10 Great Horse Races of Our Time

Horse racing has long history of hugely exciting races at all levels, from Maiden Plates to the major international showdowns between the world’s leading thoroughbreds at any given point in time. There have been sensational triumphs, wonderful race-riding, superb comebacks, record-setting efforts, heart-stopping duels and astounding performances by superstars of the turf – all leaving truly special memories.

Compiled below, 10 races acknowledged as immense crowd-pleasers with accompanying mainstream headline press coverage and, for the purposes of this article, focusing on the 1970s onwards.

Crisp and Red Rum in the Grand National

Aintree, 31 March 1973

UK jumps star Red Rum and the Australian chaser Crisp were priced up joint-favourites at 9-1 for a highly anticipated ‘National’ duel. For most of the race, it looked as if Crisp would take the gruelling contest with ease. He’d built up a 20-length lead at the hallway mark and his jockey Richard Pitman later recalled that at Becher's Brook on the second circuit, fallen jockey David Nicholson shouted at him: ‘Richard, you're 33 lengths clear, kick on and you'll win!’ But at the same time, he heard the Tannoy commentator Michael O'Hehir declare: ‘And Red Rum is coming out of the pack, Brian Fletcher is kicking him hard!’ With a single fence to go, Crisp still held a 15-length advantage, but he folded like a deck chair after the last jump, coming almost to a complete and tired stop. Pitman tried his best to coax some extra energy from his mount, but the mighty Red Rum pounced powerfully and got his head in front just two strides from the finishing post for the first of his three National wins, and in a record time that would stand until 1990.

Secretariat in the Belmont Stakes

Belmont Park, New York, 9 June 1973

Secretariat cemented his legend in the fabric of racing history with a spectacular success at the Belmont Stakes, becoming the first horse since Citation in 1948 to win America’s coveted Triple Crown. Ridden by Ron Turcotte, he completed the 2400m race in a record 2 minutes and 24 seconds and hit the line no less than 31 lengths clear of the second horse. The Daily Racing Form’s Charles Hatton enthused: 'He could not have moved faster if he had fallen off the grandstand roof. Many punters kept their tote tickets as souvenirs, refusing to cash in!

Grundy and Bustino in the King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Diamond Stakes

Ascot, 26 July 1975

This memorable race was billed as ‘the true clash of the generations’ between the three-year-old Epsom Derby winner Grundy and the year older Bustino, master of his own class. The race was run at a cracking pace and then developed into the contest of dreams as Grundy and Bustino came together to fight it out in the home run. Grundy pushed forward, but Bustino refused to give in, grinding back hard. A dead-heat might have been the fairest result. but Bustino weakened marginally over the last 100m and Grundy edged ahead under Pat Eddery, winning by half-a-length.

Affirmed and Alydar in the Belmont Stakes

Belmont Park, 10 June 1978

Affirmed and Alydar raced against each other 10 times, Affirmed winning seven of their contests, of which their Belmont Stakes duel was the most memorable. This was as good as a match race, although three other horses ran. Affirmed and Alydar galloped side-by-side down the straight with Affirmed winning by a neck to become the 11th Triple Crown winner. Affirmed’s jockey Steve Cauthen's raved afterwards: 'This was a real horse race, all right.'

You might enjoy: The greatest of the great US Triple Crown winners

Shergar, Epsom Derby

Epsom Downs, 3 June 1981

The race was won by the Aga Khan’s iconic Shergar, a 10/11 chance ridden by 19-year-old jockey Walter Swinburn and trained at Newmarket by Michael Stoute. The winning margin of ten lengths was the largest in the history of the race. Shergar captured the hearts of the nation with his barnstorming win but tragedy ended his career. In 1983 he was stolen from his stable at stud, and a ransom of £2 million was demanded. It was not paid and Shergar was never returned or found. The IRA were suspected of theft, but has never admitted playing any role. The legend of Shergar is still celebrated today, and the mystery remains.

Fantastic Light and Galileo, Irish Champion Stakes

Leopardstown, 8 September 2001

Widely acclaimed to be one of the most thrilling thoroughbred races ever run, the Irish Champion Stakes featured the two middle-distance arch rivals of that season, Galileo and Fantastic Light. Swinging off the sharp home turn at Leopardstown the two superstars raced to the front of the pack and fought it out to the line.

Frankie Dettori had a one length advantage going into the last 400m, but Mick Kikane shook Galileo up and the Ballydoyle star drew alongside his Godolphin rival. The crowd got their feet, millions watched around the world as Fantastic Light nudged ahead again and secured the verdict on the line.

Tiznow and Sakhee

Belmont Park, 27 October 2001

Four-year-old Tiznow, ridden by Chris McCarron, salvaged home pride in a nail-biting duel with The European threat Sakhee (Frankie Dettori). He became the only horse ever to win the Breeders` Cup Classic twice. In a rousing stretch battle reigning, Tiznow, the reigning US Horse Of The Year, traded punches with Godolphin`s Prix de l`Arc de Triomphe winner by a nose to stop Europe taking only their second ever win in the $4 million Classic. Race caller Tom Durkin boomed, ‘Tiznow wins it for America!’ This renewal of the Breeders’ Cup Classic was voted the NTRA Moment of the Year.

Wolf Whistle and Yard-Arm, Summer Cup

Turffontein, 29 November 2003

Neither Piere Strydom on Geoff Woofruff’s Yard-Arm nor Kevin Shea on Mike de Kock’s Wolf Whistle were prepared to give an inch on Turffontein’s Summer Cup Day in 2003. The two vastly experienced jockeys steered their mounts purposefully towards each other for a thrilling 300m battle that pitched the final moments of this memorable contest to high fever. The two big geldings drew on every ounce of energy in their formidable frames. At the 100m-mark they were locked together, racing as if they’d become one. Yard-Arm and Wolf Whistle were well within biting range; they decided to keep it clean, but Strydom and Shea had other ideas. They threw elbows and forearms at each other in the course of this vigorous brawl. Yard-Arm nudged his head marginally in front, but as the post arrived, Wolf Whistle gave one last, almighty lurch and when the judge studied the photo, his nose had touched the line first.

Frankel Royal Ascot

Frankel, Queen Anne Stakes

Royal Ascot, 19 June 2012

Of the magnificent Frankel’s many special wins, his Queen Anne victory at Royal Ascot was arguably his best. He was quoted at 1-10 and bookmakers were laying bets on the margin of his victory, which, in this race, was 11 lengths. Despite soft underfoot conditions, Frankel averaged 36mph for the entire contest. His third-last furlong of 10.58 sec was quicker than any sprinter achieved in the five-furlong G1 King’s Stand Stakes on the same day.

Stradivarius and Spanish Mission, 2021 Lonsdale Cup

York, 20 August 2021

John Gosden’s star stayer Stradivarius brought the house down as he scrambled home by a head. Racing for the first time since failing to win the G1 Gold Cup at Royal Ascot, Stradivarius was out to redeem his reputation as the UK’s undisputed marathon champ. In the drive to the line, he was headed at least twice by Spanish Mission, including what looked like a definitive surge at the 100m-mark, but he fought back courageously under Frankie Dettori and a huge cheer that went up on course when the result of the photo finish was announced and Stradivarius was given the verdict.

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Published: 04/29/2022