Historical Horse Racing

Ranking the Best American

Race Horses of the 20th Century

* BloodHorse * Associated Press

* Sports Illustrated * Historical Horse Racing

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By: Walter Lazary /// xxxxx Words /// Rev'd. July 2022 /// Comments Box at End.

Man o' War....Cook Collection - Keeneland Library

Picking what one considers to be the best in any field is always a challenging task. And when it comes to making a case for the best American Thoroughbred Racehorses that competed during the twentieth century, you can honestly say that making this determination is definitely not an exact science because personal judgment counts just as much, and sometimes even more than actual results. There are so many variables to take into consideration such as racing in different eras, major races won, overall record, weights carried, the quality of the competition, track conditions, injuries, career longevity, foal crop sizes, trainer and jockey expertise, breeding, etc. and etc.

BloodHorse Magazine

The most famous ranking of the best American Thoroughbred Racehorses that competed during the past century is the one compiled by BloodHorse Magazine, one of the most respected publications in the industry.  This enormous task was conducted in 1999 and it immediately grabbed the attention of racing fans who were interested in knowing which of these famous stars that competed between 1900 and 1999 were considered the best……and in order.

The BloodHorse panel consisted of seven distinguished members of the horse-racing community:  Howard Battle, the racing secretary at Keeneland race track; Lenny Hale, a vice-president of the Maryland Jockey Club; Pete Peterson, a senior steward in California; Daily Racing Form columnist Jay Hovdey; William Nack, a senior writer for Sports Illustrated; racing journalist Jennie Rees of the Louisville Courier-Journal; and Tommy Trotter, a steward at Gulfstream Park who was also a long time racing secretary on the NYRA circuit and for many years curator of the Experimental Free Handicap.

Each of the members was required to compile a list of what they considered to be the top one hundred American racehorses that ran in the past century with their choices ranked from first to one hundredth.  These lists were then combined into a master list, which was eventually published into a book, Thoroughbred Champions Top 100 Racehorses of the 20th Century, complete with general biographies and career records. 

In all, a total of 192 horses received at least one vote.  When the final tally was disclosed, it determined that Man o’ War was the best American racehorse to compete during the twentieth century, winner by a narrow margin over Secretariat.

However, when examining the voting one might say that there was a noticeable flaw.  In the final tally both Man o’ War and Secretariat each received three first-place votes with Citation receiving the other one.  What decided the outcome was the fact that Secretariat was actually placed 14th on one of the ballots, a decision that caused the great Meadow Stable star the honor of being placed first, or at least being tied for first.  Predictably, whether Secretariat’s 14th place ranking was an oversite, or was made in jest, it raised questions about the method used and why at least one panel member (who some thought was biased) was included.

When William Nack reviewed the results he became outraged because in his mind there was no way that Secretariat should have been listed fourteenth best.  And because of this one panel member’s decision, for many people, the result was skewered and still begs the question……..which of these two outstanding stars was the best American Racehorse of the Twentieth Century?  Was it Samuel Riddle’s Man o’ War?  Or was it the Meadow Stable’s Secretariat?

Listed below, on the left is the BloodHorse top ten and on the right their #11 thru #20:

 1 – Man o’ War
 2 – Secretariat
 3 – Citation
 4 – Kelso
 5 – Count Fleet
 6 – Dr. Fager
 7 – Native Dancer
 8 – Forego
 9 – Seattle Slew
10 – Spectacular Bid

11 – Tom Fool
12 – Affirmed
13 – War Admiral
14 – Buckpasser
15 – Colin
16 – Damascus
17 – Round Table
18 – Cigar
19 – Bold Ruler
20 – Swaps

You might say that publishing this list was a thankless task because in the end, it didn’t matter what order the panel produced, there were countless arguments put forth by those who thought otherwise. For instance, why would Dr. Fager make the top ten list while Damascus, who split four meetings with the great Tartan Farm star, not make the top ten despite his excellent record? And then there is Swaps, the 1955 Kentucky Derby winner who set four world records and three additional track records at various distances on dirt, and to show his versatility, tied a world record on turf. The best this son of Khaled could do was finish twentieth, but one wonders where Swaps would have been placed if he had won his celebrated match race against Nashua, the 1955 Preakness Stakes and Belmont Stakes winner, who was #24 on the list.

Associated Press

There have been other lists that were published, one of the most notable by The Associated Press.  Its panel (I do not know the names of those who voted other than they were racing experts) chose the following:

 1 – Man o’ War
 2 – Secretariat
 3 – Citation (tie)
 3 – Native Dancer (tie)
 5 – Kelso
 6 – Tom Fool
 7 – Dr. Fager
 8 – Count Fleet
 9 – Spectacular Bid
10 – Seattle Slew (tie)
10 – Forego (tie)

When the individual panel members were asked who they thought was best four of them chose Man o’ War, one named Secretariat and the other named Tom Fool.

Sports Illustrated

Sports Illustrated Magazine created a list of the best racehorses in the past century that was compiled by a panel of seven experts: ABC Sports broadcaster Jim McKay; Arlington International Racecourse steward Tommy Trotter (yes that same Tommy Trotter); retired California racing official Frank E. Kilroe; executive columnist of the Daily Racing Form Joe Hirsch; Hall of Fame trainer Woody Stephens; secretary-treasurer of the National Turf Writers Association, Jim Bolus; and columnist and author William F. Reed.  Listed below are the horses that they believe were the top ten from the past century:

1 – Man o’ War
2 – Secretariat
3 – Citation
4 – Kelso
5 – Count Fleet
6 – Sysonby
7 – Native Dancer
8 – Nashua
9 – Seattle Slew
10 – Colin

Historical Horse Racing

Because I am posting a blog that will concentrate on North American Thoroughbred Horse Racing in the 19th and specifically the 20th centuries, I have decided to post my own top ten list of those horses that competed during the 20th century (and no, neither Swaps nor Damascus made the top ten though both were close).  Following my top ten, I have listed what I consider to be the next best ten.

I have also decided to go outside the box and publish lists that are more concentrated: the Best Fillies and Mares, Turf Horses, Turf Fillies and Mares, Two-Year-Old Colts, Two-Year-Old Fillies, Milers, Sprinters, Geldings, and the Greatest Weight Carriers.

At some point I would also like to salute other horses whose extraordinary accomplishments might have been enough for them to be included in the BloodHorse top 100 but for some reason were omitted, such greats as Conquistador Cielo, Landaluce, Graustark, Hoist the Flag, Gen. Duke, Melair, and Swale, etc., forgotten stars that had their careers tragically cut short by injury, illness or stud syndication.

You can review stats and facts for all my choices on the accompanying pages by tapping on the appropriate box below.

I know that many of you will disagree with some of my choices, and that certainly is your prerogative.  In fact, I encourage not only disagreement but invite everyone to state their choices for the best horses that competed during the Twentieth Century in the comment box below or included in each category.

1. Man o’ War (tie)
1. Secretariat (tie)
3. Citation
4. Kelso
5. Dr. Fager
6. Affirmed
7. Spectacular Bid
8. Forego
9. Native Dancer
10. Seattle Slew

11. Tom Fool
12. Buckpasser
13. Damascus
14. Swaps
15. Bold Ruler
16. Count Fleet
17. Round Table
18. War Admiral
19. Cigar
20. Colin

Top Ten Categories

Best Overall

Best Female

Turf Male

Turf Female

2-Year-Old Colt

Man o' War

Cook Collection - Keeneland Library





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Weight Carrier

Future Article

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