The public’s fascination with horse racing just took a giant leap forward with American Pharoah’s feat of winning the Triple Crown just as the summertime racing season is about to begin. Becoming just the 12th horse in history to achieve one of sport’s more difficult accomplishments, American Pharoah has become one of the modern era’s elite racehorses. This is bound to shed more light on the sport of horse racing and some of the others that have forged their own legacies in the exciting sport.
Horse racing might have really come into prominence in 1938 with the historic match race between Seabiscuit and War Admiral, but in the modern era many tracks have faced financial difficulties with the latest recession coupled with a lack of prominent stars contributing to a decline in attendance. Today, horse racing finally has a few legitimate stars who can capture the fans’ attention by the way of Secretariat, Seattle Slew and Affirmed did in the late 1970s. With California Chrome’s unlikely run that captured the public’s attention last year, Shared Belief’s success and the historic accomplishment of American Pharoah this year, horse racing has taken a big step forward in the last couple of years.
The following list is of the top 10 horses of the modern era that really started with Secretariat’s dominance in the early 1970s. Some of the best racehorses in the history of the sport have captured the public’s fancy in this era. As the summer season comes upon us, it is worth taking a look at how some of these new horse racing stars stack up against the best horses of the modern era.
Honorable Mentions: California Chrome, Big Brown, Shared Belief, Alysheba
10. American Pharoah (foaled in 2012)
Although American Pharoah only has eight races under his belt, three of them were enough to produce a Triple Crown. Things didn’t start so well for the colt, as the magic between trainer Bob Baffert and Martin Garcia failed to produce results in his first race. A switch was made to Victor Espinoza for the Del Mar Futurity and American Pharoah has since gone on to win seven straight stakes races by an average margin of over five lengths. After becoming the 12th horse to win a Triple Crown, he is a cinch to become this year’s American Horse of the Year. His owner, Ahmed Zayat, has mentioned that horse racing needs “stars” and has given the impression that he would continue to race the horse more.
Rumors have already surrounded American Pharoah and his breeding rights, with many experts putting his breeding worth at over $20 million. According to most reports, Zayat still maintains rights over American Pharoah’s racing career which should give him more time to add to his legacy and net worth.
9. Zenyatta (foaled in 2004)
It is hard to figure out what was a better accomplishment, winning 19 of 20 races or winning 19 races in a row. She might not have entered any of the Triple Crown races, but did have significant wins in the Breeder’s Cup Classic and Breeder’s Cup Ladies Classic in 2008. She was the American Horse of the Year in 2010 and was recognized as the one of the Sports Illustrated’s Top 10 Female Horses of All Time. Her victories included 13 Grade I stakes wins, which helped boost her career winnings to $7.03 million.
Zenyatta was one of the most popular female horses of all time, coming in second place in AP voting for Female Athlete of the Year in 2009 and 2010. She was also honored with many other awards throughout and following her racing career. Zenyatta retired in 2010, following a narrow loss in the Breeder’s Cup Classic at Churchill Downs. Following her retirement from racing, Zenyatta was bred in Kentucky and is confirmed to be in foal today.
8. Easy Goer (foaled in 1986)
Easy Goer might have had his issues beating Sunday Silence, but he still managed to win 14 of his 20 races in his career. Easy Goer holds the distinction of running the fastest mile on a dirt track ever recorded by a 3-year-old (1:32 2/5), bettering a stakes record set by Secretariat and the world record that was set by Dr. Fager way back in 1968. In his 20 races, he finished in the money each time, never missing a win, place, or show. Despite coming in second place to Sunday Silence in the Kentucky Derby and Preakness, Easy Goer was able to top him in the Belmont Stakes to ruin his bid for a Triple Crown.
Easy Goer finished his career with $4.87 million in earnings, earning the #34 ranking in the Top 100 U.S. Racehorses of the 20th Century. He did notch nine Grade I stakes wins, despite having ailing ankles throughout his career. He retired in 1990 after a bone chip was discovered in one of his ankles. Easy Goer died at the early age of 8, but still managed to sire three Grade I stakes winners and 101 starters from 136 foals.
7. Sunday Silence (foaled in 1986)
Sunday Silence might have been better known for his rivalry with Easy Goer, but in the end it only helped add validity to his wins. Sunday Silence failed in his bid to win the Triple Crown, losing to Easy Goer in the Belmont Stakes after beating him in both the Derby and Preakness. He went on to win nine of his 14 races, coming in second place the other five times. In a single year (1989), Sunday Silence earned what was then a record $4.59 million. He finished his career with a second place finish in the Hollywood Gold Cup, earning the ranking of #31 in the Top 100 U.S. Racehorses of the 20th Century.
Sunday Silence was the U.S. Horse of the Year in 1989 after winning seven Grade I stakes. Following his retirement in 1990 due to an injured ligament, he was ignored by most of the major U.S. breeders and went on to breed in Japan. In Japan, Sunday Silence sired many successful horses, becoming the leading sire in Japan during the last years of his life.
6. Frankel (foaled in 2008)
Frankel did not win the Kentucky Derby, Preakness or Belmont Stakes, but over in Great Britain he won his share of major stakes races. In fact, he finished his career undefeated, winning all of his 14 starts. Despite never racing in the U.S., Frankel was declared the best racehorse that the World Thoroughbred Racehorse Rankings Committee had ever assessed since its inception in 1977. He was also given the highest Timeform rating ever given by the organization, a quite amazing 147. Frankel was also bestowed the honor of being the top ranked thoroughbred in the world in 2011 and 2012.
