4 of History’s Most Successful Racehorses

Thomas Burger
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There is no greater rush on the planet than seeing a top athlete fly by, defying all odds to take not only the victory but also the hearts and minds of those watching. Being the best or the greatest is rarely about cold, hard numbers; more often than not, excellence is inextricably linked to these exceptional athletes’ tenacious hearts and ferocious spirits. 

The fact that there are so many online communities dedicated to discussing this subject shows that naming the top 15 racehorses of all time is an objectively impossible task. Is it the horse that ran the fastest, the sire with the most clout, the horse that won the most races, or the horse that captured the hearts of a nation? The 4 horses on this list are without a doubt some of the most accomplished athletes from previous eras. This is true regardless of the criteria used to assess brilliance. 

1. The Secretariat’s existence, from March 30/1970, to October 4/1989 

  • America, the United States of America 
  • starting at: 21 
  • Wins: 16 
  • $1,316,808 in earnings 

Secretariat is without a doubt one of the most well-known racehorses of all time. Secretariat’s triumphant backstory, defying-the-odds ownership, and a string of unrivaled performances that shattered world records all contributed to his legendary status. 

In 1968, Penny Chenery’s mares Hasty Matelda and Somethingroyal were covered by the stallion Bold Ruler, who was owned by the Phipps Family. Somethingroyal was brought back in 1969 to mate with another mare named Cicada; however, Cicada was unable to produce foals of her own. 

The cruel hand of fate would have to decide who would be the owners of the succeeding foals. Tossing a coin determined who owned the foals; the winner got the first pick of the foals born in 1969, while the loser got the foal that was not chosen in 1969 as well as the unborn foal from 1970. 

Penny Chenery failed to win the coin toss, but fortune was on her side because Secretariat was Somethingroyal’s unborn foal. Penny regarded “losing” that coin toss as the greatest victory of her life! 

Secretariat’s record-breaking performance at Belmont was the most impressive of his many incredible races. His convincing victories in the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes have established him as a serious contender to break the 25-year drought between Triple Crown winners. 

Secretariat’s dominant performance in the Belmont Stakes, which he won by 31 lengths, annihilated his rivals and ensured that he would win the Triple Crown in 1973. Secretariat’s performance in the Belmont Stakes left no doubt in anyone’s mind that they had witnessed the best performance ever put in by one of the greatest racehorses that ever lived. 

Secretariat received his induction into the Racing Hall of Fame in 1974. The legendary horse died in 1989, when he was 19 years old, after a month-long battle with laminitis. 

2. Man O’ War’s life, from March 29/1917, to November 1/1947 

  • The United States of America Commencement: 21 
  • Wins: 20 
  • $249,465 in earnings 

If Man O’ War isn’t on the list of the greatest racehorses of all time, the person who compiled it must have been inebriated at the time. This outstanding stallion demonstrated not only that he could be an almost unbeatable competitor, but also that he could be a powerful sire. The Nursery stud was responsible for his breeding, and he was purchased as a yearling by Samuel Riddle for $5,000 (roughly equivalent to $86,000 in today’s money). Man O’ War went on to win 20 of his 21 starts, and in the majority of those races, he led from the start to the finish. Samuel’s faith in the inexperienced colt proved to be well-founded. Man O’ War was defeated by a colt named Upset in his one and only race. Despite this, Man O’ War was able to reclaim his number one ranking by leaving Upset in the dust in the Preakness Stakes the following year. 

The Belmont Stakes, which Man O’ War won by a record-breaking margin of 20 lengths, was one of his most famous victories. The renowned horse Secretariat would not break this record for many years. 

After retiring from racing, Man O’ War went on to become one of the sport’s most prominent sires over the previous century. Seventeen percent of his direct descendants won stakes races. Horses such as War Admiral, Sea Biscuit, Da’ Tara, and Tourist have carried on the Man O’ War tradition. 

3. the Northern Dancer 

  • Life dates: May 27, 1961 – November 16, 1990 
  • Born in Canada, but primarily competed in the United States of America 
  • Starting at: 18 
  • Wins: 14 
  • $580,647 in earnings 

There was no reason to believe Northern Dancer would win the race. Northern Dancer was born at Windfields Farm in 1965, and despite his small stature and fractured heels, he failed to sell for the $25,000 reserve price. He was returned to the stud farm and placed in training with Horatio Luro. Thank goodness for Horatio Luro, who recognized the warrior within Northern Dancers despite their modest height of 15.1 hands and odd demeanor. 

He was two years old during the season and had lameness issues, but he still managed to win seven of the nine races he entered. The young stallion was eventually retired to the stud farm due to tendon damage he sustained in July of his third year of competition. 

Despite his relatively brief racing career, the true brilliance of this pocket rocket stallion was not apparent until his progeny began hitting the racetrack. Northern Dancer sired 411 foals, 411 of whom won stakes. Northern Dancer’s first-generation progeny have a 23 percent success rate in becoming stakes winners. 

Despite the fact that his reserve price of $25,000 was not met, Northern Dancer’s offspring consistently brought in more than $3,000,000. In his later years, a never-before-seen cover of Northern Dancer reportedly sold for a staggering sum of money (or has since been replicated). 

4. The Arkle Life, which began on April 19/1957, and ended on May 31/1970 

  • The United Kingdom (UK) 
  • 35 beginnings 
  • Wins: 28 
  • £95,198 ($130,423) in earnings 

Arkle was so far ahead of his competition that handicapping rules had to be changed to accommodate his extraordinary talent. After all, the audience expected a race, not a lone horse so far ahead that it would take an act of God to change the outcome! Arkle was so far ahead of his competition that handicapping rules had to be changed to accommodate his extraordinary talent. Despite the high handicaps he was given and the fact that he was carrying more weight than any other participant in the field, Arkle continued to dominate the tournament. On the straightaways, he sailed over the jumps and powered his way to the finish line. 

Arkle fractured his pedal bone during the competition in December 1966. Despite the fact that humans and nature collaborated to try to handicap this horse, Arkle was a horse of unwavering bravery. Despite the fracture, he continued to compete and finished in second place. 

He was placed in a cast and returned home, where he recovered sufficiently to resume light work, but he was never able to compete in another race again. His life was cut short at the age of 13 due to crippling arthritis, most likely as a result of his successful racing career. 

Nonetheless, one aspect of this larger-than-life figure that the general public saw little of was possibly his defining trait. Arkle was sometimes compared to a saint, and he retained the natural tenderness required for providing rides to children. 

Arkle was so popular that people are still talking about the legend known simply as “Himself” even though he has been dead for forty years.