Peter Lee’s Top 20 Horses of the 21st Century

July 19, 2019

In 1999, the Blood-Horse published a list of the top 100 American racehorses of the 20th century, which caused a great deal of discussion (Man o’War ahead of Secretariat? Ruffian at only #35?). We’re almost one-fifth of the way through the 21st century; what horses may make the Blood-Horse‘s top horses of the 21st century?

A lot has changed in the past 30 years. Owners retire many horses after only two racing seasons, giving us only a glimpse of what they might have been as 4- and 5-year-olds. Most haven’t built up a proven track record of consistency over a long period of time; some on this list would not make the top 100 of the 20th century.

That being said, surely there are some outstanding horses that have come through so far. Since we’re in the 20th year of the 21st century, we should have 20 prospective colts and fillies that will fit the bill – or at least make the list of the best horses of the past 20 years. Have we seen a Man o’ War or Secretariat yet? No.

One thing that stands out is the increasing number of mares on the list. In the Blood-Horse‘s 1999 rankings, 25 out the 100 horses were female (25%); in my list, 30% (6) are female. In the 1999 rankings, the first filly on the list was Ruffian at #35. In my list, a female horse takes the #1 and #4 rankings. 

Let’s get to the Peter Lee list:

  1. Zenyatta (20:19-1-0, $7,304,580. Highest ESF: 126) – She was one nose away from perfection, defeated in her last race against the boys in the Breeders’ Cup Classic, a race she had already won. Her classic come-from-behind style thrilled fans. She was named Horse of the Year in 2010 and won 17 graded stakes. She was inducted into the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame in 2016.
  2. American Pharoah (11:9-1-0, $8,650,000. Highest Equibase Speed Figure: 119) – The first horse to achieve the as-yet recognized Grand Slam – The 2015 Triple Crown and Breeders’ Cup Classic. If it weren’t for the Travers at the Graveyard of Champions, he would have had a perfect 3-year-old season. He broke the 37-year Triple Crown curse convincingly.
  3. Rachel Alexandra (19:13-5-0, $3,506,730. Highest ESF: 121). The 2009 Horse of the Year beat the boys three different times – in the 2009 Preakness (one of only five fillies to do so in 144 runnings), Haskell Invitational (beating the Belmont winner, Summer Bird, by six lengths), and Woodward Stakes (one of only two). She entered the Hall of Fame in 2016.
  4. Ghostzapper (11:9-0-1, $3,446,120. Highest ESF: 130). Perhaps the fastest horse on this list. The son of Awesome Again won the Breeders’ Cup Classic in 2004 in record time and won the Philip H. Iselin Breeders’ Cup Handicap by 10 3/4 lengths, earning a 128 Beyer figure – the highest ever assigned by the Daily Racing Form. He was named 2004 Horse of the Year and was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2012.
  5. Arrogate (11:7-1-1, $17,422,600. Highest ESF: 127). Arrogate won his first stakes race, the 2016 Travers, in track record time. He went on to win the Breeders’ Cup Classic by a half-length over California Chrome, then won the 2017 Pegasus World Cup and Dubai World Cup. He was named the World’s Best Racehorse in 2016 and 2017.
  6. Wise Dan (31:23-2-0, $7,552,920. Highest ESF: 124). This gelding was a throwback to Kelso and Forego, racing until he was 7. He won the Breeders’ Cup Mile in 2012 and 2013, and was named both Champion Older Male Horse and Champion Male Turf Horse for those years. In the 2013 World’s Best Racehorse Rankings, he had a rating of 129 – third best in the world and the best in North America. 
  7. Gun Runner (19:12-3-2, $15,988,500. Highest ESF: 132). Winner of the 2017 Breeders’ Cup Classic, Gun Runner raced until he was 5, winning the 2018 Pegasus World Cup in his last race and extending his winning streak to five. He was named Horse of the Year in 2017.
  8. Accelerate (22:10-5-6, $6,692,480. Highest ESF: 126). One of the few colts to race past the age of 4 on this list, Accelerate ran until he was 6. He captured the 2018 Breeders’ Cup Classic and Santa Anita Handicap, and won the Pacific Classic by a record 12 1/2 lengths. He was named the 2018 American Older Dirt Male Horse.
  9. California Chrome (27:16-4-1, $14,752,650. Highest ESF: 132). Popular with fans, California Chrome won the first two jewels of the Triple Crown in 2014 before faltering in the Belmont Stakes, possibly due to a heel injury sustained during the race. He went on to race until he was 6, winning the 2016 Dubai World Cup.
