Eight from the First 18: The Most Popular Racehorses of This Century (So Far)

Legends
California Chrome, left, Zenyatta, center, and Smarty Jones were three of the most popular racehorses since the turn of the century. (Eclipse Sportswire/Eclipse Sportswire/Coady Photography)

Horse racing in North America is rich with history, and every era has its signature Thoroughbreds that transcend the sport. The best of the best endure long after they’ve passed on, their names becoming part of racing’s lore: Man o’ War, Seabiscuit, Citation, Kelso, Secretariat, Ruffian, Cigar, and on and on. In this media-saturated 21st Century, horse racing has to compete for attention with more entertainment sources than ever before, but stars are still being born, so to speak – and like Lady GaGa’s recent turn in yet another remake of the movie plot that will never die, the most popular racehorses of our time reach those heights by possessing incandescent talent and unique backstories.

Which racehorses have defined the contemporary era for millions of fans? Which ones will stand the test of time? The list below is a good starting point – and keep in mind, the measuring stick here is popularity rather than pure athletic achievement on the track. Curlin, to take the most obvious example, belongs on any list of the best North American racehorses of this century, but he never made a mark on American culture in the way the following soon-to-be legends most certainly did.


Blood-Horse photo

8) Funny Cide

Connections: Sackatoga Stable (owner); Barclay Tagg (trainer); Jose Santos and others (jockey)

Years Active: 2002-2007

Career Record: 38 starts – 11 wins – 6 seconds – 8 thirds

Career Earnings: $3,529,412

Signature Wins: 2003 Kentucky Derby, 2003 Preakness Stakes, 2004 Jockey Club Gold Cup

Eclipse Award: 2003 champion 3-year-old male

Why He’s Here: The first “people’s horse” of the century. Kentucky Derby winners of all backgrounds draw national attention due to the race’s cultural significance, but the ones that really resonate possess special characteristics. Some are elevated through qualities shown on the racetrack, i.e., a dominant winner or one who sets a historical marker. Others create a more intangible appeal, usually by channeling America’s love of the underdog. Funny Cide is squarely in the latter category. The gelding entered the 2003 Kentucky Derby under the radar, having captured three races for New York-breds the fall before but then falling short in three Derby preps in the winter and spring. But after turning the tables on favorite Empire Maker on the first Saturday in May (a blue-blood who defeated him in the Wood Memorial), Funny Cide suddenly became a sensation. His owners were straight out of central casting for the role: a bunch of working-class buddies from upstate New York who took school buses to watch Funny Cide run. And when Funny Cide ran even better in the Preakness – dominating the field by 9 ¾ lengths – the fan fervor reached a new level heading into the Belmont Stakes. Empire Maker turned out to be the spoiler in that final leg, but by that point Funny Cide’s magical spring had set a template of sorts for Triple Crown mania in the 21st Century that would be intensified one year later (see below) and then echoed again in 2008, 2012, 2014, 2015, and this year. Funny Cide also continued racing after the Triple Crown, taking important contests such as the Jockey Club Gold Cup and going out in proper fashion with a stakes win over four years after he first captivated fans in the Kentucky Derby.


Blood-Horse photo

7) Afleet Alex

Connections: Cash is King Stable (owner); Tim Ritchey (trainer); Jeremy Rose (jockey)

Years Active: 2004-2005

Career Record: 12 starts – 8 wins – 2 seconds – 1 third

Career Earnings: $2,765,800

Signature Wins: 2005 Preakness Stakes, 2005 Belmont Stakes, 2004 Hopeful Stakes, 2005 Arkansas Derby

Eclipse Award: 2005 champion 3-year-old male

Why He’s Here: Turning near-disaster into triumph, as millions watched. A year after Smarty Jones (see below), Afleet Alex came from similarly humble Mid-Atlantic roots and took the racing world by storm. There was his superb 2-year-old summer in 2004, followed by a runner-up finish in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile. Fast forward to a solid return as a 3-year-old, followed by a no-show in the Rebel Stakes caused by a lung infection that threatened his Kentucky Derby chances. A smashing comeback in the Arkansas Derby was next, but then came a close third in one of the wildest Kentucky Derbys in history. That roller-coaster ride was but a prelude, though, to the 2005 Preakness Stakes, where Afleet Alex’s recovery from almost falling at the top of the Pimlico stretch will endure as one of the most thrilling moments in racing history. By then, he was already the poster horse for a new Pennsylvania-based pediatric cancer charity, the Alex’s Lemonade Stand Foundation, named in honor of Alexandra “Alex” Scott. By the time the Belmont Stakes rolled around, all that remained was for Afleet Alex to cement his legacy with a win in the third jewel of the Triple Crown. That he did in a most emphatic fashion and, although he never raced again after the Belmont, Afleet Alex lingers in the memory as the epitome of athletic courage when the stakes are highest – which is what racing at it’s best is all about.