It might be easy to dispute Frankel’s success since he never raced abroad, but the Juddmonte Farms bay stallion had a three-year career without feeling the sting of a loss. Frankel went on to earn just under three million pounds and was the European Horse of the Year for 2011 and 2012. He was a huge favorite in 13 of his 14 races, and more than earned his place on this list.
5. Cigar (foaled in 1990)
Cigar came into prominence on the racetrack with a pedigree that included both Seattle Slew and Palace Music, two very accomplished runners. Unlike many on this list, Cigar didn’t race as a two-year-old and only won two out of nine starts at the age of three. Coming back from some time off at the age of four, Cigar won his first race back by 8 lengths and went on to win his next 16 races, including races against tough competition in 11 Grade I stakes. He was the first horse to win 16 consecutive stakes races since Citation accomplished it in 1948-1950. Despite the slow start, Cigar recovered to win 19 of 33 races, setting an earnings record that fell a couple hundred dollars short of $10 million.
After finishing second and third in his final two races, Cigar retired in October of 1996. He was a dominant horse for almost two years, inspiring many racing fans to bring cigars to celebrate his victories at the track. Cigar was inducted into the Racing Hall of Fame in 2002 and was ranked #18 of the Top 100 U.S. Racehorses of the 20th Century.
4. Spectacular Bid (foaled in 1976)
Spectacular Bid was a dominant racehorse whose only real blemish was a controversial loss in the Belmont Stakes. In that race, Spectacular Bid had to recover from having a safety pin embedded in his hoof along with a poor ride from jockey Ronnie Franklin who took him to the front too early in the mile and a half race. Despite failing in his Triple Crown bid, he went on to win 26 of 30 races and three Eclipse Awards. Spectacular Bid earned $2.78 million in his career, topping a record that was established by Affirmed just a year earlier. Spectacular Bid set a world record in the mile and a quarter, running it in 1:57.8 at Santa Anita in the Strub Stakes.
Spectacular Bid ended up setting four track records at seven furlongs, one mile, 1, 1/8 miles (twice) and 1, 1/4 miles. He went on to retire at the end of 1980, getting syndicated for what was a record $22 million at that time. Unfortunately for Spectacular Bid, his breeding career did not exactly measure up to what he was able to do on the track. He was, however, recognized with a #10 ranking out of the Top 100 U.S. Racehorses of the 20th Century.
3. Affirmed (foaled in 1975)
Affirmed became the 11th horse to win horse racing’s Triple Crown when he accomplished the feat in 1978. Affirmed won 22 of 29 races during his career, despite having to face another Triple Crown winner, Seattle Slew, twice and another formidable rival, Alydar, 10 times. He ended up winning over $2 million, setting a record at that time for North American racehorses. Affirmed was the Horse of the Year in both 1978 and 1979, and has been ranked #12 in the Top 100 U.S. Racehorses of the 20th Century. In addition to the Triple Crown races, he also had 16 major stakes wins.
Affirmed might have been foaled in the wrong era, with Seattle Slew, Alydar, Excellar and Spectacular Bid all forging their own legacies during this time, but he did beat all of them except for Seattle Slew. Affirmed went on to win his last seven races, including a win in his final race against the undefeated Spectacular Bid. Following his retirement, he went on to sire over 80 stakes winners, earning what was then a record $14.4 million for his services.
2. Seattle Slew (foaled in 1974)
Seattle Slew was an electric dark brown colt who joined horse racing’s elite by winning the Triple Crown in 1977. He has been recognized as the ninth best horse of the top 100 U.S. Racehorses of the 20th Century. Seattle Slew was expected to dominate from the start, going off as the 1-2 favorite in the Kentucky Derby. He seldom disappointed, winning 14 races out of his 17 career starts, while also coming in second place twice. Seattle Slew made history by facing another Triple Crown winner, Affirmed, marking the first time in history that two Triple Crown winners have ever faced each other. He faced Affirmed twice, topping his rival both times.
Seattle Slew suffered a setback by finishing in fourth place in Hollywood Park’s Swaps Stakes immediately following his Belmont Stakes Triple Crown win. He took some time off and came back to win five of his last seven races in 1978. His last race was in November of that same year, where he won the Stuyvesant Handicap at Aqueduct by 3, 1/4 lengths. He retired to stud in Kentucky, where he sired many successful runners.
1. Secretariat (foaled in 1970)
There have been many fast horses in the history of horse racing, but Secretariat was likely the fastest. In 1973, Secretariat not only became the ninth horse (at that time) to win horse racing’s prestigious Triple Crown, but he also ended up setting course records in all three events. Secretariat’s winning time in the Preakness was corrected in 2012, giving him record times in all three events that still stand to this day. While 23 horses have won the Kentucky Derby and Preakness, but have failed at winning the Belmont Stakes, Secretariat went out and won at Belmont by a record 31 lengths.
Secretariat didn’t have a long career, but did finish with 16 wins in 21 starts. His last race was at Woodbine Racetrack in Toronto, Canada in October of 1973. He earned the distinction of being ranked #2 out of the Top 100 U.S. Racehorses of the 20th Century. He went on to have quite an active retirement, siring about 600 foals. Since Secretariat was the fastest horse in history at horse racing’s three premier events, he tops this list.
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