Now that the Breeders’ Cup has ended, I thought it might be fun to look back over the last 20 or so years of Horse Racing and reflect on some of the sport’s true champions. Here are my picks for the 20 best racehorses since 1990, with footage provided to support my claim.

#20: MIDNIGHT LUTE- One of the most monstrous closers that the Sprint division has ever seen, Midnight Lute is the only horse ever to win the Breeders’ Cup Sprint twice. He swallowed his opponents both times over the final furlong, winning once on a fast track and once over the slop. In both races, he was forced incredibly wide around the final turn, and it made no difference as he was much the best, with a massive stride while driving through the finish. He won 6 of his 12 lifetime starts, but was unbeatable when running his race, and earned $2.69 million in his career.

#19: OUIJA BOARD– A dominant turf mare running longer distances, Ouija Board won two European Horse of the Year titles while dominating the competition on this side of the Atlantic as well. She won two Breeders’ Cup Filly and Mare Turf races, and was genuinely feared whenever she took to the turf. Her career record of 10 wins in 22 starts doesn’t quite do justice to how easily she dominated the competition in her prime, but her career earnings of $5.79 million prove that she knew how to win the big ones.

#18: LURE- One of the most successful American turf milers in history, Lure became the first horse to win the Breeders’ Cup Mile twice. His 1993 campaign was quite impressive, as he tallied wins in the Kelso, Turf Classic and Fourstardave before winning the Breeders’ Cup Mile despite a very troubled trip. Lure won 14 of his 25 career starts, earning $2.51 million.

#17: GO FOR WAND- This incredibly game filly met a tragic end as she broke her right cannon bone during what would have been one of the greatest stretch duels of all time in the 1990 Breeders’ Cup Distaff, a stretch duel she almost certainly would have won. Outside of that race that cost her life, Go For Wand accumulated ten wins and two seconds in twelve starts, earning $1.37 over her short career. She proved that she had the heart of a champion that day, as she hobbled on three legs to the finish line before she could be humanely euthanized.

#16: AFLEET ALEX- A true fighter if ever there was won, Afleet Alex may have been the horse to finally break the Triple Crown drought if not for the absurd pace meltdown in the 2005 Kentucky Derby.  He withstood that torrid pace admirably to finish third before winning a memorable Preakness after practically falling to his knees coming around the final turn, and went on to win the Belmont as well. Alex won 8 out his 12 lifetime races, earning $2.77 million in his career.

#15: A.P. INDY- Another horse that could easily have won the Triple Crown, A.P. Indy skipped the 1992 Kentucky Derby and Preakness before dominating the Belmont and winning the Breeders’ Cup Classic, and earning Horse of the Year Honors that year. His real legacy has been at stud, where his progeny have included multiple stakes winners. A.P. Indy won 8 of his 11 races, winning $2.97 million.

#14: AZERI- A three-time Eclipse Award winner as Older Female Horse, Azeri also earned Horse of the Year honors in 2002 (one of only four females to win the award) after winning the Breeder’s Cup Distaff and Apple Blossom (one of three wins in that race), and enjoyed an 11-race win streak between 2002 and 2003. She is the second highest earning North American Female with $4.09 million, and won 17 of her 24 starts.

#13: SMARTY JONES: An entire nation became infatuated with this colt as he battled for the Triple Crown in 2004, and while Afleet Alex may have been more deserving the following year, no one else came closer over the course of the decade than Smarty did. He became the first undefeated horse since Seattle Slew to win the Kentucky Derby, and after handily winning the Preakness by a record 11 1/2 lengths, his narrow loss when caught at the wire in the Belmont by the fast-closing Birdstone is still one of the most crushing losses in the history of the sport. Unfortunately, we didn’t get to see Smarty take on older horses as he was retired due to injury shortly after his second place finish in the Belmont, the only time in 9 starts he suffered a loss. Smarty Jones earned $7.6 million in his only season of racing.

