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The Best Kentucky Derby Horses in History


The Kentucky Derby produces two minutes of intense horse racing, which is why it’s defined as the fastest two minutes in sport. Every year at Churchill Downs, Louisville, Kentucky, 20 thoroughbred horses are prepared for the showdown. They are some of the healthiest and most expensive breeds on the track. This post will tell you more about the Kentucky Derby horses.

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Donerail’s victory at the Kentucky Derby. Video Credit: WLKY News Louisville

Donerail is one of the Kentucky Derby horses that’s produced the greatest moment in the sport’s history. It entered the competition in 1913 when the betting minimum was reduced to $2, making it affordable. Thomas Hayes bred it and wasn’t considered a threat in the race. However, Donerail won it to the surprise of many. This is considered one of the biggest upsets in the game. 

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A review of The Secretariat. Video Credit: WHAS11

The Secretariat made its first race debut in 1974 at the Aqueduct Racetrack. From the beginning, it showed its speed abilities and won several races including the Canadian International and the Gotham Stakes. In 1973, it entered the history books, winning the Triple Crown, after a victory at the Kentucky Derby, Preakness Stakes and Belmont Stakes.

The horse won a couple of awards, including induction into the U.S. Racing Hall of Fame and the Kentucky Athletic Hall of Fame.

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Seattle Slew

The Best Kentucky Derby Horses in History
The Seattle Slew horse. Source: Wikimedia licensed by CC-BY-SA-4.0

The Seattle Slew debuted in 1976 at Belmont Park and then became a winner in several other events. Seattle Slew won the Champagne Stakes in 1976 by nine and three-quarter lengths. The following year, the horse won the Triple Crown and became the 10th U.S. Triple Crown Champion. They retired in 1978.

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Affirmed at the Kentucky Derby. Video Credit: Horse Racing

Affirmed competed in its first race in 1977 at Belmont Park. The horse created an interesting rivalry with Alydar, against whom he won seven of nine races. In 1978, Affirmed secured the Triple Crown. He won more races before retiring in 1979. The following year, Affirmed was inducted into the National Museum of Racing’s Hall of Fame. 

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Spectacular Bid

The Spectacular Bid at the Preakness Stakes. Video Credit: Horse Racing

The Spectacular Bid won two of the Triple Crown races, the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness Stakes. Before his loss at Belmont Stakes, Spectacular Bid won 12 races consecutively. Many expected a lot from him during the race but it was later revealed that he competed with an injured foot. He recovered from an infection that threatened his career and won all of his races in 1980. 

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Smarty Jones

Smarty Jones at the 2004 Preakness Stakes. Video Credit: Horse Racing

By the time Smarty Jones raced at the Kentucky Derby, he had gathered a string of victories starting at Philadelphia Park, now Parx Casino and Racing. His fierceness saw him win the Arkansas Derby and the Rebel Stakes.

This raised his stakes at the Kentucky Derby which he won. Smarty Jones also won the Preakness Stakes and missed out on the Belmont Stakes. 

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The Best Kentucky Derby Horses in History
Jockey Oliver Lewis atop winner Aristides in first Kentucky. Source: Wikimedia licensed by Public domain

Aristides will always be on the list of the most memorable Kentucky Derby horses in history. In 1875, the horse became the first Kentucky Derby winner. Oliver Lewis, one of the earliest African-American horse riders, rode the horse. It’s the only win it got among the American classic races along with Jerome Handicap and Withers Stakes.


The Unbridled in a race. Video Credit: Horse Racing

In 1990, the Unbridled won the Kentucky Derby. It went on to clinch other races like the Breeders Cup Classic and Florida Derby, What a Pleasure Stakes and Deputy Minister Handicap. He might not have gotten the Triple Crown but his performances earned him the Eclipse Award, which is why he makes it in our list of the Kentucky Derby horses. 

American Pharaoh

The American Pharaoh wins the Belmont Stakes. Video Credit: The New York Racing Association, Inc.

The American Pharaoh was the first horse to win the thoroughbred grand slam. In 2015, it clinched the Triple Crown races and the Breeders Cup Classic. He was the 12th winner of the U.S. Triple Crown Champion. The horse has an Egyptian-American connection hence its name. Its owner Ahmed Zayat has an Egyptian background and came from the River Nile. 

California Chrome

The Best Kentucky Derby Horses in History
The California Chrome at Taylor Made Farm, Image Source: Wikimedia licensed by CC-BY-3.0

California Chrome is one of the four horses bred in California to win the Kentucky Derby. Also, it won the Preakness Stakes but missed out on The Triple Crown after failing to win the Belmont Stakes. The horse suffered an injury after being stepped on by other horses finishing fourth. Additionally, it also won other stake races including the San Felipe Stakes, Santa Anita Derby and the Dubai World Cup among others.

Genuine Risk

The Genuine Risk in a race. Video Credit: Joe Bruno

Genuine Risk was a Kentucky Derby winner in 1980, his only win of the American classics. The horse came second in the Belmont and Preakness Stakes. His finish at Preakness Stakes was controversial as his competitors forced him wide and charged into. However, the judges did not disqualify Cordex, the competing horse, and he held on to the win.

These Kentucky Derby horses have produced the best moments in the competition’s history. Trainers carefully bred and trained these Kentucky Derby horses to race at the highest level. The horses showed the strength of the animals and the mastery of their jockeys. 

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