The history books are littered with elite racehorses that transcended their sport, dazzled the public their brilliance and earned legendary status. They range from 19th century icons like Salvator and Archer to modern heroes such as Winx, Enable and Tiger Roll. Choosing the five most celebrated racehorses from that bunch is a difficult task, but these legends stand out for their ability to capture the hearts and minds of all who witnessed their exploits:
The world’s greatest stayers converge upon Flemington Racecourse each year to contest the Group 1 Melbourne Cup. The 3200m race has an eye-watering prize purse and the prestige associated with victory is immense, so only the very best in the business make it onto the final ballot. It is ferociously competitive, and you never see an odds-on favourite. The only runner to achieve such a status was Phar Lap, the outrageously talented stayer who delighted the Australian public during the Great Depression.
Phar Lap was so good that rival owners tried to assassinate him. Yet they missed and he went into hiding, before emerging as the 8/11 favourite for the 1930 Melbourne Cup. He absolutely destroyed the field, leaving punters jubilant. He is easily the shortest odds winner in Melbourne Cup history. You can find out more on the race here, but we are unlikely to ever see an odds-on favourite again.
Phar Lap only suffered one loss in his final 18 races. That came in the 1931 Melbourne Cup, when the handicappers assigned him a preposterous 10 st 10 lb (68 kg), the heaviest weight ever carried in the race. He went on to win two Cox Players and an AJC Derby. Phar Lap won the Agua Caliente Handicap in Mexico in a track-record time in his final race, and then died in mysterious circumstances in California, further bolstering his legend.
Seabiscuit’s rise to prominence represents arguably the greatest rags-to-riches tale in racing history. His grandsire was the famous Man O’ War, widely considered by American racing experts to be the finest racehorse of all time, so hopes were high among his owners. Yet Seabiscuit seemingly inherited none of Man O’ War’s legendary pace, power and passion. He failed to register a win in his first 17 races, regularly finishing towards the back of the field, and he was eventually sold off to trainer Tom Smith.
Yet Smith recognised Seabiscuit’s potential and used pioneering training techniques to turn him into a contender. He went on to clinch a number of famous victories, including the Agua Caliente Handicap, the Havre de Grace Handicap, the Hollywood Gold Cup, the San Antonio Handicap and the Santa Anita Handicap. His finest moment came at Pimlico, where he defeat Triple Crown winner War Admiral in an exhilarating head-to-head race. That saw Seabiscuit crowned US Horse of the Year, and he was immortalised in an Oscar-nominated movie.
Red Rum shot to superstardom when he secured a stunning victory in the 1973 Grand National. The 4 mile 514 yard race features 30 brutal fences and represents the most formidable stamina test in jumps racing. Red Rum was 15 lengths behind the Australian champion steeplechase horse, Crisp, as he cleared the last fence, but he found the energy to overhaul his rival and win by three-quarters of a length.
It was all the more remarkable because Red Rum was found to be lame shortly after Ginger McCain bought him for 6,000 guineas. Yet McCain never gave up on Red Rum. He treated the horse with seawater gallops, and he reaped the rewards. Red Rum successfully defended his crown in 1974, and he was then runner-up in 1975. He finished second yet again the following year after being assigned a heavy load, but he then produced a devastating performance to win a third Grand National in 1977. No other horse has ever won the famous race three times.
Secretariat was marked for greatness when he wiped the floor with his two-year-old rivals during his juvenile year. He actually became the first juvenile to ever win the Horse of the Year award, but nobody could have predicted just how formidable he would be. Starting from last place, he became the first horse to win the Kentucky Derby in under 2 minutes. He then completed the second leg of the Triple Crown by winning the Preakness Stakes in a record time of 1:53, which still stands to this day.
Very few trainers wanted to take on Secretariat in the Belmont Stakes, so he lined up against just three rivals for the final leg of the Triple Crown in 1973. He beat the field by 31 lengths, setting the fastest time in history for a dirt track race over 1 mile 4 furlongs. His legacy lived on for many years – he was the leading broodmare sire in North America in 1992 – and his daughters produced many notable sires, so his pedigree lives on in many modern champions.
Affirmed followed in Secretariat’s footsteps by winning the Triple Crown in 1978, but then it proved to be an impossible feat for subsequent runners. Several landed the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness, but fell at the final hurdle. Most experts said it was impossible to win all the races in such quick succession during the modern era, but then Bob Baffert’s American Pharaoh changed all that in 2015.
He won by just a length in the Kentucky Derby, but then demolished the field to win by five lengths in the Preakness. He should have been exhausted by the day of the Belmont, but he ended up winning the race by five and a half lengths. American Pharaoh went on to win the Breeders’ Cup Classic, become the first Grand Slam champion in history. He also paved the way for Baffert’s Justify to win the Triple Crown in 2018.
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