  10. Justify (6:6-0-0, $3,798,000. Highest ESF: 114). Say what you want about his early retirement after the Belmont, his absence from the Breeders’ Cup Classic. He overcame the curse of Apollo, becoming the first horse in over 130 years to win the Kentucky Derby after being unraced as a 2-year-old. He went on to take the Triple Crown and was undefeated, his six career wins all coming in a span of 111 days. Who knows what his potential was?
  11. Tiznow (15:8-4-2, $6,427,830. Highest ESF: 125). A late bloomer, Tiznow didn’t break his maiden until May 31, 2000, when he was 3. From there, he won the Super Derby and Breeders’ Cup Classic, earning him Horse of the Year honors. He took the Classic again the next year, becoming the only horse ever to win the race twice. He entered the Hall of Fame in 2009.
  12. Curlin (16:11-2-2, $10,501,800. Highest ESF: 122). Bought for only $57,000 as a yearling, Curlin took all honors as a 3-year-old in 2007, winning American Champion 3-Year-Old Male Horse, Co-World Champion 3-Year-Old and Horse of the Year. He won the Preakness Stakes and Breeders’ Cup Classic that year; in 2008, he won the Dubai World Cup by 7 3/4 lengths, and won the Jockey Club Gold Cup for the second year in a row, earning him Horse of the Year for a second year in a row. He was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2014.
  13. Beholder (26:18-6-2, $6,156,000. Highest ESF: 117). Beholder raced until she was 6, winning the Breeders’ Cup Distaff in 2013 and 2016 and beating male horses in the Grade I Pacific Classic, winning by 8 1/4 lengths. She was named American Champion Three-Year-Old Filly in 2013 and American Champion Older Dirt Female Horse in 2015 and 2016. 
  14. Point Given (13:9-3-0. $3,968,500. Highest ESF: 127). Lightly raced and retired at age 3, Point Given still made his mark on American racing, winning the 2001 Preakness and Belmont Stakes, then taking the Travers Stakes on top of that. He was awarded Horse of the Year that year and was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2010.
  15. Havre de Grace (16:9-4-2, $2,586,175. Highest ESF: 121). Another mare who beat the boys, Havre de Grace became only the second female horse to win the Woodward Stakes in 2011. She finished out of the money only once and was named Horse of the Year in 2011, when she won 5 of 7 races. 
  16. Afleet Alex (12:8-2-1, $2,765,800. Highest ESF: 117). Like Curlin, he bounced back from disappointment in the Kentucky Derby to take the last two jewels of the 2005 Triple Crown. His career was cut short by injury, but he still earned American Champion 3-Year-Old Male Horse.
  17. Smarty Jones (9:8-1-0, $7,163,155. Highest ESF: 121). Another crowd favorite, Smarty Jones was a furlong away from becoming the 12th Triple Crown winner in 2004 – and the second unbeaten one – but came up a few lengths short. His career was also cut short by injury, but he still managed to capture  Champion 3-Year-Old Colt.
  18. Songbird (15:13-2-0, $4,692,000. Highest ESF: 114). Despite never running against male horses, Songbird racked up an impressive record, never finishing worse than second in her 15 races. She showed her talent early, winning several stakes, including the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies Stakes in 2015. She was named 2016 American Champion 3-Year-Old Filly after winning 7 of 8 races, the one loss being to Beholder by a nose in the Breeders’ Cup Distaff. 
  19. Azeri (24:17-4-0, $4,079,820. Highest ESF: 125). In 2002, Azeri was one of only three female horses to win Horse of the Year after winning 8 of 9 races, including the Breeders’ Cup Distaff. She had an 11-race winning streak snapped when she injured a tendon in the Breeders’ Cup Handicap in 2003. She was Champion Older Female Horse from 2002-2004 and was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2010.
  20. Blame (13:9-2-2, $4,368,213. Highest ESF: 120). Known best for being the only horse ever to defeat Zenyatta, Blame won the 2010 Breeders’ Cup Classic by a nose over the champion mare. He never finished out of the money and was named American Champion older male horse for his Breeders’ Cup victory.

Honorable mention:  Gio Ponti, Tepin, Mineshaft, Royal Delta, Funny Cide, Xtra Heat

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