Last Updated: May 25, 2021
Horse racing is one of the oldest human sports, with origins dating back to 4,500 BCE and the nomadic tribesmen that inhabited Central Asia at the time—the first group of people to domesticate horses. Today, horse racing is still big business, and it’s one of the few forms of gambling that’s legal in the US, as well as the rest of the world.
Throughout the centuries of horse racing, many stars have been born. Granted, a lot of those horses lived hundreds or even thousands of years ago. We no longer know of their names or stories, but there are plenty of modern racehorse legends to look at. On this list, you’ll read about the 15 racehorses with the largest claims to fame; the names that are most likely to be recognized by the average person today.
Any horse with its own movie is bound to be famous. After all, the name Secretariat was made household when the feature film of the same name premiered in 2010, bringing Secretariat’s story to a new generation of fans. Though the actual horse died in 1989, it’s perhaps now more famous than ever.
That fame is well deserved, as Secretariat achieved some serious accolades, including American Horse of the Year in 1972 and 1973, winner of the Triple Crown in 1973, and fastest recorded times in all three Triple Crown events in North America. Since being named Horse of the Year at just 2 years old, only one other horse ever managed the same. Unfortunately, Secretariat was inflicted with a serious hoof condition called laminitis, which ultimately resulted in his euthanization.
Here’s another horse that’s current fame can be mostly attributed to a feature film release. Released in 2003, this film also used the same name as the horse it was based on. In the 1930s, Seabiscuit won more money than any other horse on the circuit, propelling it to immediate fame. Seabiscuit managed to beat War Admiral by four lengths in a race dubbed the “match of the century”, who was the 1937 Triple-Crown winner. This led to Seabiscuit earning the vote for American Horse of the Year in 1938.
Seabiscuit’s story is incredible, and that’s why they turned it into a movie. His jockey had just one eye, and the pair were never expected to win. However, they ended up winning 11 of the 15 races they competed in. Though it’s been more than 80 years since the end of Seabiscuit’s reign, even those who aren’t fans of horse racing know about him, making him one of the most famous racehorses of all time.
3. Man o’ War
Of all the famous racehorses on this list, aside from those with a feature film about their lives, Man o’ War is probably the name most likely to be known by the average person. This horse was born in 1917 and won just shy of $250,000 throughout its career. While this might not sound like an incredible sum, that’s equal to more than 3 million dollars today! What’s most amazing about this is that Man o’ War was purchased for a mere $5,000!
This horse earned its name for its fierce and violent temper. However, it’s also credited with saving horse racing in America during the first world war. Unfortunately, Man o’ War’s owner never allowed him to run in the Triple Crown. His offspring did though, with the name of War Admiral; the same horse that lost to Seabiscuit in the “Match of the Century,” and helped propel Seabiscuit to such amazing fame.
4. Red Rum
Steeplechase horse racing is a special type of sport that combines the flat-out incredible sprint speeds of Thoroughbred racing with hurdles and jumping. It’s a thrilling and high-adrenaline sport, and Red Rum is one of the best horses to ever compete. Red Rum became a national champion at steeplechase in 1973, 1974, and 1977. In 1973, it even overcame a 30-length deficit to make an incredible comeback and win that year’s Grand National.
But Red Rum’s impact can’t be measured by its wins. This horse came at a time when the United Kingdom was undergoing a major recession. Red Rum managed to win hearts and lift spirits, despite being born with an incurable disease.
Affirmed was named the US national champion at ages 2, 3, and 4, which is an exceptional feat. In 1978, Affirmed won the Triple Crown and was the last horse to do so for nearly 40 years until American Pharaoh managed to break the drought and win the Triple Crown in 2015. However, when Affirmed won in 1978, it wasn’t all that celebrated because Seattle Slew had managed to do the same in 1977.
To really understand how dominant Affirmed was, you have to look at his overall record. Professionally, this horse had 29 starts, 28 of which he finished in the money. Out of those 29 races, Affirmed had 22 first-place wins and five second-places, losing exclusively to big names like Seattle Slew and Alydar.
6. Seattle Slew
Seattle Slew’s claims to fame are many. This horse was utterly dominant during its time, more so than almost any horse ever. In his first race, Seattle Slew crushed the competition, winning by five lengths. Later that year, he dominated the Champagne Stakes by an even greater margin of nearly 10 lengths, setting a new record on the course with a time of 1:34.40.
In his second season, things remained the same and Seattle Slew kept winning. He had six races that year, winning all six, including the Triple Crown of the Kentucky Derby, Belmont Stakes, and Preakness Stakes. But this was no ordinary Triple Crown victory since it made Seattle Slew the first horse to win all three as an undefeated racer. Like Affirmed, Seattle Slew was named US Champion at 2, 3, and 4 years old, while also earning the title of American Horse of the Year in 1977; the same year he won the Triple Crown.
Many of the horses on this list were already proven winners and national champions before they turned 3 years old. That’s not the case for Kelso, who didn’t start really winning until he was 3, but in the end, Kelso ended up with more achievements than practically any horse ever. As a 2-year-old, Kelso managed one win and two second-place finishes.
During his third year, Kelso didn’t begin racing until after the Triple Crown had already finished. That year, he raced nine times, winning eight and placing second at the ninth. More impressive though, is the records he set that year of the fastest mile ever run at Aqueduct by a 3-year-old. Things only got better from here, as Kelso won Horse of the Year the next four seasons, making him the only five-time recipient of the award.
