BLACKFOOT – This edition of “It’s My Dime” is in honor of the Belmont Stakes, which was run on Saturday. That race brought back so many memories of horse racing that I just had to share this list with everyone today.
Part of those memories were the times that I anticipated the running of the Triple Crown so much, I was gathering information on the Kentucky Derby in January and couldn’t wait for the Triple Crown prep races to start, so I could start putting together my list of who could win America’s Biggest Race.
My list is all about the greatness of the horse and it includes nine horses who made their name in the United States and one horse who make his name in Europe, running in perhaps the toughest race of them all, the Grand National, and winning it three times while finishing second twice in the span of five years.
Let’s get going with my choices for the best of the best.
There is no horse that ever caught the imagination of the fans and did more for horse racing than “Big Red.” He was a physical specimen that stood out in a crowd and just made you fall in love with him. It didn’t hurt any that there were circumstances that were in play to even have him in the position he was in. Penny Tweedy owned a very nice broodmare named Somethingroyal that she wanted to breed to a top stallion named Bold Ruler. She negotiated to get the mare bred on a foal sharing arrangement with the stallion owner where each side would take one foal over a two-year period of time. The choice of who got which foal was made with a coin toss and Tweedy won the first foal, who just happened to be Secretariat. As a two-year-old, his workout times were very fast and he did things without even trying. That made him the favorite when he was entered for the first time, but he lost all chance at the start of his race when he was bothered badly at the start and lost any chance to win. He finished fourth, but made amends shortly thereafter with an emphatic win. He was so special in the rest of his races that year, that he not only won the Eclipse Award as best two-year-old, but he was also named Horse of the Year. He won the Triple Crown at three, setting track records in all three races, including an amazing time of 2:24 for the 1 1/2 miles of the Belmont Stakes, taking over two full seconds off the previous record. Pretty amazing horse.
2. MAN O’WAR
This was another phenomenal horse, who only failed to win the Triple Crown because his owner didn’t enter him. He thought that a mile and a quarter was too far to run a three-year-old the first week in May, but as a prep for the Preakness, three days before that race, ran Man O’War in an allowance farther than that. Man O’ War won all but one race in his career, the only race he lost was to a horse named Upset in the Sanford Stakes as a two-year-old. He also won a match race by over 100 lengths as a three-year-old, when he defeated the previous year’s Triple Crown winner Sir Barton. Who knows just how good this horse could have been if he had been with one of today’s premier trainers.
Citation was the first horse to make a million dollars on the race track and he did it during one of the most troubling times in our country’s history, the second World War. When you consider that there were very few races that were worth even $75,000, it is pretty amazing that Citation could stick around long enough to accumulate those kinds of earnings without running his legs off. He was a big, good looking horse with a very long stride and often times would simply run his competition into the ground. Citation was the kind of horse that had a huge fan base and people flocked to the races when he was scheduled to run.
This mare is the highest ranked female on my list and only because she beat all comers, male and female, during her career, which saw her win all but one of her races. She beat males in the Breeder’s Cup Classic and did it in style. She was a massive mare, standing 17 hands tall and her stride was next to none. It may have taken her a bit to get going, but when she did, she covered the ground like no other and simply seemed to inhale her opposition as she powered to her wins. She was amazing to watch run and she was amazing in how she racked up the wins. I may have her placed a bit high, but she deserves to be in the top 10 no matter what.
This race horse may have had a bit of a rough start to his career as his trainers kept trying to get him to win on the grass in turf races. Luckily for him, he was entered in the New York Racing Association mile grass race, late in the racing season, and when rain forced the race off the grass and on to the dirt track, his trainer decided to roll the dice and see what would happen. The result was a smashing win over some of the best grass horses around and he never saw the turf again in his career. Funny how things can work out. He went on a 16-race winning streak, earned horse of the year honors, and won over many millions of fans from coast to coast. Cigar was never able to reproduce his racing ability at stud and when it was determined that he was infertile, his owner collected a hefty insurance policy on him. When he retired, he did so as the all-time leading money earner in the sport.
