The most famous racehorses in history

By Captain Thomsen on 07 Apr 2020

It has been over three hundred years since thoroughbred horses were introduced to the West from the Middle East, revolutionising the sport of horseracing. Yet of the tens of thousands of horses that have been bred and raced across the world in this time, only a handful are counted among the most famous racehorses in history.



Eclipse was arguably the greatest racehorse of the 18th century, racing in an era when the sport held little resemblance to modern horseracing. Eclipse won every race of his 18-race career, running distances of between 2 and 4 miles. His dominance was so marked that it led to the coining of the phrase "the rest were nowhere" in relation to decisive victories. His exploits are remembered to this day and the Group 1 Eclipse Stakes, France's Prix Eclipse and the US Eclipse Horse Racing Awards, are named in his honour.


West Australian


West Australian's career didn't have an auspicious start - he lost the first race of his career. However, this unremarkable juvenile turned into a champion, reserving his finest performances for his season as a three-year-old. In 1853, West Australian became the first racehorse in history to claim the UK Triple Crown, winning the 2,000 Guineas, Epsom Derby and St. Leger Stakes. As a four-year-old, he also claimed the Ascot Gold Cup.


Flying Fox


Flying Fox was one of the most celebrated racehorses of the Victorian era. He was notorious for his poor temperament and, as a result, was raced for just two years. During this time he dominated his opponents. As a three-year-old, he went unbeaten, claiming the Triple Crown along with the Eclipse Stakes and Princess of Wales's Stakes. Flying Fox went on to become an important sire, with descendants including the US Triple Crown champion, Coaltown.


Man O' War


Man O' War battered his way into the history books with some of the most powerful performances in the history of American racing. He won nine of his ten races as a juvenile, and went on to draw national attention by destroying the field in some of the country's most popular races. His feats included winning the Belmont Stakes by 20 lengths and the Kenilworth Park Gold Cup by an astonishing 100 lengths. Towards the end of his career, it became increasingly difficult to find trainers willing to pit their horses against him, and he was retired in 1920 after receiving the Horse of the Year Award. Today many racing experts consider Man O'War to be the finest racehorse of all time.


Phar Lap

Phar Lap
via The ABC


Phar Lap was the first racehorse to put Australasian horse racing on the map. Foaled in New Zealand, he spent the majority of his career racing in Australia, where he won a selection of the country's most prestigious races, including the Melbourne Cup, Victoria Derby and Cox Plate. He was famous for his imposing physique, standing 17 hands tall and powered by a heart that weighed almost twice that of the average racehorse. His career had a tragic end - Phar Lap died of a suspected arsenic poisoning shortly after beating a selection of America's most highly rated racehorses in the Agua Caliente Handicap in Mexico.




Seabiscuit's rag to riches story is the stuff of legend. A descendent of the famous Man O' War, he appeared to have inherited none of his grandsire's fire or passion when he began his racing career. In fact he lost his first 17 races, finishing most of these at the back of the field. He was eventually sold off to trainer, Tom Smith, who recognized the horse's potential and used his innovative training techniques to turn him into the most dominant handicap racehorse in the United States. The defining moment of Seabiscuit's career was his match race against Triple Crown winner, War Admiral. Watched by 40,000 race goers, Seabiscuit defeated the ¼ favourite by four lengths and was rewarded with the US Horse of the Year Award for his heroism in the race.




No racehorse has captured the imagination of the Irish public in quite the way Arkle did. Known for his versatility, he won races over a variety of distances and ground conditions, taking the Cheltenham Gold Cup three years in succession, the Hennessy Gold Cup twice, the King George V Chase and the Punchestown Gold Cup. His incredible stamina was highlighted at the Irish Grand National, where he won Ireland's most gruelling handicap chase despite carrying two and half stone more than any other horse in the field. At his peak, Arkle carried a Timeform rating of 212, the highest Timeform rating that has ever been awarded to a steeplechaser.




In recent years a couple of French Group 1 races have become important proving grounds for top rated British thoroughbred talent. However, prior to the 1960s races across the pond rarely captured the attention of the British racing public. This changed in 1965 when Sea-Bird won two French Group one races in a row and then crossed the Channel to win the Epsom Derby. Sea-Bird went on to win another two Group 1 races later that season, including a famous win in the Prix de l’Arc de Triomph, where he put away a field including the winners of the Irish Derby, Preakness Stakes and French Derby by six lengths.


Red Rum


If Seabiscuit's heroism stole the hearts of Americans during the depression era, Red Rum did the same during the darkest days of the 1970s recession in the UK. Born with an incurable and debilitating bone disease, and bred to compete over just a mile, Red Rum achieved the unlikely feat of winning the Grand National three times in five years. Not only that, but he finished as runner-up in the 4 mile, 4 furlong handicap on the two occasions he failed to win the race. The most famous of Red Rum's victories was in the 1977 Grand National, where he became the only horse in history to win back the Grand National title. Red Rum completed his national hunt career without sustaining a single fall, and lived until the ripe old age of 30.




Nine horses won the English Triple Crown between 1953 and 1900, and another five managed the feat over the next four decades. However, the supply of champion racehorses then dried up. It was only in 1969 that a horse again demonstrated the sort of talent and versatility required to win the Triple Crown. In his two-year-old season, Nijinsky went unbeaten, winning four consecutive races at the Curragh before moving onto England, where he claimed the Dewhurst Stakes. The following season, he put in a series of commanding performances, winning the 2,000 Guineas and both the Epsom Derby and Irish Derby. He also claimed the King George VI & Queen Elizabeth Stakes and the St. Leger Stakes, which he won by a length to become the first and last Triple Crown winner since 1935.