Eclipse Sportswire

6) Rachel Alexandra

Connections: Stonestreet Stables and Harold McCormick (owners), purchased from L and M Partners in April 2009; Steve Asmussen (trainer), after Hal Wiggins; Calvin Borel (jockey)

Years Active: 2008-2010

Career Record: 19 starts – 13 wins – 5 seconds – 0 thirds

Career Earnings: $3,506,730

Signature Wins: 2009 BlackBerry Preakness Stakes, 2009 Woodward Stakes, 2009 Haskell Invitational Stakes, 2009 Kentucky Oaks, 2009 Mother Goose Stakes

Eclipse Awards: 2009 Horse of the Year, 2009 champion 3-year-old filly

Why She’s Here: A year like no other. In 2009, Rachel Alexandra won all eight of her races, every one of them stakes, and in the process made history as only the 11th filly to win a Triple Crown race and the first-ever filly to win the prestigious Woodward Stakes at Saratoga, where she defeated older males. To be more accurate, however, it was actually 6 1/2 months like no other, as Rachel made her 3-year-old debut on Feb. 15 at Oaklawn Park and wrapped up her scintillating campaign in the Woodward on Sept. 5. During that time, the following occurred: 1) she won her first three races by a combined margin of 18 ½ lengths; 2) she set a record winning margin of 20 ¼ lengths (!) in the Kentucky Oaks; 3) she turned back Kentucky Derby winner and Sports Illustrated cover star Mine That Bird in the Preakness Stakes in her first start for a new owner and trainer; 4) she absolutely crushed 3-year-old males again in the Haskell Invitational, winning by six lengths; and 5) she topped it all off with a heart-pounding victory in the Woodward Stakes that produced arguably the race call of this century by Tom Durkin. Jess Jackson had bought into Rachel Alexandra right after her win in the Kentucky Oaks, and his willingness to be ambitious and test his superstar filly in races such as the Preakness, Haskell, and Woodward went a long way in elevating her profile. Rachel wasn’t the same when returning in 2010, even if she was still plenty good, and although she got off to a promising start as a broodmare, health concerns have put her second career on hold, perhaps permanently. No matter. Rachel Alexandra remains wildly popular with a group of fans that will never forget how a 3-year-old filly conquered racing’s heights in 2009, accomplishing feats that may never be duplicated again.


Blood-Horse photo

5) Barbaro

Connections: Lael Stables (owner); Michael Matz (trainer); Edgar Prado (jockey)

Years Active: 2005-2006

Career Record: 7 starts – 6 wins – 0 seconds – 0 thirds

Career Earnings: $2,302,200

Signature Wins: 2006 Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands, 2006 Florida Derby

Why He’s Here: There are “what might have been” horses that come along every year; that’s just the fragile nature of this sport. But Barbaro is easily the “what might have been” horse of the century. There were early indications that the son of Dynaformer was something special after he won his first three starts easily on turf, but his reputation didn’t really begin to grow until he was switched to dirt and he won two Kentucky Derby preps in Florida. Even then, he headed to Louisville as more of a “wise-guy” horse than a prohibitive favorite, but everything finally changed after Barbaro won the run for the roses in arguably the most visually impressive performance since the Triple Crown heyday of the 1970s. His popularity soared, with accompanying inspirational storylines revolving around owners Roy and Gretchen Jackson’s devotion to horses and champion equestrian Michael Matz’s heroism as the survivor of a plane crash nearly 17 years earlier. By the Preakness, Barbaro had a firm place in the national consciousness, and then the unthinkable happened. His tragic injury right after the start quickly led to an avalanche of public support as the horse fought for his life – a struggle that lasted nearly eight months, until January 2007. The ending was not what anyone wanted, but memories of Barbaro’s talent and, more importantly, his bravery, still inspire scores of horse lovers to devote time and money to animal welfare through such charities as the Barbaro Fund at the University of Pennsylvania’s New Bolton Center. Could Barbaro have ended the Triple Crown drought nine years before American Pharoah? We’ll never know, but ultimately he made a broader impact on horse racing – and his permanent statue at the entrance of Churchill Downs is a testament to that legacy.


