From Pharoah to Beholder: Top 10 horses of the last decade

From Pharoah to Beholder: Top 10 horses of the last decade
Photo: Alex Evers/Eclipse Sportswire

In modern-day thoroughbred history, the 1970s are thought of as the top decade as Secretariat, Seattle Slew and Affirmed all swept the Triple Crown. But the past decade, from 2008 to 2018, has had its share of superstars as well. Attempting to discard any personal bias, I've listed here what I believe to be the Top 10 horses from that time period. This isn't about who could beat whom, aside from one instance in which two horses did meet on the racetrack multiple times.

After 1978, when Affirmed won the Triple Crown, it became so elusive that changing the time span between races was discussed. It took 37 years for the dream of seeing another Triple Crown winner became a reality when this Bob Baffert trainee won it in 2015. He had already earned the Eclipse Award for top 2-year-old male, then also went on to complete what was dubbed the "Grand Slam" of racing, adding a Breeders' Cup Classic to his Triple Crown. Having defeated older horses, American Pharoah was named Horse of the Year and also took the Eclipse Award for 3-year-old male. His final record was 11: 9-1-0.

Having won the Preakness Stakes and Breeders’ Cup Classic, among other races in 2007, Curlin remained in training for another season, a gesture of sportsmanship by owner Jess Jackson of Stonestreet Stables. Curlin flew to Dubai, where he won the prestigious Dubai World Cup. He also repeated his win in the Jockey Club Gold Cup, won the Stephen Foster Handicap at Churchill Downs and Woodward Stakes at Saratoga. Curlin’s final appearance was at Santa Anita for the 2008 Breeders’ Cup Classic. He finished an uncharacteristic fourth, with Santa Anita’s synthetic surface believed to be a factor in the defeat. Retiring with record-breaking earnings of $10,501,800, Curlin won the Eclipse Award for Horse of the Year for the second time. He joined the unique group of Cigar, Secretariat, Forego, and Affirmed as the only horses to win the award in consecutive years since 1971. Curlin also won the Eclipse award for top older male in 2008. His final record was 16: 11-2-2.

Wise Dan remains the only horse to win Horse of the Year, champion older male and champion turf horse in consecutive years from 2012-2013. The Charlie LoPresti trainee won on dirt, turf, and two different synthetic surfaces. He also won several notable stakes twice: The Firecracker (2011, 2013), the Fourstardave Handicap (2012, 2013), the Woodbine Mile (2012, 2013), the Shadwell Turf Mile (2012, 2014), the Breeders’ Cup Mile (2012, 2013), the Maker’s Mark Mile (2013, 2014) and the Woodford Reserve Turf Classic (2013, 2014). Wise Dan was the kind of horse that made handicappers stop trying to beat him, and rather simply enjoy watching. Plus, the gelding overcame a bout of colic to return and win two more Grade 1 races. He retired with a record of 32: 23-2-0.

Zenyatta reigned as the queen of racing from 2008-2010. Her popularity transcended the sport, as she was even featured in a "60 Minutes" story. Racing fans couldn't get enough of the undefeated mare exploding from far back to reach the finish line first. Trained by John Shirreffs and owned by Jerry and Ann Moss, the lovely bay mare also performed her “dance” before each race. After breaking her maiden in 2007, she drew attention in the El Encino Stakes as she stopped the clock in a stakes-record 1:40.61. Later, with new jockey Mike Smith on board, Zenyatta increased her winning streak to 13 as she entered the gate for the 2009 Breeders’ Cup Classic at Santa Anita. She had won the Ladies Classic in 2008, then took the Classic over Gio Ponti, becoming the first filly or mare to win it. In 2010, she looked for a repeat -- and to retire undefeated -- but fell just short in the Classic, coming from 18 lengths back to lose by a head to Blame. Zenyatta retired with a record of 20: 19-1-0.

Last January, as we awaited the return of Breeders' Cup Juvenile winner Good Magic, this big chestnut horse was quietly in training for Baffert. That changed on February 18 when Justify broke his maiden on first asking and won by 9 ½ lengths. With Mike Smith on board second out, Justify won an allowance race by 6 ½ lengths over an off track. Baffert dismissed the Apollo Curse and planned his course of action to enter the Scat Daddy colt in the Kentucky Derby. He needed to obtain qualifying points, which Justify earned via a commanding win in the Santa Anita Derby. His front-running style aided in the slop of the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes, where conditions also included fog in addition to the slop. As a sold-out crowd of 90,000 watched at Belmont three weeks later when Justify became the 13th Triple Crown winner. Baffert gave the horse a break after a compact schedule leading to open Justify's career. When a filling appeared on his left-front ankle, connections determined they couldn't have Justify ready to run his best race in the Breeders' Cup Classic and opted to retire him with a record of 6: 6-0-0.

