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Breeders' Cup 2017

The Best Races That Never Happened

The Best Races That Never Happened

There have been many great horses through history, and often some of their careers overlap with one another. However, to the fan’s dismay, it is not always the case when top class horses face each other on the track. I thought it would be fun to look back at some of the great horses of our nation’s past and ponder what would have happened if two outstanding athletes had met in the purest form of competition. I tried to keep the list focused on as many US based horses as possible (with 2 exceptions), as an international list would need to be a “top 100” to appropriately capture all the greats throughout the world.


10. Bernardini vs Barbaro

Few horses have ever touched the hearts of fans like Barbaro. His talent on the track was second to none, and many thought 2006 was going to be the year the Triple Crown drought was brought to an end. After a breathtaking win in the Kentucky Derby, Barbaro looked to be on his way to greatness. However tragedy struck in Preakness and the whole nation gasped as Barbaro sustained the injury that would eventually lead to his death. In that same race another horse carried himself into the spotlight as top 3-year-old, and his name was Bernardini. While the 2006 Preakness will forever be a tragedy to so many fans, we have to ask what would have happened if Barbaro had not suffered his injury. Would Barbaro have won, or would we have seen a changing of the guard? My guess is that a rivalry would have been birthed that even Affirmed and Alydar would be proud of.


9. Frankel vs Wise Dan

The mighty Frankel was called by some the greatest horse Europe and the world has ever seen. His undefeated 14-race record expressed a dominance that has seldom been seen in history of thoroughbred horse racing. Across the pond in America, Wise Dan was also making a name for himself as the best in the land. His command in America may have not been what Frankel’s was in Europe, but when Wise Dan beat Excelebration in the 2012 Breeders’ Cup Mile it raised a lot of questions from America. Arguments may occur as to who would have won had they faced each other, but one thing is for sure, on their best day there was not a horse “in the land” that could beat them.


8. Phar Lap vs Gallant Fox

Gallant Fox was the 2nd Triple Crown winner and clear horse of the year during his 1930 campaign. However, calling him the best in the world would have been a bit of a stretch considering the powerhouse that was dominating the Southern Hemisphere. Phar Lap was busy winning just about every race he was entered in including the Melbourne Cup. In late 1930 Phar Lap was shipped the USA to compete in stakes competition for bigger purses. Unfortunately he raced only once in North America, but set a track record in the process. Had Gallant Fox not been retired to stud in 1931, and Phar Lap not been unraced following his win in Mexico, there is no doubt the two juggernauts would have crossed paths in the USA for a faceoff of worldwide proportions.


7. John Henry vs Spectacular Bid

How does a horse that faced nearly every worthy opponent in the country make this list? Well that is because “nearly every opponent” does not mean everyone. Spectacular Bid’s 4-year-old season was arguably the greatest by any horse of all time. But, while he was setting world records in California on dirt, there was another horse who was doing something similar on turf.  John Henry was a turf expert and loved the staying distances that came with many turf races. Every once in a while, he would extend himself on dirt and proved to be just as dominate. While The Bid won the Big ‘Cap in 1980, John Henry won it the 2 following years. Had John Henry tried his luck against The Bid in 1980, we could have seen a slug match for the ages. 


6. Alysheba vs Personal Ensign

In 1988 we saw one of the superior 4 year-old campaigns by an older male horse with Alysheba winning 6 different grade 1 races. He beat horse like Ferninand, Forty Niner, and Seeking the Gold. He ran two consecutive sub 2-minute 10 furlong races and capped his career with a win in the Breeders’ Cup Classic.  Unfortunately for Alysheba, his Breeders’ Cup victory was overshadowed by the one horse he didn’t race that year. Personal Ensign was one of the best fillies to ever set foot on the track. She returned from injury to retired undefeated, and concluded her career with arguably the best Breeders’ Cup race of all time. Imagine if Personal Ensign had raced the Classic that year rather than the Distaff…


5. Forego vs Ruffian

The greatest weight carrier and the greatest filly in history; and they were both racing at the same time! Forego was a true gladiator of the modern era. He raced hurt, under high weight, and continuously for nearly 5 years.  His 4 consecutive wins in the Woodward gave him the only consecutive-race winning streak that Kelso did not seem to achieve.  Alternatively, Ruffian was the greatest filly to ever race, and had she not met a tragic end during the summer of 1975, maybe Frank Whiteley would have raced her against Forego in that year’s edition of the Woodward. Whiteley did not train Forego until 1976, so its possible that during the fall of 1975 that a race could have occurred that would have trumped the excitement of the Great Match Race that claimed Ruffian’s life.


4. Northern Dancer vs Kelso

Kelso was the greatest gelding, and arguably the greatest racehorse of all time. His 5 consecutive Horse of the Year titles is a feat that will likely never be topped. And in 1964, the conclusion of Kelso’s remarkable career ironically coincided with the beginnings of a horse that would change the thoroughbred forever. Northern Dancer was dominating the 3-year-old division on the track and would later dominate the entire world in the breeding shed. After winning both the Kentucky Derby and Preakness, Northern Dancer never got the chance to face his elders due to injury. But imagine the matchup it would have been to have the greatest sire of the 20th century face the greatest gelding the world has ever known in the only arena they could be compared, the racetrack.