Not a lot of people would list this filly among the best race horses of all time, but the fact of the matter is that she was. She never lost a race to a filly or mare, and her owner was willing to back up his confidence in her with a $100,000 winner-take-all match race against the Kentucky Derby winner of that year in Foolish Pleasure. The two horses began the race on even terms, but when Ruffian began to edge clear of Foolish Pleasure there was a decided groan from the crowd in attendance. Ruffian was being pulled up with a severe leg injury, one that would eventually would force her to be euthanized. Ruffian had it all — speed, class, the ability to carry her speed a distance and a heart so big that she continued to fight to try and win that last fatal race, which ultimately helped cause her death. Ruffian belongs here if for no other reason than she exhibited the will to win that makes Thoroughbreds what they are.
7. RED RUM
Here is the only horse that I will put on this list who did not run in this country, and for good reason. He was a steeplechaser, in other words, he ran on the grass and jumped over fences and hurdles. The most famous race in England is the Grand National Steeplechase, a race over 30 fences and hurdles and over four miles and 2 1/2 furlongs in distance. The race is restricted to horses seven years and older and they have to be rated highly on the scale of weights just to enter. The race regularly draws 50 entries and has had as many as 66. Only a few even finish the race annually. In a five-year span, Red Rum won the race three times and finished second twice. That is a pretty good race in arguably the toughest race ever run. That alone makes him special and the kind of horse that belongs on any list of the greatest of all time.
8. PHAR LAP
This horse is a legend in Australia and when the decision was made to bring him to the Americas it was met with a lot of skeptical thoughts and attitudes. Phar Lap didn’t belong with the cream of American racing and the thought was that he would fail just like so many before him had done. He made his first start in Mexico at a small track south of the border that ran some very good horses and had some pretty nice purse money as well. When he entered his first race there, he was made the top weight in a handicap, had trouble throughout the race and surged late to win, which raised many eyebrows around the racing world. Phar Lap never got the chance to race in the United States as he died under some mysterious circumstances. Many thought that the crime syndicates who were prevalent at the time got to the horse and poisoned his feed or somehow got him to colic and he never recovered. His legend alone gets his vote and place on my list.
9. JOHN HENRY
John Henry was an exceptional turf runner. Good enough to finish fourth in the Kentucky Derby after having run a race for a claiming price of $2,500 early in his career, he blossomed when placed on the turf and developed into the best turf runner in the country. He was never talked about in the breeding circles in this country because he was gelded at an early age and that is probably why he had such a long and illustrious career. The decision was made to race him on dirt and he responded like he always did, he won. He won 39 times during his career and won an incredible number of Grade One races both on the grass and on the dirt. In fact, he won the Santa Anita Gold Cup twice and won on the grass the same year at the Arlington Million, the premier turf race in the country. At age 10, he was awarded the Eclipse Award as Horse of the Year. He retired shortly thereafter as little things kept getting in the way of him making any additional starts and he earned it. He was the leading money earner at the time of his retirement and his owner saw no reason to keep running him if he wasn’t going to be able to compete at the highest level. John Henry has always been one of my favorites and he deserves to be on this list, possibly even higher than I have him ranked.
I have always had a soft spot in my heart for the old campaigners — those that just keep coming back year after year, giving their all and having the ability to run often and for many years, carrying weight and competing in the handicaps. Forego was always given time off in the spring, coming back to the track in the summer to prepare for a late summer and fall campaign. He could win sprinting and going a distance of ground, having won the Jockey Club Gold Cup when it was run at two miles. One year, he was named the Champion Older Horse, Best Sprinter and Horse of the Year at the Eclipse Awards. Only one of the most special of horses could ever do that. In fact, only three horses come to mind; Dr. Fager who was Champion Sprinter, Horse of the Year and Champion Older Male; Secretariat, who was named Horse of the Year, Champion Three Year Old and Champion Grass Horse; and John Henry, winner of Champion Grass Horse, Champion Older Horse and Horse of the Year. Pretty special company for all three to be included in.
That is my list of the top horses and I have left some off the list that probably could have been included. Horses like Triple Crown winners Affirmed and Seattle Slew, Champion mares like Lady’s Secret or Winning Colors.
Every year has its special horse and every generation has its favorites as well so sometimes you just have to make your picks and run with them.
As always, comments from the readers are welcome and I like a good debate so let me know how you feel about my picks and let me know yours. I can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org and your comments are always read and replied to.