Affirmed in his two-year-old year, the jockey was still a teenager. He subsequently became one of the few jockeys to be featured on the cover of Sports Illustrated and other national publications. Cauthen would end his career just a short time later when ongoing weight problems and other issues became too much to handle.

Affirmed was syndicated at stud for more than $14 million. This was a record at the time in the thoroughbred breeding industry. Her went on to sire more than 80 stakes winners who earned more than $40 million on the track.

1—American Pharoah 2015

When American Pharoah entered the starting gate of the Belmont Stakes the eyes of the entire world were watching. It had been 37 years since Affirmed last claimed the crown. Thoroughbred racing was in need of a champion and American Pharoah delivered. He won all three events with ease and also went on the capture the Breeders’ Cup Classic in his three-year-old year.

What many people will always remember about American Pharoah is his gentleness toward humans. After the Triple Crown victory, trainer Bob Baffert brought out American Pharoah for a photo session and allowed reporters to approach and pet the horse. He never flinched and seemed to enjoy all of the attention that was being thrust upon him.

American Pharoah now stands at Coolmore Stud where he has begun to sire a crop of future winners. He has also been shipped to Australia for the breeding season there. Some have estimated that his value as a stud could exceed $50 million.

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3 comments on “The 12 Greatest Race Horses of All Time

  • Steven V. Salcedo

    This is an awesome list of great champions! I was a little surprised that War admiral was as low as 9 and pleasantly surprised Seattle Slew was as high as 3 ahead of 4 Secretariat! Although American Pharoah may be considered the greatest by some, I believe Secretariat is the greatest horse of all time, as I also believe Sea Biscuit is the greatest story of all time!

    • admin

      Thanks for your comment, Steven. We love list of these types because they often encourage discussion. Our list is made in no particular order and solely represents our opinion. We could make a strong case for all of the horses you mention, and many others. Thanks for chiming in, and good luck at the track!

  • carl

    when Affirmed won the belmont down the stretch the colt had nothing left but ALL HEART
    and although there were some months in between races with seattle slew winning i think the
    still totally unfair because that belmont stakes affirmed won took enough out of the horse for him to ever really recuperate besides losing a saddle during the one of 2 trys against slew HORSE NAMED EXCELLER blew by slew in one of those races as if he was meaning slew a diesal!————slew never had a great horse like alydar chasing him————AFFIRMED WAS THE GREATEST!


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