Best Race Horses of All Time

Best Mate Statue
Best Mate Statue at Cheltenham Racecourse
Credit – Carine06 (flickr)

Horse racing is one of the oldest sports that still exists today, with the oldest of flat racing’s five Classics dating back to 1776. Many races pre-date even the St Leger though and racing’s origins certainly go back much further. In the well over 200 years that horse racing has existed there have been many wonderful horses but which are the best, the very best, race horses of all time?

This is a classic pub debate among fans of racing and, of course, it is impossible to give any definitive answers. For that reason, our look at the best horses ever is “in no particular order”. We’ll present the information and you can decide who you think should be considered the GOAT. What’s more, whilst horse racing has fairly comprehensive records with regards results, other information is somewhat lacking when you start to go further back into the annuls of the sport.

As such, we’ll focus most of our attention in this piece on horses within living memory, about whom we have at least some first-hand information and a decent amount of reliable information to back up our assertions.

Another obvious complication is that it is not really possible, nor fair, nor probably desirable, to compare a flat horse to a jumps specialist, or, for that matter, a chaser to a hurdler. As such we will consider the three main types of racing separately, looking at the best horses within each area.

Best Race Horses Ever: Chasers

We’ll start with the horses the public tend to love the most, the biggest, bravest horses of them all: the steeplechasers. Having said that, we will not be ranking the horses in order, a great place to start with this task is by looking at Timeform’s ratings.

Timeform was set up in 1948 in Halifax and was designed to provide the racing industry, at all levels, with information on horses and meetings. Their system of ranking horses looks at all races and the distances each horse beats another by in order to give each horse a ranking. US horses were only ranked in this way very recently so there is no historical data but most other major racing nations are considered, as are horses that only raced in the States but were active in the last 20 years or so.

For each category we’ll look at Timeform’s highest rated horses and below you can see a table of the top 10 chasers. All data is correct as of 2020, based on information from 1948 onwards and we’ve included the top 10, including ties.

Rank Horse Rating Year Born
1st Arkle 212 1957
2nd Flyingbolt 210 1959
3rd Sprinter Sacre 192 2006
4th Mill House 191 1957
4th Kauto Star 191 2000
6th Desert Orchid 187 1979
7th Dunkirk 186 1957
8th Burrough Hill Lad 184 1976
8th Moscow Flyer 184 1994
8th Long Run 184 2005

Of course, there are horses beyond that fine list whom some would put among the all-time greats but here we are not looking at good horses, nor greats, nor even all-time greats, we are considering the very best race horses of all time.

And sadly that means that brilliant chasers like Denman, Cue Card, See More Business and even three-time Cheltenham Gold Cup hero Best Mate don’t quite make the grade. But who does?

Was Arkle the Best Ever Chase Horse?

Much as we aren’t going to remove ourselves from the surprisingly comfy seat we have on the fence, Arkle is the highest rated horse in history and we’re listing him first, so make of that what you will.

Arkle was an Irish horse, the grandson of super-stallion Nearco, who went 14 races unbeaten in the late 1930s, amazingly at distances ranging from 5f right up to 1m7f. Nearco was the “sire of sires” and his line links greats such as Arkle, Frankel, Black Caviar, Sea The Stars, Secretariat, Nijinsky and many more.

Arkle may well be the best of the lot, with three Cheltenham Gold Cups showing his class and an impressive return for a horse whose career was cut short by injury. He also won three Leopardstown Chases in the same years (1964-66), as well as many other big races including a King George VI, two Hennessy Gold Cups and the Irish Grand National.

Hugely popular with fans (winning big race after big race does tend to endear a horse to punters!) and a national treasure in Ireland, Arkle has to be in the mix in any discussion about the greatest ever race horse.

Kauto a True Star

Another horse that thrived at Cheltenham and was loved by fans, Kauto Star won two Gold Cups, becoming the first to regain the trophy in 2009 after winning in 2007. An incredible five King George VI wins mean he has to be thought of as one of the best of all time and his longevity is something not even Arkle can challenge.

Kauto became the only horse to win a Grade 1 contest in seven seasons in a row when he landed the 2011 Betfair Chase, a stunning achievement. His rivalries with Denman and Long Run got people truly excited and Kauto was a true star with bags of personality too.

Flyingbolt: Stats Don’t Lie?

If Timeform’s stats are to be believed, Flyingbolt cannot be ignored, as the only horse to get anywhere near Arkle in their weightings. Flyingbolt raced on both the flat and over hurdles and purely in terms of winning percentages he cannot be considered to be great.

What’s more, he doesn’t have the huge number of big wins of many of the other top horses, although he did win the Queen Mother Champion Chase in 1966, as well as the Irish Grand National.