At his peak, Arrogate was unbeatable. After breaking his maiden and winning a couple of allowance races against older horses, the Baffert trainee stepped up in class to contest the Grade 1 Travers Stakes at Saratoga in 2016. In a field that included the winners of the Preakness and Belmont Stakes, the Juddmonte-owned 3-year-old won by 13 ½ lengths and broke the track record held by General Assembly for 37 years. Arrogate’s time was 1:59.36 in the 1 ¼-mile race, earning him a Beyer speed figure of 122. In the Breeders’ Cup Classic next out, Arrogate then managed to defeat Horse of the Year California Chrome on an even bigger stage. As a 4-year-old, Arrogate picked up where he had left off,  by creating a new track record of 1:46.83 in the inaugural edition of the Pegasus World Cup, the world’s richest race. Then it was on to race in the Dubai World Cup. Arrogate broke poorly and was squeezed between horses. Smith was in the saddle and calmly took his mount to the outside, where he made up ground. He finished first, 2 ¼ lengths ahead of Gun Runner. The race increased Arrogate’s earnings to $17,084,600, a North American record. What happened next is inexplicable. Arrogate didn't win again in his three starts, all at Del Mar, and was retired to Juddmonte following the 2017 Breeders' Cup Classic. His final record was 11: 7-1-1.

Originally owned and bred by a couple of every day working men, Perry Martin and Steve Coburn, California Chrome, bred in his namesake state, became the 2014 Kentucky Derby favorite with visually impressive performances and a solid foundation of races. The chestnut colt’s physical appearance, with four white stockings, set him apart, and he was trained by Art Sherman, who became the oldest conditioner to win the Kentucky Derby. It wasn't long before he had a legion of followers called “Chromies,” becoming known as The People’s Horse. After winning the Preakness, Chrome finished fourth in the Belmont. Photos after the race showed a bloody heel, as he was apparently was stepped on by a rival. After a break, California Chrome came in third in the 2014 Breeders’ Cup Classic, only a neck behind the winner, Bayern. He also showed versatility to cap his 3-year-old season, winning the Grade 1 Hollywood Derby on turf. Chome’s 4-year-old season was problematic for the horse and his connections. A group which included Taylor Made bought the minority share from Steve Coburn. After a second-place finish in the Dubai World Cup behind longshot Prince Bishop, bruising on his cannon bone was discovered and the horse took the rest of the year off. A visually larger and stronger California Chrome was unleashed in 2016. Chrome dominated his Dubai World Cup opponents this time around, even as his saddle slipped under Victor Espinoza. To close his career, Chrome was defeated by Arrogate in both the 2016 Breeders' Cup Classic and 2017 Pegasus World Cup. He ended his career with a record of 27: 16-4-1 and his second Eclipse Award for Horse of the Year and Champion Older Horse. The period of time in which the horse attempted to win the Triple Crown and lost in the Belmont was described by Bloodhorse’s Steve Haskin: “This one disappointment should not overshadow in any way what he gave the entire country and the electricity he created during those five magical weeks.”

If Zenyatta was the queen of racing, Rachel Alexandra was its princess. In 2009, these two horses ignited debates and outright fights in a rivalry over which was the better horse. They never met on the track, so we’ll never know. The majestic bay horse with the upside down white exclamation mark on her face ran into our consciousness in spectacular fashion when she won the 2009 Kentucky Oaks by 20 ¼ lengths. The 3-year-old filly was a homebred, originally owned by Dolphus Morrison and trained by Hal Wiggins. Calvin Borel was her jockey. After the performance, she was purchased by Stonestreet, which sent the filly to Steve Asmussen’s barn. The two put together what is arguably the best campaign by a filly in modern history. It began with the 2009 Preakness. They kept Borel on board as she became the first filly in 85 years to win the prestigious race. After a break the filly ran in the Mother Goose Stakes where she won by 19 ¼ lengths, breaking the record set by Ruffian in 1975 of 13 ½ lengths for margin of victory. Rachel also broke the stakes record even though she was eased in the stretch. Her time was 1:46.33. She next faced 3-year-old males again in the Haskell Invitational, where she won earning a Beyer Speed Figure of 116, the highest of any thoroughbred in North America that year. Her time of 1:47.51 was 0.21 off the stakes record. Rachel was only the second filly to have won the Haskell in its 42 runnings. The next stop in the campaign was Saratoga where Rachel would run against older male horses in the Woodward Stakes. She held off a late closing Macho Again to become the first filly or mare to win the historic race. The bay filly won the Eclipse Award for Horse of the Year and champion 3-year-old filly. After a layoff, Rachel came back as a 4-year-old and raced against mares. Her 2009 campaign eclipsed her efforts the following year and she was retired. Her final record was 19: 13-5-0.