Brigadier Gerard

Brigadier Gerard racehorse


If versatility is the measure of greatness, Brigadier Gerard would be considered the finest racehorse of all time. Unbeaten as a 2- and 3-year-old, he won a number of Group 1 races in England, including the Middle Park Stakes, 2000 Guineas, St James’s Palace Stakes, Sussex Stakes, Queen Elizabeth II Stakes and Champion Stakes. Unbeaten as a miler, he stepped up to middle distance races as a 4-year-old, winning the Lockinge Stakes, Prince of Wales’s Stakes and Eclipse Stakes over 1 mile 2 furlongs. He also took a Group 1 win over a mile and a half in the King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Stakes. Brigadier Gerard retired having lost just 1 of his 18 career races




That Secretariat was destined for great things was apparent in his season as a juvenile, during which he thoroughly dominated his rival two-year-olds. He became the first juvenile in history to win the Horse of the Year Award. However, it was his performances in the US Triple Crown races that would etch his place in the history books. Starting from last place, Secretariat became the first horse to win the Kentucky Derby in under 2 minutes. At the Preakness Stakes, he produced another powerful performance, not only winning the race but setting an unbeaten track record. He then topped both those performances by winning the Belmont Stakes, and with it the Triple Crown. Racing against a field of just four racehorses, Secretariat beat the field by a stunning 31 lengths. In doing so, he set the fastest time in history for a 1 mile 4 furlong race on a dirt track.


Makybe Diva


Billed as the "race that stops a nation", the Melbourne Cup is Australia's toughest and most prestigious horse race. It's this race that set the scene for the sensational achievements of one of the greatest mares in the history of horseracing. Unlike other champion mares who achieved their biggest victories against all-female fields, Makybe Diva outclassed some of the world's leading colts. She succeeded in winning a record-breaking three Melbourne Cup titles. She also claimed a host of other major race titles, including the Cox Plate and Sydney Cup. Makybe Diva finished her career as the highest earning racehorse in Australian history.


Black Caviar

Black Caviar racehorse


It is highly unlikely that the world will ever see a sprinter of Black Caviar’s calibre again. In fact she can make a sincere claim to being not only the greatest filly of all time, but the greatest racehorse in history. During her career she ran 25 races, winning all of them, including 15 Group 1 titles. Even more impressively all these wins were taken over sprint distances, notorious for their competitive, unpredictable nature. Her achievements were not restricted to Australian soil either, in 2012 she won the Group 1 Diamond Jubilee Stakes at Royal Ascot.


Sea The Stars


Few would have suspected that Sea The Stars would set the racing world alight when he finished the first race of his career in fourth place back in 2008. However, that was the last time that Sea The Stars would lose a race. He won his next two races as a juvenile before producing arguably the finest season by a three-year-old middle-distance racehorse in British racing history. After winning the 2009 2,000 Guineas, he claimed the Epsom Derby, following that up with wins in the Group 1 Eclipse Stakes, International Stakes and Irish Champion Stakes. In the last race of his career, Sea The Stars beat a world-class field to claim the Prix de l'Arc de Triomph, becoming the first horse in history to claim the Guineas, Derby and Prix de l'Arc de Triomph treble.




It is unlikely that another mare will ever match the achievements of American champion, Zenyatta. In a career that spanned four seasons and 20 races, she suffered just one defeat. Her greatest achievement came at the 2009 Breeders' Cup meeting, where she defeated a Breeders' Cup Classic field that included that year's Kentucky Derby and Belmont Stakes winners, as well as two European Group 1 winners. In doing so she became the first mare to win the Breeders' Cup Classic and the first horse to win two different races at the Breeders' Cup. Ironically, the only defeat of her career was suffered in the same race the following year, when she failed to retain the Breeders' Cup Classic title by a margin of just inches.




Frankel is considered by pundits to be the greatest racehorse in the history of British thoroughbred racing. During a career that spanned fourteen races, Frankel was never beaten. His accomplishments included eleven Group 1 wins, including the 2,000 Guineas. The only thing that restricted Frankel’s achievements was his specialisation as a miler, which prevented him from attempting a Triple Crown by competing in either the Epsom Derby or the St. Leger Stakes. Nevertheless he proved to be handy over longer distances later in his career, taking the 1 mile 2 furlong Champion Stakes and International Stakes as a 4-year-old.



Winx racehorse


While Winx had a modest start to her career, suffering the only losses of her career as a 3-year-old, between 2015 and her retirement in 2019 this filly was without doubt the finest racehorse in the world. Like her compatriot, Black Caviar, she primarily competed in races under a mile, racking up 33 consecutive wins, including 25 Group 1 race titles. Her plaudits included winning the Australian Horse of the Year award four years in succession. Her greatest achievement came in the Cox Plate, which she won four times, becoming the most prolific winner in the history of this prestigious race.


American Pharoah


37 years had passed since a racehorse had last won the American Triple Crown when a field of 18 lined up for the 2015 Kentucky Derby. That race turned out be a hard-fought affair, with the temperamental favourite, American Pharoah, winning by just a length. It was not until he won the 2015 Preakness Stakes by five lengths on a wet track that it became apparent that American Pharoah might make history. At the Belmont Stakes American Pharoah was the only horse in the field to have competed in all three Triple Crown races, yet beat the field comprehensively, taking the race by five and a half lengths. American Pharoah would suffer an unexpected defeat in the Travers Stakes before consolidating his place as one of the all-time greats. At the 2015 Breeders Cup American Pharoah became the first ‘Grand Slam’ champion in racing history as he beat a world class field to add the Breeders’ Cup Classic title to his Triple Crown.

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