The history of horse racing has too many famous runners for any “top horses” article to truly do the sport justice. We could spend hours pouring over the record books and newspaper headlines, remembering the glorious victories of past greats, and against-the-odds triumphs from around the world. This is a sport rich in storylines and even richer in legends.
So while it’s near-impossible to rank success in horse racing, it’s perhaps more viable to pick out the famous horses that stole our hearts, or who have gone down in history for a specific reason.
Here, Paddy Power looks at eight of the most famous racehorses in history…
Winner of three Grand National triumphs and the Scottish Grand National, Red Rum made horse racing betting fans a lot of money in the 1970s. His victories were killer blows for the bookies and he become popular on both sides of the Irish Sea. Trained by Ginger McCain, there appeared no limit to Red Rum’s powers, and he was only retired after suffering a fracture before the 1978 Grand National. Such was his fame that his retirement made the newspaper front pages.
Red Rum remains one of the best-known racehorses in the UK and Ireland. His merchandise was sold many years after his retirement and he died in 1995, being buried at the winning post at Aintree.
Another horse that captured the hearts of the horse racing public, Best Mate won the Cheltenham Gold Cup in 2002, 2003 and 2004. No horse since L’Escargot in the 1970s had won successive Gold Cups until Best Mate, and he equalled Arkle’s feat of three on the bounce from the 1960s. He also won the King George VI Chase and the Ericsson Chase (now Savills Chase).
A well-loved horse, Best Mate is perhaps remembered for his tragic death as much as his race wins. In 2005 the Henrietta Knight-trained horse died of a suspected heart failure during the Haldon Gold Cup at Exeter. He was cremated and buried at Cheltenham.
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US horse racing hadn’t witnessed a Triple Crown winner in 26 years until Secretariat came along in 1973. Nicknamed Big Red, the Christopher Chenery-bred stallion was a formidable race opponent that won 16 of his 21 career runs. Secretariat is best known for storming to glory in the Kentucky Derby, Preakness Stakes and Belmont Stakes in 1973, and setting race time records in all three outings. All three records still stand to this day.
Secretariat also won the Gotham Stakes, Arlington Invitational, and nine further stakes races before being retired in December 1973. He had a fairly middling stud career considering his stature on the racetrack, but still earned millions for his owners.
Few racehorses will ever be quite as dominant as Australia’s Winx. The Chris Waller-trained mare won 33 races on the bounce across a four-year stint that ended in glorious retirement in 2019. Winx was a bookmaker’s worst nightmare – a firm favourite in the racing betting for practically every race she entered, and a winner at the end of them.
Winx won a total of 28 Grade 1 races, including three Queen Elizabeth Stakes, three Apollo Stakes, the Queensland Oaks, Epsom Handicap, and four W. S. Cox Plates. Such was her dominance in the Warwick Stakes (3x wins) that the race was renamed the Winx Stakes in 2018. She finished her career with a record-breaking $18.7m earned in prize money.
The highest-earning racehorse in North America, Bob Baffert-trained Arrogate delivered $17.4m in prize money over his two-year racing career. Arrogate missed the Triple Crown races in his third year, running claimers instead, but then stormed to Travers Stakes victory in a track record time, before winning the 2016 Breeders’ Cup Classic.
The next year he won the Pegasus World Cup and Dubai World Cup – two races with a combined prize pot of $16m. Arrogate goes down not as one of the best race horses, but certainly a modern-day headline grabber.
— History of Horse Racing (@horsevault) October 18, 2022
Yes there was a film made of Seabiscuit that did well at the box-office, but this horse was well known before Gary Ross got his hands on the script. Seabiscuit is famous for having dominated late 1930s American horseracing, suffering a serious injury, and then coming back for one last year to claim victory in San Antonio and Santa Anita.
Seabiscuit drew crowds for his “head to head” races against Ligaroti and later War Admiral, in an event dubbed the “Match of the Century”. One of the first true celebrity names in horse racing, the 1938 Horse of the Year now has a statue at Santa Anita racetrack.
There are enough famous Irish horses to make a full list in itself here, but one that stands out alongside Best Mate and Red Rum is Shergar. The Michael Stoute-trained runner won the Epsom Derby by a remarkable 10 lengths – the peak of a career that also saw him claim victory in the Irish Derby and King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Stakes.
But it’s Shergar’s theft after retirement that made him truly famous. Thieves stole the horse in 1983 and demanded a £52,000 ransom, which quickly rose to £2m. More than 70 police officers were put on the case and it made newspaper headlines around the world. But Shergar was never found.
What a horse ❤️
Galileo – a stallion that revolutionised the breeding world who will be remembered forever. @coolmorestud
Rest in peace, Galileo. pic.twitter.com/vFe9Ibmg9Y
— Racing TV (@RacingTV) July 10, 2021
Galileo followed in Shergar’s footsteps in winning the Epsom Derby, Irish Derby and King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Stakes in one season in 2001. But this Irish horse is famous not for his prowess on the racecourse, but off it. Galileo had one of the most successful stud careers to date, having sired more than 330 race winners by his death in 2021.
Famous winners from Galileo’s line include Frankel, Australia, Kyprios, Magical and Waldgeist. Galileo won around £1.6m in prize money as a racehorse. He earned as much as £600,000 a cover at stud, and was Great Britain and Ireland’s leading sire in all but one year between 2008 and 2020.