Which were the top five American racehorses of all time?
American humourist Will Rogers once said, ‘A difference of opinion is what makes horse racing and missionaries’. It’s that same ‘difference of opinion’ that makes compiling a definitive list of the top five American racehorses of all time an impossibility. The best we can do, really, is to make a few, entirely subjective, suggestions based on the general consensus. Of course, the U.S. Racing season inevitably revolves around the Triple Crown races – namely the Kentucky Derby, Preakness Stakes and Belmont Stakes – so it should come as no surprise that Triple Crown winners figure prominently among our suggestions.
That said, arguably the greatest American racehorse of the twentieth century, Man O’ War, did not contest, never mind win, the Kentucky Derby. His owner, Samuel Riddle, reportedly expressed concerns about the mile-and-a-quarter distance so early in the year and about the proximity of the Kentucky Derby to the Preakness Stakes, which was just ten days away. Nevertheless, Man O’War did win the other two Triple Crown races in 1920. In the Belmont Stakes, he beat sole rival Donnacona by 20 lengths and, in so doing, set a world record time that would stand for 50 years. All told, Man O’War won 20 of his 21 races and just shy of $250,000 in prize money.
Hailed as the greatest American racehorse since Man O’War and, like his predecessor, nicknamed ‘Big Red’, Secretariat won the Triple Crown in 1973, making him the ninth horse to do so. His career-defining moment came in the Belmont Stakes, in which he beat Twice A Prince by 31 lengths in a time of 2 minutes and 24 seconds, thereby smashing the previous track record for a mile and a half set by Gallant Man in 1957. Secretariat raced for just 16 months, but won 16 of his 21 races and a record $1.32 million in prize money.
For numbers three, four and five in the list, we suggest the tenth and eleventh winners of the Triple Crown, Seattle Slew and Affirmed, and Spectacular Bid, who won the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness Stakes, but was beaten, under controversial circumstances, in the Belmont Stakes. Seattle Slew, a.k.a. the ‘People’s Horse’, won the Triple Crown in 1974 and had the distinction of doing so with a undefeated record. Affirmed won the Triple Crown in 1978 and his rivalry with Alydar, whom he met on ten occasions in all, became legendary. Spectacular Bid was the victim of an ill-judged ride by jockey Ron Franklin on his Triple Crown attempt but, nonetheless, won 26 of his 30 races and $2.78 million in prize money.