Eclipse Sportswire

4) American Pharoah

Connections: Zayat Stables (owner); Bob Baffert (trainer); Victor Espinoza (jockey)

Years Active: 2014-2015

Career Record: 11 starts – 9 wins – 1 second – 0 thirds

Career Earnings: $8,650,300

Signature Wins: 2015 Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands, 2015 Xpressbet.com Preakness Stakes, 2015 Belmont Stakes Presented by DraftKings, 2015 Breeders’ Cup Classic, 2015 William Hill Haskell Invitational Stakes, 2015 Arkansas Derby

Eclipse Awards: 2015 Horse of the Year, 2015 champion 3-year-old male, 2014 champion 2-year-old male

Why He’s Here: Tim Layden of Sports Illlustrated said it best: “The horse was right. Now the wait is done.” Thinking back on that 37-year gap between Triple Crowns, there were so many beloved horses that, for a variety of reasons, just couldn’t complete the sweep of the Kentucky Derby, Preakness, and Belmont. Spectacular Bid, arguably one of the top 10 racehorses of the 20th Century. Alysheba. Sunday Silence (oh, what a rivalry!). The back-to-back heartbreaks of Silver Charm and Real Quiet. Funny Cide (see above). Smarty Jones (see below). California Chrome (ditto). Champions, all of them. But not the right horse. This one was, and Pharoah’s Belmont Stakes win is one of the indelible moments in sport so far this century, something that will never be forgotten by those in attendance and even those watching on television. The three races after that only boosted his popularity – a celebratory romp in the Haskell, a stunning loss to Keen Ice in the Travers that gave further weight to Saratoga’s legacy as the “graveyard of champions,” and a reaffirmation of his brilliance in the Breeders’ Cup Classic that introduced the baseball term “Grand Slam” into the horse racing lexicon just as horse racing had given baseball the Triple Crown. Justify had the cultural misfortune of winning the Triple Crown three year’s after Pharoah’s feat, and the decreased enthusiasm is completely understandable. Because for a lot of people, American Pharoah did something they’d never seen before … and for many, if not nearly all others, he did something they’d never expected to see again.


Eclipse Sportswire

3) Zenyatta

Connections: Jerry and Ann Moss (owners); John Shirreffs (trainer); Mike Smith (jockey)

Years Active: 2007-2010

Career Record: 20 starts – 19 wins – 1 second – 0 thirds

Career Earnings: $7,304,580

Signature Wins: 2009 Breeders’ Cup Classic, 2008 Breeders’ Cup Ladies’ Classic, 2010 Apple Blossom Handicap, 2008 Apple Blossom Handicap

Eclipse Awards: 2010 Horse of the Year, 2010 champion older female, 2009 champion older female, 2008 champion older female

Why She’s Here: The only name on this list not to have raced in a Triple Crown event would have to do something special indeed to break through the horse racing bubble and enter the national conversation. Well, how about winning 19 races in a row? The story of Zenyatta took time to gain traction – a string of increasingly high-profile wins on the West Coast defeating overmatched competitors, two trips east to Oaklawn Park for dominant victories, and a thrilling 2009 Breeders’ Cup Classic win against males all led up to a crescendo of excitement heading into the 2010 World Championships at Churchill Downs. Zenyatta was the unquestionable headliner in that star-studded affair as she attempted to extend her unbeaten streak to 20 and score a repeat win in the Breeders’ Cup Classic … and that race turned out to be arguably the race of the century to date, one that still quickens the pulse years later on replay. Amazingly, Zenyatta’s fan base grew even larger after she suffered her first loss, and it’s remained robust ever since as she’s moved on to the breeding shed. Looking back on her gracious owners of pop music fame, her profile by “60 Minutes,” and her inimitable pre-race strut ... any way you cut it, Queen Zenyatta was “un-be-LIEVE-able.”