Kelso ended up setting two more records, including a record for the fastest two-mile time on dirt, and the fastest 1.5 miles recorded on grass. He was the all-time leader of horseracing earnings in 1966 when he was forced to retire due to a fracture in one of his feet.
Winx might be the greatest racehorse to ever come out of Australia. She’s won more high-level races than any horse in the world; a total of 25 Grade/Group 1 wins to her name. Continuing her list of achievements, she’s earned more money than any horse from the Southern Hemisphere, with a total of more than $25 million in winnings. She also set a record with four consecutive wins at the Moonee Valley Cox Plate. Additionally, she was the Australian Horse of the Year in 2015, 2016, 2018, and 2019.
Amazingly, Winx managed to string together a 33-race win streak. In 2017, she was inducted into the Australian Racing Hall of Fame; only the third horse to manage it while still actively racing.
Zenyatta and Winx come from the same sire, so it’s not terribly surprising that they both produced seriously impressive careers. Granted, Zenyatta didn’t earn anywhere near as much as Winx did throughout her career, though she still managed an incredible record of 19 wins and just one loss in 20 career starts. The best part of her story? She was purchased for just $60,000, which is actually rather cheap for a racehorse; especially one that produces a record like Zenyatta did.
Though just barely missing an undefeated retirement, Zenyatta had some impressive earnings. Throughout her career, she brought in more than 7 million in winnings, including 2.7 million for a first-place finish in the Breeders’ Cup Classic. She was American Horse of the Year in 2010 at the age of 6.
Citation’s career ended 70 years ago, yet his accomplishments were so legendary that his name lives on today. During his career, Citation managed a 16-race winning streak of major stakes races. He won the North American Triple Crown in 1948, and for the next 25 years, no other horse managed to do so. Surprisingly, Citation had overcome a major hurdle earlier that year when his long-time jockey died. Still, he outperformed the competition by a massive margin that year, winning each of the Triple Crown races by a margin of no less than 5.5 lengths.
In 1949, Citation’s career got paused when arthritis forced him to take off a year from competitive racing. He returned in 1950 to claim his 16th consecutive victory, which was a record that went unbroken for almost 50 years. Later that year after a loss broke his winning streak, Citation managed to win the Hollywood Gold Cup, making him the first horse ever to earn $1 million in winnings.
11. American Pharaoh
In 1978, Affirmed won the Triple Crown, beginning a drought that would see 37 years without a horse claiming Triple Crown victory. But in 2015, a horse named American Pharaoh broke that streak by winning all three Triple Crown races, as well as the Breeders’ Cup Classic, completing the Grand Slam of Thoroughbred racing, making him the first horse to ever do so.
While dominating the competition in 2015, American Pharaoh managed to set the fastest time ever in the final quarter-mile of Belmont Stakes. His win at the Kentucky Derby was very close though, with American Pharaoh only pulling ahead by a single length, though he won the Preakness with a much wider margin of seven lengths.
Because of a stud agreement that was already in place, American Pharaoh retired after his 3-year-old season, unlike most winning horses. In 2015, American Pharaoh earned more than $8 million in winnings, setting a record for earnings in a single season.
12. Black Caviar
Few horses retire with an undefeated record, though Black Caviar accomplished this incredible feat, retiring with a record of 25 wins and no losses. Of those, 15 were Grade 1 wins, and she’s considered to be one of the best sprinters in history. Three times during her five-year career she was named Australian Racehorse of the Year, and she was even named European Champion Sprinter at the Cartier Racing Awards, making her the first non-European horse to ever earn the title.
Black Caviar’s undefeated record of 25-0 is pretty impressive, but it doesn’t come close to Kincsem’s record of 54-0! With more than twice as many wins as Black Caviar on a record that remains undefeated, Kincsam might be the most dominant champion in history. Granted, this mare raced back in the 1800s, and competition probably wasn’t as cutthroat as it is today. Still, she defeated all of the top competition at the time and even earned a full-size statue and park named after her in Budapest.
14. Native Dancer
Out of 22 career starts, Native Dancer placed first in 21. Of course, the Kentucky Derby was the one race he lost, causing him to miss the prestigious title of Triple Crown winner. Despite this, he’s one of only six horses in history to win the Preakness Stakes, Belmont Stakes, and Travers Stakes, making him one race away from winning a superfecta. Native Dancer’s winning didn’t end with retirement though since he sired many other winners, including Affirmed.
15. Spectacular Bid
Though Spectacular Bid earned some impressive bids and set several records, injuries plagued his career. He nearly earned a Triple Crown, but a safety pin ended up puncturing his hoof prior to the race. An infection from this caused him to sit out the remainder of the season. When he returned during his fourth year, he won all nine of his races, even setting five track records along the way, before an injured ankle necessitated an early retirement.
Throughout the many thousands of years that horse racing has persisted, there have been countless dominant champions that earned the admiration of people that witnessed their amazing deeds. The horses on this list are all part of that select group, but these are the ones that completed their amazing career achievements within recent memory, making them the most famous racehorses of the modern era, and likely, of all time.
Featured Image Credit: Pixabay
An avid outdoorsman, Dean spends much of his time adventuring through the diverse terrain of the southwest United States with his closest companion, his dog, Gohan. He gains experience on a full-time journey of exploration. For Dean, few passions lie closer to his heart than learning. An apt researcher and reader, he loves to investigate interesting topics such as history, economics, relationships, pets, politics, and more.