#12: RACHEL ALEXANDRA- Her 2009 Horse of the Year campaign was one for the ages, as she finished the year undefeated after initially demolishing all comers in the three-year-old filly division (a 20 length victory in the Kentucky Oaks) and eventually taking on the boys with unprecedented success. Rachel became the first filly ever to win the Preakness, and continued to succeed against strong competition, winning the Haskell over Belmont winner Summer Bird before taking Woodward Stakes against older males as well. She won 13 of her 19 career races and has earned $3.51 million over two years.

#11: HOLY BULL- Aside from his as-yet unexplained flop as the heavy favorite in the 1994 Kentucky Derby, there isn’t much that this colt did wrong that season. Highly touted going into that race after dominating the Florida Derby with a 113 Beyer, he bounced back from his setback in the Derby with wins in the Travers and Woodward in route to Horse of the Year honors. He won 13 of his 16 races, earning $2.41 million in the process.

#10 GOLDIKOVA- The only horse in history to win the same Breeders’ Cup Race three times, the European filly/mare Goldikova tackled males and won the Mile in 2008, 2009 and 2010, coming from far off the pace and showing a devastating turn of foot. Her form in Europe was spectacular as well, and all told she has won 15 of her 21 races, missing the board only once, and earning over $6 million in the process. Impressively, she will remain in training and attempt to win a fourth consecutive Breeders’ Cup Mile next year.

#9: SILVER CHARM- Yet another horse with a chance to win the Triple Crown over the past two decades, Silver Charm was caught at the wire in the Belmont by Touch Gold in 1997. It shouldn’t be left unsaid that he won one of the most memorable Kentucky Derby races ever run, racing near the lead and hanging on through a dramatic stretch drive over the hard closing Captain Bodgit and pace-setting Free House. Unlike some of the horses that would find themselves in similar situations in the next decade, Silver Charm’s connections chose to keep him in racing, and he came back strong in his four-year-old campaign, winning the prestigious Dubai World Cup, the Clark Handicap and the Kentucky Cup. He won 12 of his 24 races, earning $6.94 million over three years.

#8: POINT GIVEN- Another horse that lost his shot at the Triple Crown thanks to a suicidal pace in the Kentucky Derby, the monstrous physical specimen Point Given bounced back to win the Preakness, Belmont, Haskell and Travers (four consecutive million dollar races). Sadly, he wasn’t able to prove himself in the Breeders’ Cup after suffering an injury later in the fall, but that didn’t prevent him from receiving Horse of the Year honors in 2001 after what may have been the strongest three-year old campaign of any horse over the last decade. Aside from his 5th place finish in the Derby, his career record stands virtually flawless, with 9 wins and 2 seconds in 13 starts, good for $3.97 million in earnings.

#7: INVASOR- After winning the Uraguyan Triple Crown in 2005 and finishing a game fourth in the UAE Derby to begin the 2006 season, the little known Invasor shipped north and absolutely annihilated all comers, winning the Pimlico Special, Suburban Handicap and Whitney before beating heavily favored Bernardini in the Breeders’ Cup Classic. He earned Horse of the Year honors that year, but he wasn’t finished. Invasor came back in 2007 to win the Donn Handicap despite a horrible trip, and turned the tables on rival Discreet Cat, the only horse to ever defeat him, when he won the Dubai World Cup, the world’s richest race. All told, Invasor won 11 of his 12 starts, and earned $7.80 million.

#6: ZENYATTA- The first female to ever win the Breeders’ Cup Classic in 2009, Zenyatta took some criticism over her career for being purely a synthetic specialist. Undefeated in her first 19 races before finishing second in a photo finish in the 2010 Breeders’ Cup Classic, her last, she was known for her late running, out of the clouds style. And who could ever forget her dominating size? At 17.2 hands, she stands larger than Secretariat did. Winning the Breeders’ Cup Classic, she dwarfed the males. More importantly, she was the first horse in modern memory to truly unite a nation around her, and although her quest for 20 wins fell heart-breakingly short, her legacy lost no luster in her one gusty loss. She is the all-time leading money earner for females, accumulating $7.30 million in her illustrious career.