Eclipse Sportswire

2) California Chrome

Connections: California Chrome LLC (owner); Art Sherman (trainer); Victor Espinoza (jockey)

Years Active: 2013-2017

Career Record: 27 starts – 16 wins – 4 seconds – 1 third

Career Earnings: $14,752,650

Signature Wins: 2014 Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands, 2014 Preakness Stakes, 2016 Dubai World Cup Sponsored by Emirates Airline, 2016 TVG Pacific Classic Stakes, 2014 Santa Anita Derby

Eclipse Awards: 2016 Horse of the Year, 2014 Horse of the Year, 2016 champion older male, 2014 champion 3-year-old male

Why He’s Here: Say hello to the first superstar racehorse of the social-media era. Mix together humble breeding origins, a pair of blue-collar owners just starting out in the business, a (then) septuagenarian trainer who personified all that’s good about horse racing, and a gorgeous chestnut Thoroughbred with a dazzling flash stripe on his face – hence the name – and all of the key ingredients are in place for a worthy successor to Funny Cide and Smarty Jones. This unlikely hero took it to a new Facebook/Twitter/Instagram-fueled level, though. California Chrome really didn’t really click on the track until jockey Victor Espinoza climbed aboard in December 2013, and even after that, skeptics remained – only after dominating the Santa Anita Derby did he become the leading Kentucky Derby favorite. Then, the national media swiftly fell in love with Chrome and curmudgeonly owners Perry Martin (the silent one) and Steve Coburn (the not-so-silent one). The Derby and Preakness weeks were whirlwinds, backed up by Chrome’s commanding victories, and they set up a Belmont Stakes buildup that has only been surpassed by Smarty Jones’ in 2004. His game fourth-place effort in a Belmont that was not meant to be was overshadowed somewhat by Coburn’s post-race tantrum on live television, but as it turned out Chrome was just getting started. To the delight of fans, he remained front and center in the racing world for another 2 ½ years, coming back from injury and pulling off astounding wins in Dubai and at Del Mar and then forming a compelling rivalry with Arrogate as his career wound down. Residing now at stud in Central Kentucky, California Chrome still brings in adoration at a level that makes web-click analytics gurus swoon. Why? Because more than any other racehorse of the current decade, Chrome epitomized the “anyone can win” spirit that is at the core of the sport’s allure.


Coady Photography

1) Smarty Jones

Connections: Someday Farm (owner), John Servis (trainer), Stewart Elliott (jockey)

Years Active: 2003-2004

Career Record: 9 starts – 8 wins – 1 second – 0 thirds

Career Earnings: $7,613,155

Signature Wins: 2004 Kentucky Derby, 2004 Preakness Stakes, 2004 Arkansas Derby

Eclipse Award: 2004 champion 3-year-old male

Why He’s Here: A deafening roar turned silent. Has there ever been a more thunderous sound in horse racing than the one heard at Belmont Park on June 5, 2004, when Smarty Jones rolled into the stretch with a widening lead in the Belmont Stakes? Maybe 11 years and a day later, when American Pharoah did the same … but I’d argue that the 2015 frenzy owes more than a little debt to the dream deferred in 2004. Hope and inspiration give horse racing its daily drive, and all of the legends listed above carried more than their fair share. But Smarty stood alone. His owners, elderly Roy and Pat Chapman of the aptly-named Someday Farm, had reduced their stable to two horses after the tragic death of their trainer, one of which was Smarty Jones. Then, the smallish Pennsylvania-bred colt nearly died when he hit his head during his first gate schooling. But after Smarty recovered and began his racing career, the story arc changed – and how! Two wins at his home base of Philadelphia Park (now Parx Racing) and one in New York for John Servis. Then, a clean sweep of the Kentucky Derby preps at Oaklawn during early ’04. Soaring into the spotlight, Smarty romped in the Kentucky Derby and next pulverized the Preakness, winning his eighth race without a loss by 11 ½ lengths. Those weeks between the Preakness and Belmont were an absolute pandemonium, with thousands of fans packing Philadelphia Park in Bensalem, Pa. to watch Smarty train and a throng of media following the horse’s every move. Locals debated angrily whether he was Philadelphia’s horse or Bensalem’s horse and wanted (seriously!) to parade him down Broad Street when (not if) he completed the Triple Crown sweep. Belmont Park drew a raucous, record crowd of 120,139 to watch Smarty Jones try for the Triple Crown, and then. … Suffice it to say, those who witnessed in person Birdstone’s win over a valiant but spent Smarty Jones give recollections that echo landmark sporting upsets that are etched in our national fabric (think 1980 U.S. vs. U.S.S.R. Olympic hockey, Buster Douglas vs. Mike Tyson, 2008 Giants vs. Patriots Super Bowl, and so on). American Pharoah provided a psychic cleansing of sorts when he ended the Triple Crown drought in 2015, but Smarty Jones’s quest in '04 still represents horse racing’s apex of popularity as we head into year 19 of the 21st century.

newsletter sign-up

Stay up-to-date with the best from America's Best Racing!