The 12 Greatest Racehorses of All-Time

Below is my list of the 12 greatest North American Racehorses of All-Time. With any greatest thoroughbred list, there are always challenges comparing horses from different eras. Advances in veterinary medicine and travel have given the advantage to modern-era horses. But often in the early era, fields for races were much smaller. Case in point, some years the Belmont Stakes only had 3 entries. And the Kentucky Derby typically has about double the field size today as it had in the first part of the 20th Century. So I feel that it is much harder to win the Triple Crown today than in year’s past.

Consequently, I place more emphasis on the accomplishments of horses in the modern era (post 1960).  My list of greatest stops at 12 because I feel after you get past the top 10 or 12 horses, it is really hard to rank one horse over another. There are many great horses that didn’t make my list. As far which horse is the greatest of all-time, it is a toss-up between Secretariat and Man o’War–which is why I ranked them 1 a) and 1 b). Secretariat was a faster horse (see video below) but Man o’War won 95% of his races compared to Secretariat’s 76%.

1 a) Secretariat* 1973 Triple Crown Champion, 16 wins in 21 career starts. Holds the track record for all 3 Triple Crown races as well as the North American record for 1 1/2 mile races on dirt (2:24). Also was 1973 American Male Turf Champion. ESPN’s Greatest Horse of the 20th Century. His 31-length victory in the 1973 Belmont Stakes ranks as the most impressive performance by a horse of all time. Bio Video

1 b) Man o’War  – He won the 1920 Preakness  and Belmont Stakes but wasn’t entered into the Kentucky Derby because his owner Samuel Riddle didn’t believe that a horse should race a 1 1/4 mile race that early in the year. Overall, Man o’War won 20 of his 21 career starts. He finished 2nd in his only non-win to a horse called Upset that prompted use of the term in sports. He won the 1920 Lawrence Realization race by 100 lengths. Voted Associated Press #1 horse of the Century. Sports Illustrated Horse of the Century. Man o’War’s funeral was broadcast on radio. Bio Video

3) American Pharoah*  2015 Triple Crown Champion, the very first Grand Slam winner. 9 wins in 11 career starts. American Champion 2-Year-Old Male (2014) and he will undoubtedly will win 2015 Horse of the Year. Considering that he produced a career best Beyer Speed Figure of 120 in his last start in Breeders’ Cup Classic, I think he would have been even better as a 4 year-old. As far as recent Triple Crown winners, I rank him below Secretariat but above the next best Seattle Slew because Seattle Slew followed up his Triple Crown win with a 4th place finish in the Swaps Stakes. American Pharoah followed up his Triple Crown by winning the Haskell Invitational. Since most Triple Crown winners and even those who nearly miss are immediately retired to the stud farm, you have to project out how you think they would fare as a 4 year-old. American Pharoah projects out just fine.

4) Citation* – 1948 Triple Crown Champion, 32 wins in 45 career starts. The first horse to eclipse $1 Million dollars in career earnings. One of three major North American thoroughbreds (along with Zenyatta and Cigar) to win at least 16 consecutive major stakes races. He won 27 out of 29 starts before sitting out his 4 year-old campaign due to arthritis. Bio Video


Citation’s Triple Crown Trophies from 1948 – Photo Credit: M. Cox

5) Kelso – His 3-year-old season started after the Triple Crown races. He won the Horse of the Year a record five times (1960-1964). 39 wins in 63 career starts. His career earnings of $1,977,896 when he was retired in 1966 would equate to $14.5 Million in today’s dollars. Bio Video

6) Seattle Slew* 1977 Triple Crown Champion, 14 wins in 17 career starts. The only Triple Crown winner to finish the series undefeated. He beat 1978 Triple Crown Champion Affirmed and three-time Horse of the Year Forego in the 1978 Marlboro Cup Invitational. He also finished ahead of Affirmed in the 1978 Jockey Club Gold Cup. Bio Video

7) Native Dancer – Horse of the Year in 1952 and 1954. The first thoroughbred television star. 20 wins in 21 career starts. Won 1953 Preakness Stakes and Belmont Stakes. His only non-win was a 2nd place finish in the 1953 Kentucky Derby where he was bumped twice and lost by a head to Dark Star whom he had beaten as a 2 year-old.  Bio Video

8) Affirmed* 1978 Triple Crown Champion, 22 wins in 29 career starts. Finished in the Top 3 in all but one start. Horse of the Year in 1978 and 1979. Bio Video

9) Count Fleet* – 1943 Triple Crown Champion, 16 wins in 21 career starts. Never finished below third and all five of his non-wins came as a 2 year-old. Bio Video

10) Dr. Fagar – 18 wins in 22 career starts. Once billed as the “fastest horse in the world.” He still holds the North American record time for 1 mile races on dirt (1:32 1/5). He is the only horse to ever win four titles in the same year (1968) when he was named the Horse of the Year, Champion Older Male, Champion Sprint Horse and Co-Champion Turf horse. Bio Video

11) Spectacular Bid – He won 26 races in 30 starts. He holds the North American record for 1 1/4 mile races on dirt with a time of 1:57 4/5. He may have won a Triple Crown in 1979 had he not stepped on a safety pin at Belmont. Bio Video

12) Zenyatta – The Queen of Thoroughbreds and 2010 Horse of the Year. She won 19 out of 20 races. One of three major North American thoroughbreds to win at least 16 consecutive major stakes races. As a filly, she may have raced and won against inferior competition than the boys but she proved herself in the Superbowl of Thoroughbreds by winning the 2009 Breeders’ Cup Classic and then losing by a head to Blame in the 2010 Breeders’ Cup Classic–her only loss. Bio Video

*-indicates Triple Crown Winner

In addition to these horses, it is worth noting a few other horses who were the best of their decade: Cigar in the 1990s, John Henry in the 1980s, War Admiral in the 1930s, Sir Barton in the 1910s and Colin in the 1900s






  1. Steve Madigan · April 17, 2017

    I think Whirlaway is greatly underrated. Winners listed are great horses. Whirlaway won many of his races including Triple Crown from way behind and held Derby record until Secretariat! Check out his Triple Crown races on you tube.


  2. hennagaijin · June 11, 2018

    Any list without John Henry is bogus.


    • Michael J. Cox · June 12, 2018

      I gave John Henry an honorable mention. My reasoning is that he was primarily a turf horse and North America’s best, unlike in Europe, primarily race on dirt. I place a lot of value on winning Triple Crown as it is hard to accomplish and has been the standard in judging 3-year-olds for 143 years.


  3. Peg · July 20, 2018

    Well done and researched. The only thing I would like to know is the breed and color name.


    • Michael J. Cox · July 26, 2018

      Thanks. I will be working on an improved list in the future and will include this info


  4. Anonymous · February 17, 2019

    Where ruffian ????? Not a list without the best filly ever to race


  5. Anonymous · May 8

    Very impressive list. Excellent research.I do think American Pharoah is to high. Only glaring ommision. The great Ruffian.


  6. STEVE · July 23

    All great horses. but if any of them had raced against Round Table in 50 races during the course of 3 years, I like Round Table’s chances of winning the majority of those encounters. RT was only flesh and blood, but the closest thing to a racing machine I can think of. He ran incessantly without weakening, getting injured, or getting sick. He was indestructible. Round Table also won 43 of 66 races in 4 years, set 16 track, US or world records, won on the turf and dirt, and carried between 130 and 136 pounds 25 times. He was a little horse who was tough as nails.

    Liked by 1 person

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