Top 10 Famous Racehorses

Famous Horses

Throughout the history of horse racing, numerous champions have been born - some famous for their multiple wins and staggering purses, their impressive lineage, ability to raise the spirits of a nation, or all of the above!

Take a look at ten of the most famous racehorses - whether wartime heroes or contemporary idols, all are winners from start to finish!


10: Phar Lap

Phar Lap

New Zealand-bred Phar Lap (which means "lightning" in Thai) became a national icon in Australia, where he primarily raced during his four-year career. The monstrous horse measured a staggering 17.1 hands high while his heart weighed 13.7 pounds, significantly more compared to the average horse heart weight of just 9 pounds.

Phar Lap netted 37 wins across 51 races, and set eight track records before his mysterious death in 1932 after suddenly becoming ill. Many speculated that U.S. gangsters, who feared the champion would trigger big losses for their illegal bookies, had poisoned the horse. Forensic investigations conducted over 70 years later would go on to prove that Phar Lap did ingest a large dose of arsenic shortly before his death, though the source was never proven or found.


9: John Henry

John Henry

The 1980s were all about John Henry, voted the racehorse of the decade and also becoming the first to surpass $4 million in career earnings in 1983. He was named after the "steel-driver" folk hero as a result of the equine's tendency as a youngster to tear down steel water and feed buckets off of stall walls and stomp them flat.

In addition to his 39 wins, he became the only horse to nab first place twice for both the Arlington Million and Santa Anita Handicap After. his last race at the 1984 Ballatine Scotch Classic, he retired in 1985 as the world's richest thoroughbred.


8: War Admiral

War Admiral

As the son of another legendary horse (Man O' War), War Admiral had the bar set high from the get go.

Born in 1934 in Lexington, Kentucky, War Admiral's coat was such a dark color of brown that many believed he was actually black. Though initially he did not respond well to the starting gate, War Admiral rose to the challenge, earning the nickname and nabbing both the Triple Crown along with the Horse of the Year honors in 1937.


7: Affirmed


Affirmed was one of the most lucrative racehorses of his time, becoming the first thoroughbred in North America to bring in over two million dollars during the span of his career.

By far, his most defining moments occurred during 1978, when he netted the Triple Crown and also proved triumphant over Seattle Slew at the Marlboro Cup Invitational Handicap, marking the first time two Triple Crown winners faced off against each other.


Affirmed also had an intense rivalry with fellow racer, Alydar, which came to a head during the same year at the Travers Stakes in Saratoga, New York. With his usual rider Steve Cauthen out due to injury, Affirmed was helmed by replacement rider Laffit Pincay, who cut off Alydar, causing the horse to check and bringing about Affirmed's disqualification from his first place win.

6: Barbaro


In 2006, Barbaro entered the Kentucky Derby undefeated, and his 6-1/2-length margin of victory at the event marked the largest in nearly 50 years. Prior to this win, he had also nabbed top honors at the Florida Derby, Holy Bull Stakes, and Tropical Park Derby.

His impressive record had many believing he was the most serious Triple Crown threat to hit the track in years, but two weeks later at the Preakness Stakes, Barbaro fractured three bones in his right hind leg, bringing his racing career to a devastating halt. While his right leg would go on to heal after multiple surgeries, Barbaro later developed laminitis, a painful hoof condition, in both his front legs.


His death in 2007 created an outpouring of grief from fans across the nation, as well as the establishment of an equine health fund by his owners in his honor.

5: Smarty Jones

Smarty Jones

Talk about an impressive family tree! Not only is Smarty Jones a third-generation descendant of the legendary Mr. Propsector, but also related to numerous recent Triple Crown hopefuls such as Funny Cide, Afleet Alex, and Fusaichi Peagasus.

Born in 2001, his roots also traces back to such greats as Secretariat and even the mighty Man O' War, and this pedigree likely had something to do with Smarty Jones taking top honors at both the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes in 2004. Both wins along with his Sport Illustrated cover set off a national frenzy for the champion, who was thought to be a shoo-in for the Triple Crown. Surprisingly, he came in second after a stunning upset by 36-1 long shot Birdstone.


4: Secretariat


Secretariat was born in 1970 and at first considered "too pretty" to be a good racehorse. During his first season in 1972, he proved any early doubters wrong, claiming eight consecutive victories and becoming the first of only two 2-year-olds to ever be crowned Horse Of The Year. The following year, he won the Triple Crown, and took the Belmont Stakes by 31 lengths, a new world record time which still stands today, along with his record set at the Kentucky Derby.

Secretariat was mourned by millions following his death in 1989, and given the rare honor of being buried whole - normally, just the head, heart, and hooves are laid to rest, though in Secretariat's case, his heart alone weighed around 22 pounds, nearly twice the size of a normal horse!


He was one of only three non-humans ranked on ESPN's "100 Greatest Athletes of the Twentieth Century", and was also honored in 1999 by the United States Postal Service who issued a stamp bearing his likeness.

3: Citation


Some racing fans rank Citation on the same plane as Man O' War, if not higher. Born in 1945, Citation entered the track two years later and won his very first race in Havre de Grace, Maryland. The 1948 Triple Crown winner also became the first U.S. horse to win one million dollars.

He was also a 1959 National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame inductee, and a life-sized statue of the champion was erected in his honor at Hileah Park in Florida. Dwayne Wallace, Chairman of the Cessna Aircraft Company, was also inspired by the horse's impressive career, selecting the name "Citation" for the new business jet and even using a horse show background in the logo!


2: Seabiscuit


Though the grandson of Man O' War, Seabiscuit did not initially show a lot of promise as a racehorse, but all of that would change in 1936 under the guidance of new trainer Tom Smith and new jockey Red Pollard. The next year, the team won 11 of the 15 races entered, despite the fact that Pollard had lost an eye in a training incident.

Seabiscuit's popularity soared, raising spirits during the depression and building extreme momentum for a race against another legend, War Admiral in 1939 billed as the "Match of the Century" in which Seabiscuit proved victorious. He retired from the racing world in 1940, but his story later inspired several books and films, including the 2003 major motion picture "Seabiscuit," which was nominated for seven Academy Awards.


1: Man O' War

Man O War

The legendary Man O' War is credited for rescuing American horse racing in the 1920s. Born in 1917, he made his racing debut two years later, winning three stakes races in just 17 days.

Man O' War gained the reputation of being a "sure thing" in betting circles, which made other horse owners wary of putting their own horses up against him. In fact, Man O' War lost just one race during his career, the Sanford Memorial Stakes, largely due to early practices which involved the horses circling the starting line. When the race began, Man O' War had his back turned, but still managed to place second.

As a sire, he produced over 64 stakes winners and 200 champions - including War Admiral. One of his offspring also went on to sire Seabiscuit.

When he died in 1947, Man O' War lay in state for several days in a specially designed casket lined with his racing colors. He is buried at Kentucky Horse Park where a statue was erected to mark his grave. Man O' War has also been the subject of several books, and was inducted into the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame in 1957.

Famous Racehorses FAQ

Who is the greatest horse of all time?
The greatest horse of all time is open-ended, however many consider Man O' War the greatest horse of all time. The legendary Man O' War is credited for rescuing American horse racing in the 1920s and gained a reputation of being a "sure thing" in betting circles.
What is a female racehorse called?
A female racehorse is called a mare.
Can mares be racehorses?
Racehorses can be both male or female.
What are the 3 major horse races in the Triple Crown?
The three races in the Triple Crown are the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness Stakes and the Belmont Stakes.
Who is the fastest horse in history?
Secretariat is the fastest racehorse in history.