3. Man o’ War vs Exterminator

Big Red is deemed by many to be the best racehorse to have ever lived. It’s not easy to argue against that fact, but Willis Kilmer certainly tried. His gelding, Exterminator finished his career with 99 starts and 50 wins. He was so confident to prove he had the best horse, that he sought every possibility to race Big Red, and almost got his wish with the 1920 Saratoga Cup. Once Kilmer learned Man o’ War was entered, he called for his gelding to challenge the champ despite Exterminator having raced 3 days prior.  Riddle withdrew Man o’ War, and never gave into the countless peer pressure from Kilmer to enter in a match race or any other weight-for-age event.  If he had, I wonder if War Admiral would have raced Seabiscuit nearly 20 years later.


2. Tom Fool vs Native Dancer

A Handicap Triple Crown winner vs a near Triple Crown winner.  Undefeated as a 4-year-old, Tom Fool was a beast of a handicap horse. The one challenge Tom Fool didn’t face was the grey 3-year-old who missed racing’s Holy Grail by a short head.  Regardless of the loss in the Kentucky Derby, it is a shame that Native Dancer did not take on his elders in the Whitney or Pimlico Special. Even some of their top progeny could not seem to get a fair chance to defend their fathers’ honor. The best matchup occurring in the 1966 Arlington Classic with the Kentucky Derby and Preakness winning Kauai King facing the great Buckpasser. Kauai King suffered a career ending injury in that race, once again leaving the question of “what if…?”


1. Zenyatta vs Rachel Alexandra

Zenyatta was one of the most brilliant deep closers of all time, boasting 19 wins in 20 starts with each win being earned in the same heart stopping fashion. Her sole defeat came from Blame in the legendary 2010 Breeders’ Cup Classic. Rachel Alexandra was one of the toughest fillies to ever set foot on the track, and proved so during her Horse of the Year 3-year-old campaign. The two fillies were scheduled to face off in the 2010 Apple Blossom, but Rachel was pulled from the race after a stunning defeat in the New Orleans Ladies Stakes. Rachel was just not the same after her Woodward win, but in top form, a race against Zenyatta would have been an immortal showdown of an unstoppable force and an immovable object.


Well there you have it ... a list that hopefully captures the best that never happened. Feel free to offer comments of who you think would have won and any match-ups you think I may have missed.


Barbaro  |  Ruffian  |  Rachel Alexandra  |  Wise Dan  |  Native Dancer  |  Gallant Fox  |  John Henry  |  Phar Lap  |  Exterminator  |  Man o' War  |  Northern Dancer  |  Frankel  |  Tom Fool  |  Spectacular Bid  |  Zenyatta  |  Forego  |  Bernardini  |  Personal Ensign  |  Alysheba  |  Kelso
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Older Comments about The Best Races That Never Happened...

Let's not forget that Northern Dancer won the Queen's Plate also. 3 Classics for the lil guy :) One race left off the list would be a rematch of Holy Bull and Cigar. Holy Bull wire to wire :)
  • tom.macdonald.54 · Oh your damn right on the money with holy bull I was waiting for that race like a kid waits for christmas and I remember that day still like it was yesterday if holy bull did not get hurt cigars winning streak would have been over I think holy bull was one of the best horses ever!!!z · 1729 days ago
jmcleav, I agree with you about Blind Luck. She left everything she had on the track after her scintillating DelCap performance.
To answer Cocoa's question: Of the 15 BC races, 4 winners were on the lead, 2 winners were speedy types but not on the lead (within a length at 1/2 mile call), 6 winners took up stalking positions (within 4 lengths at 1/2 mile call), and 3 closed from off the pace (Flotilla was 4 1/2 lengths back, Calidoscopio was 14 lengths back at the 1 mile call in the marathon, and Mizdirection was 8 lengths back).
I believe you are right Rachel was never the same after the Woodward, I believe the same happened to Blind Luck after the Delaware Handicap.
The stanley Cup and Grey cup have a bigger significance to canadians... Lord stanley is #1 here by a landslide
No Argument here Travel_Vic, but a Classic is a classic ;) what's Hockey??..lol.
Much OLDER than the cup. never missed a year since it started, .....doesn't look like there will be a Stanley Cup this year but I will wager there will be a Queen's Plate
Bigger than the Stanley Cup.... I dont think so.
I lke the Plate, the biggest and most famous sporting event in the country..however, it was limited to Ontario breds until the 50's , limited to MAIDEN three year olds until almost the middle of the century, and is a restricted stakes, so it hardly compares to what N.D. before he came home.
kaitlinefree1 I would add animal kingdom to Frankel and Wise dan. Animal kingdom not coming off of a long layoff and with a less biased track is easily as good as wise dan in my opinion. Frankel would probably still win though. He was just a monster
bye bye Rachel in that contest
Quality Road VS Rachel Alexandra at nine furlongs would have been an awesome race.
Rachel Alexandra vs Quality Road. Was that one already mentioned?
the way Sec crushed foes, and even the best ones of that year, he would have been ard to catch on either grass of dirt.
to stay within the realm of reality, you have to pit horses of the same decade and country to make any discussion even close to being logical.
Frankel vs Wise Dan.? hmm...i'd choose Frankel.
Secretariat vs Allez France. Allez France was even better than Dahlia, easily beating her in all 5 meetings, even though Dahlia decisively beat the same foes Secretariat did.
Great list! Terrible shame about Zenyatta and Rachel-they were awesome! Glad to see my all time favorite Native Dancer still holding at number 2 on the list - nearly 60 years later. I know he would have won - he was amazing!
Secretariat would have just run off from a commanding front position
Tom Fool and Native Dancer once worked out together at Saratoga. I've seen a photo but know nothing else.

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