#5: SKIP AWAY- Heavily raced through four impressive seasons, “Skippy” was certainly a horse for the ages. He really began to hit his stride as a three year old after winning the Belmont and defeating the immortal Cigar in the Jockey Club Gold Cup (a race he would win again, but that one sealed his Three-Year-Old Eclipse Award), but his two best seasons came as an older horse, as he won two Eclipse Awards in that category in 1997 and 1998, winning the Horse of the Year title as well in the latter (and having quite a good case for it in 1997 as well). Ironically, his dominating win in the Breeders’ Cup Classic in 1997 (1:59.1) wasn’t enough to take the Horse of the Year Title from the overrated (but undefeated) two-year old Favorite Trick in that year, but his win in the Woodward in 2008 was enough to seal the deal despite his loss in the Breeders’ Cup that year. Skippy won 18 of his 38 starts and earned $9.62 million, an amount that places him in the top three of all-time.

#4: TIZNOW- A personal favorite of mine, Tiznow is the only horse to win the Breeders’ Cup Classic twice, both in stunning fashion. I saw it live in 2000 as he out-battled the Irish champion Giant’s Causeway, and had money to win on this up-and-coming three year old, who would go on to win Horse of the Year as a result. In 2001, he would go on to win the Santa Anita Handicap, and his winning Breeders Cup Classic stretch duel with Sahkee, another European invader, was an immediate classic, although not enough to steal Horse of the Year honors from Point Given. Tiznow won 8 of his 15 starts and earned $6.42 million.

#3: GHOSTZAPPER- Perhaps the most versatile and talented horse over this entire timespan, Ghostzapper began his career as a dominant sprinter, winning 6f and 7f races before stretching out to longer distances with shocking success. In his first race around two turns, Ghostzapper won the 9f Philip Iselin with a 128 Beyer- the fastest ever around two turns.  And he wasn’t done yet; Ghostzapper captured the Woodward later that fall before winning the Breeders’ Cup Classic in a record time of 1:59.0. All in all, he won 9 out of his 11 starts from 6 to 10 furlongs, earned $3.45 million and a Horse of the Year title.

#2: CURLIN- The richest American racehorse of all time, Curlin is one of two horses during this time span to win two Horse of the Year titles, and the only one of the last decade. He will be remembered for the stunning third gear that he could switch into during his gritty stretch drives as well as for his incredibly imposing physique and competitive toughness. As a three-year old in 2007, Curlin hit the board in all three Triple Crown races, and won a thrilling, hard-fought Preakness, all against what was arguably the strongest class of his decade, including accomplished runners Street Sense, Hard Spun, Rags to Riches and Any Given Saturday. He came back to win the Jockey Club Gold Cup and Breeders’ Cup Classic against older horses that year, and probably would have won a second Breeders’ Cup Classic the following year if it had been run on real dirt. Curlin would come back in 2008 to win the Dubai World Cup and repeat in the Jockey Gold Cup. His career record of 11 wins in 16 starts earned $10.5 million.

#1: CIGAR- “The incomparable, invincible, unbeatable Cigar!” Truer words have never been spoken. This legend strung together a record-tying 16 consecutive wins over two years of uncompromising travel against the country’s top competition, a feat equaled only by the great Citation. During this span, Cigar won two Horse of the Year titles, a Breeders’ Cup Classic, a Jockey Club Gold Cup, two Woodwards,  two Donn Handicaps and the Dubai World Cup- and won most of those in very convincing fashion, rarely winning by less than three or four lengths. In his 33 career races, Cigar won 19 times and earned $9.99 million.

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  1. Susan Meckel Says:

    Excellent, well-informed list, both in who is on it and in the ordering. I might have had Royal Delta on it …and might have had Zenyatta a little higher, but no one’s lists will be identical.
    (and thank you for not elevating Zenyatta to “greatest racehorse who ever lived” status.)

  2. Susan Meckel Says:

    I can’t count. Nix Royal Delta, she wasn’t dominant until 2011, and you published this list in 2010.

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