He gets into the discussion about all-time greats due to a spectacular run of form in 1965 and 1966 when he was routinely destroying top fields by huge margins. He won the 1966 Thyestes Handicap Chase by more than 30 lengths and the Champion Chase a couple of months later by 15 lengths.

He never met Arkle on the track and like his ratings rival his career was hit by injury. Many rated him a better horse at seven than Arkle and Ted Walsh, father of Ruby and Katie, said “”I would say that Flyingbolt was the best horse I ever saw. Arkle was super and a great horse, he rewrote the history books in terms of handicaps and all of that, but Flyingbolt did everything Arkle did and he did it better. He would carry the big weights and destroy horses.”

The Greatest Grey

Was Dessie the greatest steeplechase horse of all time? Make your own mind up. But was he the greatest grey and most popular horse ever? We would say yes. Fans loved him for the big race wins, such as four King Georges, the Irish National, Cheltenham Gold Cup and others. But they really loved him for his longevity, personality, indomitable spirit and aggressive, front-running style.

Brave and brilliant as he was, Desert Orchid was a poor performer on left-handed tracks, unfortunately meaning his record at Cheltenham and Aintree was nowhere near what it might have been. This also hampered his all-time high rating but few doubt his status as a great, something enhanced by his longevity, both at the track and beyond.

What About Red Rum?

If we are talking about horses with an iron spirit who were loved by the public then Red Rum is a name many would think of. Red Rum also brings into question what we mean by the term “best” too but his record at the Grand National is unrivalled.

Some racing fans may disparage the Aintree spectacular but it remains the most high profile race in the country, if not the world. And Red Rum won three Grand Nationals, in 1973, 1974 and 1977. What makes that even more remarkable is that he finished second in both 1975 and 1976.

Talking of remarkable, Red Rum raced a whopping 100 times and whilst that alone is astonishing, even more amazing is the fact that he never fell. Such brilliance, consistency, longevity (he won his last National aged 12 and lived to the ripe old age of 30), and popularity means Red Rum deserves a mention in this feature.

Best Flat Horses Ever

So, let us now look at the best 10 (plus ties!) flat horses of all time (well, since 1948 at least!) according to the stats folk at Timeform:

Rank Horse Rating Year Born
1st Frankel 147 2008
2nd Sea Bird 145 1962
3rd Brigadier Gerard 144 1968
3rd Tudor Minstrel 144 1944
5th Abernant 142 1946
5th Ribot 142 1952
5th Windy City 142 1949
8th Mill Reef 141 1968
9th Shergar 140 1978
9th Dancing Brave 140 1983
9th Dubai Millennium 140 1996
9th Harbinger 140 2006
9th Sea The Stars 140 2006
9th Vaguely Noble 140 1965

As we can see from the table above, in terms of Timeform’s ratings, little separates a number of all-time equine greats of the flat game. With more than 100 horses, including names such as Black Caviar, American Pharoah and Nijinsky, all rated between 139 and 135, picking out the very crème de la crème is no easy task. However, we think we know the place to start …

Is Frankel the Greatest?

Starting with the top-rated horse and the best horse of recent times seems very reasonable to us and we suspect few would take issue with Frankel being classed as one of the best race horses of all time.

His impeccable breeding, being a son of Galileo (and thus grandson of Sadler’s Wells) out of Kind, a daughter of Danehill, certainly paid off, and this handsome stallion amassed almost £3m in prize money.

Big wins include the Dewhurst Stakes in his two year old season, the 2,000 Guineas, St James’s Palace Stakes and many more in his Classic season and the International Stakes, Queen Anne and a defence of the Sussex Stakes as a four year old. In all he won 14 races (seven of which were Group 1s) before retiring unbeaten to an incredible stud career. He was twice voted European Horse of the Year as well as topping the World’s Best Racehorse Rankings twice.

Indeed, the World Thoroughbred Racehorse Rankings Committee stated that Frankel was the best they had ever seen since their ratings system was introduced (in 1977). In addition to these awards, his ratings dominance and all his huge wins, Frankel was a horse fans loved.

His power, style, grace and performances such as when winning the 2,000 Guineas by six lengths, considered by some pundits to be one of the best runs by a horse ever, all add substance to the argument that Frankel is the greatest. In addition, the fact he boasts wins at distances ranging from seven furlongs up to 10½ furlongs shows he was versatile too, and those lucky to have seen him race can count themselves privileged.

Don’t Forget US

As said, until recently, horses that only raced in the US were not given Timeform ratings. That means there are many top American animals who don’t feature on our table above and of those there is one who simply must be mentioned: Secretariat.

Secretariat was a big, powerful horse and some argue he was better than Frankel and indeed better than all the rest. He won 16 of 21 races at distances varying from just six furlongs up to 13 furlongs and in 1973 he won the US Triple Crown.

