There is something magical about watching horses run. It is often the movie, made-for-TV special, or novel that inspires me more to know about thoroughbred racehorses, but having organized a couple of annual client appreciation nights at the local racetrack, I have also been privy to the thunderous ovation of hooves, the second-by-second commentary from the commentators’ box, and the strain of muscle and sinew as these lithe, four-legged athletes fight, sometimes down to the nose, to be the first at the finish line. Here are the ones that have impressed me with their achievements (total races: wins-places-shows)–on and off the track.
Native Dancer (22: 21-1-0) I know of few thoroughbreds, then or now, which are grey. Native Dancer won an astounding 21 races. His stud career was a prolific one; he sired notable descendants like Shenanigans (dam of Ruffian), Raise a Native (sire of Mr. Prospector), and Natalma (dam of Northern Dancer)1. Read John Eisenberg’s Native Dancer: The Grey Ghost Hero of a Golden Age, to learn more.
Northern Dancer (18: 14-2-2) grandson of Native Dancer on his dam’s side, Northern Dancer finished in the money in all his 18 races. He was ‘the little horse that could.’ His career in the stables was even more impressive: this 1964 Kentucky Derby winner and Canadian Hall Sports of Fame inductee–initially ignored at the yearling sales because of his small size–became the defining sire of the 20th century on both sides of the Atlantic, influencing the thoroughbred bloodline with 147 stakes winners.2 Read Avalyn Hunter’s paperback, The Kingmaker: How Northern Dancer Founded a Racing Dynasty, to learn more.
Phar Lap (51: 37-3-2) New Zealand racehorse and gelding Phar Lap was a roan-coloured horse with a big heart — literally; it weighed almost 14 lbs, twice as heavy as a normal horse’s heart.3 Tragically, Phar Lap died under mysterious circumstances (whether he was poisoned by accident or on purpose is still the unaswered question). Check out the 1983 movie Pharlap: Heart of a Nation for more about this New Zealand and Australian icon.
Seabiscuit (89: 33-15-1) The unlikely, undersized hero of the Great Depression and grandson of horseracing legend Man O’War competed in a marathon number of races, but didn’t have the most auspicious start, as he lost his first 17 races.4 Explore the story of this plucky underdog in the 2003 film Seabiscuit.
Secretariat (21: 16-3-1) Affectionately known as “Big Red”, Secretariat’s dazzling, record-setting wins on the track–the subject of intense media scrutiny–made him one of the greatest racehorses of all time. As the first U.S. Triple Crown champion in a quarter of a century, he won the final leg by (a still unbroken) 31 lengths.5 His story is told in William Nack’s novel, Secretariat.
Black Caviar (25: 25-0-0) This massive dark bay Australian mare–who topped the scales during her racing career at 1367 lbs–was retired in 2013 after an amazing 5-year racing career. A great-granddaughter of Nijinsky and great-great-granddaughter of Northern Dancer, Black Caviar’s story is one for the record books–she remained undefeated in all of her 25 races (a record that has not been equaled in over a century6). Read Gerard Whateley’s book about this 21st century champion, Black Caviar.
Kincsem (55: 55-0-0) The rangy 19th century Hungarian mare who retired undefeated in all of her 55 races in 5 European countries7 still holds the distinction of being the winningest horse, filly/mare or colt, in thoroughbred racing history. Kincsem (Hungarian for “my precious,”8) was honoured with the Kincsem Park and a life-sized statue on the grounds. Perhaps–and eerily contributing to her own legend–she died (hours after giving birth to her fifth foal)–on the same day that she was born, 13 years before.
Personal Ensign (13: 13-0-0) Undefeated in all of her 13 races (and breaking an 80-year-old record)9, Personal Ensign became a very successful broodmare upon retirement and lived to the ripe old age of 26 years with few age-related health concerns, although an early injury almost ended her nascent racing career. Through herself, she has established a winning streak that runs through three generations of her female offspring–a feat that has never been duplicated by any other broodmare, and only one group of stallions.10 Bill Heller’s Personal Ensign: Thoroughbred Legends tells her story.
Ruffian (11: 10-0-0) A big, beautiful, and spirited near black granddaughter of Northern Dancer, this “Queen of the Fillies” broke hearts and records with her stunning, indomitable wins on the tracks in the late 70s. A New York Triple Tiara winner, and undefeated champion in her first ten races, Ruffian tragically broke down in a highly anticipated match race–and the eleventh race of her career–against 1975 Kentucky Derby winner Foolish Pleasure. Her story is chronicled in Jane Schwartz’s Ruffian: Burning from the Start and the 2007 film Ruffian.
Source credits for information and racing statistics:
1 Native Dancer Wikipedia profile (en.wikipedia.org)
2 Northern Dancer Wikipedia profile (en.wikipedia.org)
3 Pharlap Wikipedia profile (en.wikipedia.org)
4 Seabiscuit Wikipedia profile (en.wikipedia.org)
5 Secretariat Wikipedia profile (en.wikipedia.org)
6 Black Caviar Wikipedia profile (en.wikipedia.org)
7,8 Kincsem Wikipedia profile (en.wikipedia.org)
9,10 Personal Ensign profile (en.wikipedia.org)