Top 11 Sensational Racehorses in History

Updated on June 23, 2020
Kenna McHugh profile image

Kenna has worked in the entertainment business for over 20 years, promoting special events with musicians, celebrities, and dignitaries.


Racing Horse Winners

Whether you understand horseracing or not, you can praise a winning pony anytime and anyplace. The excitement of a Triple Crown winner drives us to pay attention to the races because, historically, the odds are against the pony. That makes horseracing exciting to follow.

In history, horseracing winners draw our attention because of their unique breeding or racing style. In true American style, we always love a winner. Once they announce the name of the racehorse as the winner, the public praises the pony and tunes in to the radio, television, podcasts, social media, and newspapers. As the old saying goes, the winner is the talk of the town.

We anticipate the next race and hope the pony is the next Triple Crown. We haven’t had very many Crown winners, but still, they are legends—some as underdogs and some as sure winners. We read books about them and watch movies about them. They are legends but do we still remember them after they retire. There are a few like Seabiscuit or Secretariat that we never forget. Let’s take a look at the top racehorses in history and see if you can recall the great ones.


1. Phar Lap

Most racehorse enthusiasts will argue Phar Lap as the number 1 racehorse amongst the top racehorses of all time. The handsome thoroughbred emerged one race after the other as the victorious and glorious times.

The majestic racehorse ran during a time when the Mafia was mighty and influential in many facets of society. Horse racing is one of them. Mob hits were frequent in the 1930s. Phar Lap came to a tragic, fatal end in 1932 with the death a mystery ever since.

The belief is poisoned by Mafia members who held concerns about being out of "business" due to the horse's reliability of continually ending up in the winner circle. The horse's reputation rests as one of Australia's historical prized gems. Phar Lap continues to remain in the memories of Australian sporting history as the most magnificent racehorse ever bred due to a winning streak of 37 of 51 of his starts in the '30s.

His 19-pound heart remains preserved at the National Museum of Canberra with his skeleton displayed in the Dominion Museum—upright stance and stature of pride.

2. Seabiscuit

Quite a character is the best way to describe Seabiscuit. Known for being a Hollywood story that made two movies within four generations, Seabiscuit was an ungainly colt who was hidden from the owner when he came through the stables.

Silent Tom Smith bought the underdog of a horse. He trained Seabiscuit to win, and together, they had 33 wins out of 89 races. The horse became a celebrity and a household name. Seabiscuit came out of retirement and won another race, too, which is unheard of in picking winners and in racehorse history.

3. Secretariat

Secretariat was named Horse of the Year twice. Some compared him to the great Man O' War because Secretariat became a common name in every family circle as a horse that proved what it meant to be a great racehorse.

Secretariat's career was pretty short, though. He only raced for 16 months but won the notice of the world by becoming a Triple Crown champion in 1973, which was the first in 25 years. He won an unprecedented 31 lengths, setting a world record to this day. He won 16 times out of 21 races, and Hollywood produced a motion picture of his story in 2013.

4. John Henry

John Henry was quite a character. He found himself auctioned off more than once to new owners. You see, John Henry had a pretty bad reputation for being ill-tempered. He had weak knees and became violent off the track.

When he met Bob Donato as his new owner, he was ready to concentrate on his racing and flourished. The story of John Henry is a happy ending; he had 39 wins in 83 races, winning Horse of the Year twice while retiring as the unrivaled highest-earning thoroughbred.

5. Smarty Jones

An intriguing backstory concerning Smarty Jones is something Hollywood would love to produce. The murder of the trainer and his wife happened when Smarty Jones suckled as a colt.

He was one of two horses not sold off by the owner after the tragedy. The owner had both horses trained for racing. The trainer, John Servis, worked with Smarty Jones, and he was a close friend of the departed trainer and his wife. Servis was determined to have Smarty Jones be a winner. He set a goal and did not stray, winning the Derby.

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6. Man O' War

He passed away in 1947, and the owners embalmed him along with his racing colors. 2000 fans came to say good-bye to the most renowned horse ever.

His stats are unbelievable and may never be matched. He had 20 wins in 21 races. Man O’ War set 8 records: two American records, three track records, and three world records. After he retired, he sired more winners than any other racehorse. His lineage continues to survive today.

7. Spectacular Bid

Spectacular Bid earned Horse of the Year in his last year of racing (he ran from 1978–1980) and was a Triple Crown hopeful, only losing terribly at the Belmont Stakes.

His stats were impressive with 26 wins in 30 races. The owners, Madelyn Jason and her mother, Mrs. William Gilmore, appreciated his success.

8. Kelso

Thought as one of the best racehorses in the 20th century, Kelso falls in fourth place in rankings of the thoroughbred champions in the US.

He was a contender with 39 wins out of 63 races. Kelso had a long career (1959–1966) as he competed in eight straight seasons. The fans loved watching him race because no matter how far back the racehorse was, he cocked his ears and came racing, passing all his competition. Kelso was light on his feet and loved to win. When he retired, Kelso ranked in as the all-time leading money-winner.

9. Citation

Citation (1947–1951) was one of the few American horses to win the Triple Crown. He was the eighth American to win the coveted spot.

Citation also made history as the first horse to become a millionaire. The successful racehorse was trained by Ben Jones and his son, Horace A. "Jimmy" Jones. Citation boasted 16 straight wins in a row. In 1949, Citation had an injury but returned to racing in 1950, making his 16th race win in a row.


10. Seattle Slew

Seattle Slew raced in the 1970s and became widely known as a thoroughbred horse born for triumph. He lived up to his reputation by winning the Triple Crown. He seized Horse of the Year in 1977 and placed a seven-furlong track record at Hialeah Park Race Track by taking a win by nine lengths.

Slew became a legend after his racing career because he studded some famous winners like Landaluce, Surfside, Slew o' Gold, and Rags to Riches.

Slew had a tremendous influence on the breeding and training of horses. Slew even served a critical inspiration to horse owners, trainers, and jockeys because he outlived many veterinarian evaluations and predictions. Best of all, Slew taught horse lovers that "a horse will leave this earth when the horse is willing."

11. Justify

Bob Baffert, who trained American Pharaoh as the 2015 Triple Crown winner, trained Justify. Justify seemed to come from out of the blue as the 13th Triple Crown winner in America. The thoroughbred racehorse gained popularity at his first start of racing on February 18, 2018. His success continued with two more wins that included the Grade I Santa Anita Derby, which means Justify qualified for the 2018 Kentucky Derby and won that race. Then he won the 2018 Preakness Stakes and the 2018 Belmont Stakes to sweep the Triple Crown.

The racehorse is the second horse to win the American Triple Crown with an undefeated record. Justify is a progeny of six American Triple Crown winners. He is even a progeny of Nijinsky, an English Triple Crown winner.

Once Again Cheer the Winner

The next winning pony will turn our ears to the horse track, and we will once again cheer and hope for another Triple Crown winner. The winner will make horseracing history, and we will remind ourselves how much fun it is to watch a sure-fire winner during a live horserace.

© 2015 Kenna McHugh


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