He sealed that piece of history by landing the Belmont Stakes in a run that it is easy to see as better than Frankel’s 2,000 Guineas performance. He romped home by a whopping 31 lengths, a distance scarcely believable in any race, let alone one of a mile and a half. His time was a track record and also the fastest mile and a half ever on dirt and the fact that his time still stands as a world record almost 50 years later shows just how good he was.

The Beyer Speed Figure is, broadly speaking, a US equivalent of Timeform and its creator, Andrew Beyer, has stated that Secretariat would have been ranked on 139 following his Belmont demolition (the rankings didn’t start until 1975).

There is no direct and precise method of comparing Timeform and Beyer but most accept that the former is typically 12 to 14 points higher than the latter. Taking the lower end of that would, in theory, see Secretariat rated at 151, some way higher than even Frankel.

Best of the Rest

There are so many other horses we could discuss, including US star of 1919 and 1920, Man o’ War (20 wins from 21 races), Hollywood inspiration Seabiscuit, Timeform’s number two Sea Bird, and Brigadier Gerard, who boasted 17 wins from 18 races with eight top level victories.

Moreover, Beyer argued that Count Fleet, who landed the 1943 Triple Crown, and won 16 races, might have had a Beyer Speed Figure of 150. That would imply a Timeform score of over 160, well clear of Frankel, so he is surely another in the argument.

Comparing any two horses is difficult. Do we rank them on pure speed, big race wins, overall win percentage, personality, track times, longevity or a mixture of all these things? Comparing horses from different eras and different countries of course adds even more complexity, and that is why we have looked past a number of the horses briefly mentioned above and others are overlooked altogether. All of these animals are legends of flat racing, but who do you think was the best?

Best Race Horses of All Time: Hurdlers

Last but by no means least, Timeform’s 10 highest-rated hurdlers, once again including ties:

Rank Horse Rating Year Born
1st Night Nurse 182 1971
2nd Monksfield 180 1972
2nd Istabraq 180 1992
4th Persian War 179 1963
5th Comedy Of Errors 178 1967
5th Le Sauvignon 178 1994
7th Lanzarote 177 1968
8th Limestone Lad 176 1992
8th Bula 176 1965
8th Sir Ken 176 1948
8th Birds Nest 176 1970
8th Golden Cygnet 176 1972
8th Big Buck’s 176 2003

Hurdling perhaps doesn’t carry the same prestige as either NH racing over the biggest obstacles or flat racing. None the less, for racing fans, some, or even all, of the horses on the list above are undoubtedly considered to be greats of the sport.

Big Buck’s Backers Bag Big Bucks

For modern, or younger, lovers of horse racing, it is probably the last name on the list above that evokes the fondest memories. On a ratings list that is tightly packed, Big Buck’s is only six pounds worse off than Night Nurse but many will remember him well from his phenomenal record at the Cheltenham Festival.

Paul Nicholls’ imposing bay won the feature World Hurdle four times in a row between 2009 and 2012 and did the “triple-quad” by landing the Grade 1 Liverpool Hurdle at Aintree and Newbury’s Grade 2 Long Distance Hurdle in the same years. Those 12 wins were at the core of a five year period where he won 18 consecutive races and were it not for a bad injury he may well have continued that streak.

Istabraq Another Cheltenham Hero

Big Buck’s is perhaps the greatest ever staying hurdler but Istabraq, who was at his peak around a decade earlier, was a faster hero, having initially been bred for the flat (his damsire was Secretariat!). He won two from 11 races on the flat but switched to hurdles and was reborn, landing 23 wins from 29 races, including three Champion Hurdles (1998-2000) and taking the Irish Champion Hurdles in those years and 2001.

With four non-consecutive wins in the Grade 1 December Festival Hurdle, plus a number of other big-race wins, Istabraq certainly ticks the boxes of wins, big wins and sustained brilliance.

Night Nurse Versatile Great

Timeform’s highest ever rated hurdler boasts three flat wins and 13 victories in chases but is best remembered for his 19 wins over hurdles. This Irish-bred, Yorkshire-trained bay might not quite have the tally of wins in the most prestigious events that some of his rivals for “Best Hurdler Ever” have but he certainly had a season to remember in 1975-76.

Peter Easterby’s charge went the whole season unbeaten, winning 10 races including a trio (Welsh, English and Scottish) of Champion Hurdles. He won races over an extended period but peaked between 1975 and 1977 and in this period there seems little doubt he would have been a match for just about any other hurdler.

In his later years he was a more than proficient chaser and was very well backed for the Cheltenham Gold Cup on more than one occasion. His best performance was a second place finish in 1981 but his place in the pantheon of the best race horses of all time is for his hurdling.