Rating the Best Thoroughbreds of the 20th Century

Man o' War (21: 20-1-0) is rated by a Blood-Horse publication as the No. 1 Racehorse ever.
Man o' War (21: 20-1-0) is rated by a Blood-Horse publication as the No. 1 Racehorse ever. | Source

Rating the best Thoroughbred racehorses of the 20th Century is a daunting task. The staff of Blood-Horse Publications took a crack at it in their Top 100 Racehorses of the 20th Century which was produced in 1999.

Greats of the first decade of the 2000s, like Point Given, Zenyatta, and Monarchos (second under two-minutes victory ever in the Kentucky Derby), of course, are not included in the Blood-Horse book.

Does judging the racing phenoms of a century (particularly from the turn of the 19th Century into and through the 20th Century when so many things changed) mean amalgamating categories of racehorses? For instance, should a famous steeplechaser like Red Rum be included in a discussion with flat racer great Man o' War?

Judging Horseracing Controls and Health

What about considering horse racing's control changes of different eras? Man o' War raced without the benefit of a starting gate. His one career loss, in fact, is claimed to have happened because he wasn't lined up well before the starter fired his gun.

Today's Thoroughbred is better cared for; his health is more closely monitored, a benefit which became more of the norm in the last third of the 20th Century. Did Thoroughbreds from the 1970s to the final year of the 20th Century have advantages in care that helped them perform better than Man o' War's (1920s), or Citation's (1940s), or Native Dancer's (1950s) era?

There were three American Triple Crown winners in the 1970s after a dry spell in that accomplishment from the four victors in the 1940s. Does this tell us anything about the best Thoroughbred racehorse choices of the 20th Century?

Different Countries and Geldings

What about comparing racehorses from different countries, as well as their eras? The extraordinary Australian champion Phar Lap (51 posts: 37-3-2) is included in the Blood-Horse's publication picks at only No. 22, seemingly a slight when higher ranked individuals had far less starts. In fact, just two of Blood-Horse's Top Ten choices had more posts than Phar Lap.

The gelding Exterminator went to post an unheard of 100 times! Foaled two years before Man o' War (1917), "Old Bones" went 50-17-17. The two never met on the track.

Females Versus the Boys

How about females against males, including geldings, in era strength and stamina and even the amount of publicity the girls received compared to the boys? Two geldings, Kelso and Forego, made the Blood-Horse Top Ten while no fillies are included in the cream of the best one hundred. Should Ruffian (11 posts: 10-0-0) be rated higher? She's at No. 35.

Of other females, only Busher (21 posts: 15-3-1), Gallorette (72 posts: 21-20-13), Personal Ensign (13 posts: 13-0-0), and Dahlia (48 posts: 15-3-7) made the first 50 list behind Ruffian in the Blood-Horse ratings. Seventy-two posts is a lot of racing, and 54 times finishing third or better is astounding.

Here are the Blood-Horse's Top Ten from Top 100 Racehorses of the 20th Century:

  • No. 1 -- Man o' War (21: 20-1-0).......... No.6 -- Dr. Fager (22: 18-2-1)
  • No. 2 -- Secretariat (21: 16-3-1)........... No.7 -- Native Dancer (22: 21-1-0)
  • No. 3 -- Citation (45: 32-10-2).............. No.8 -- Forego (57: 34-9-7)
  • No. 4 -- Kelso (63: 39-12-2)................. No.9 -- Seattle Slew (17: 14-2-0)
  • No. 5 -- Count Fleet (21: 16-4-1)......... No.10 -- Spectacular Bid (30: 26-2-1)


Did they race primarily on original tracks, turf, traditional dirt, synthetics, or a combination of those? Were they mudders and sloppers, or were they halted befuddled by the weather conditions? Famous trainer Nick Zito once said great horses handle all conditions.

Is Judging One Mistake Fair?

But one mistake can change the outcome of a Thoroughbred race and a career: Man o' War's one problem, Native Dancer's one slip, etc.

Native Dancer, the Gray Ghost of Sagamore of the 1950s, may have been the best Thoroughbred of the 20th Century. His narrow 1953 Kentucky Derby loss prevented him from establishing an undefeated career that also would have made him the ninth Triple Crown winner.

What about Citation's 44 efforts going no worse than third from a career 45 starts and 32 victories as the last Triple Crown winner before Secretariat?

Anyone who has followed horse racing religiously can play with the Blood-Horse's Top 100 Racehorses of the 20th Century.

Phar Lap, Man o' War, Exterminator, and Secretariat all were famously nicknamed "Big Red".
Phar Lap, Man o' War, Exterminator, and Secretariat all were famously nicknamed "Big Red". | Source

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Comments 2 comments

jericho911 profile image

jericho911 3 years ago from Ohio

Point Given, Cigar, Skip Away, Curlin, Lit De Justice are all horses that deserve mention as some of the all-time greats. For entertainment purposes, Lit De Justice was my favorite horse to watch. The way he could come from 20 lengths back in a 5 1/2 furlong race was astounding. I saw his track record performance at Santa Anita for that distance and my jaw remained open for several moments after he crossed the finish line.


Barbsbitsnpieces profile image

Barbsbitsnpieces 3 years ago from Napoleon, Henry County, Ohio, USA Author

@jericho911...Thanks for your comments! Your story of Lit De Justice is very engaging.

The "Blood-Horse" publication ratings, of course, spoke only of racehorses of the 20th Century, so Curlin and Point Given and Zenyatta didn't make the cut, while Cigar is rated 18th and Skip Away, 32nd. Zenyatta was also an astounding come-from-behind runner, although she did it every time in races longer than 5-1/2 furlongs.

But, as this Hub indicates, rating horses of different times and eras, let alone centuries, is a difficult task.

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