Owned by Winchell Thoroughbreds and Three Chimneys Farm and trained by Ausmussen, Gun Runner won the Louisiana Derby on his way to the 2016 Kentucky Derby, in which he finished third. He finished the season pointing toward the Breeders' Cup Dirt Mile, but it wasn't until the Clark Handicap that followed did the colt seem to reach a new level. The run continued in the Razorback Handicap in February, when he ran 1 1/16 miles in 1:40.97, two-fifths of a second off the stakes record. A loss to Arrogate in the Dubai World Cup next out marked his final defeat. Gun Runner went on to win the Stephen Foster by seven lengths, creating a new margin of victory record. In the Whitney Stakes, Gun Runner ran the last half mile with Cautious Giant’s horseshoe caught in his tail. He still won by 5 ¼ lengths. Gun Runner appeared to just be getting stronger as he won his third Grade 1 stakes in the Woodward that year. He was the morning line favorite for the Breeders’ Cup Classic at Del Mar, with Arrogate as the second favorite.Gun Runner dominated the race, winning by 2 ¼ lengths. He earned a career-high Beyer Speed Figure of 117 on his way to winning the Eclipse Award for Champion Horse of the Year and Champion Older Dirt Horse. There was a swan song left. His final race was the 2018 Pegasus World Cup, which he won by 2 ½ lengths despite an outside post position, ending his career with five straight Grade 1 wins.

Richard Mandella said of his trainee, during her season as a 6-year-old, that "Good horses come along, and there are a few great ones, but to be great and stay great, is really special.” Owned by B. Wayne Hughes of Spendthrift Farm, Beholder was the gift who kept on giving. Early in her career, Beholder could be temperamental. Mandella took his time with the filly and tried various training techniques, such as using earmuffs and a hood. She rewarded him by winning the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies in 2012 and earning the Eclipse Award for champion 2-year-old Filly. Beholder continued to show brilliance in her 3-year-old season. She contested older mares in the Zenyatta Stakes and won. At the end of the year she ran in and won the Breeders’ Cup Distaff over a field including Royal Delta, who had taken the previous two editions. Beholder’s 4-year-old season was plagued by problems, but the mare won the Zenyatta Stakes for the second year in a row. One of Beholder’s most visually impressive performances came when she raced against male horses in the 2015 Pacific Classic, which she won by 8 ¼ lengths, the second-largest  margin of victory in the race. She was due to face American Pharoah in the Breeders' Cup Classic until declared out due to an elevated fever. The next year, the Breeders’ Cup Distaff marked her final race, and she had Songbird to beat. In a thrilling stretch duel and photo finish, she did, by a scant nose. Beholder won the Eclipse Award for Champion Older Dirt Female for the second year in a row. Her final record was 26: 18-6-0.

Meet Mary Dixon Reynolds

Mary Dixon Reynolds’ passion for horses began at an early age. She grew up riding, showing and training Arabians. The great Curlin brought her into horse racing and the celebrated filly, Rachel Alexandra, solidified her love of the sport. The amateur handicapper found beginner's luck during her first outing to a racetrack at Colonial Downs near Richmond, Va.

From a small town in the the Tar Heel state, Mary Dixon studied English literature and journalism at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill for three years before graduating at Guilford College. She shares a passion for F. Scott Fitzgerald with her favorite writer, the late William L. Nack, whose books she possesses and are well worn from rereading.

Mary Dixon first appeared on Horse Racing Nation as a guest columnist, writing articles about California Chrome, his fan base, and the great filly Songbird. She aspires to bring new people into our sport and to promote thoroughbred aftercare, recognizing that for our sport to thrive, we must take care of our athletes after they leave the track

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