Gary McKenzie’s Top 10 Flat Racehorses
Gary McKenzie’s top 10 Flat racehorses
I will say this before I start. I would be surprised if anyone has the same top 10 Flat racehorses as me and absolutely amazed if they had them in the same order. I have tried to use cold logic to determine my all-time heroes but, as you will see, my heart possibly did have a say.
I have only included European horses because I feel I have more knowledge on this continent. A case could have been made for some US based horses such as Secretariat, Cigar, and Ghostzapper as well as Seabiscuit (which would have been one from the heart).
Four of those named made their names before I was a racing fan (one was in his pomp before I was born).
There are six from Britain, two from Ireland, and two from France, and there is only one member of the distaff side.
Some that I looked at closely, but left out, were Miesque, Enable, Dubai Millennium, Montjeu, Ribot, and Galileo (although he is more well known for his post-race career).
I hope it will lead to debate.
Here we go in reverse order.
10 – ZILZAL
This may cause the most discussion. He only ran six times but was only beaten once (in the Breeders Cup). His smallest margin of victory was three lengths and he won the Sussex Stakes and the QEII besting the likes of Warning and Polish Precedent. He was rated top three-year-old of 1989 and given a Timeform rating of 137
9 – GOLDIKOVA
The only filly/mare on the list. She won fourteen Group One races including the Prix Moulin, Prix Jacques Le Marois, and the QEII. She was a length away from being a four-time winner of the Breeders’ Cup Mile just being headed with a hundred yards to go.
In 2009 she was rated the second-best horse in the world behind a horse we will see later. She is also an inductee in the US racing Hall Of Fame.
8 – MILL REEF
A horse who won the Derby, Eclipse, King George, and Arc in his three-year-old season only gets in at number eight here. His only defeat that year was in the 2000 Guineas when he was second behind Brigadier Gerard. He won the King George by six lengths and was always in command in the Arc beating Prix de Diane winner Pistol Packer.
He won the Coronation Cup as a four-year-old and was being prepared for an Arc defence when he suffered a career ending injury on the gallops. He was rated 141 at his peak and was voted 4th best European horse of the twentieth century. Some horse.
7 – SHERGAR
One of the most famous horses in racing due to his sad and untimely end. After running second in the Futurity of 1980 he was available at 25/1 for the following years Derby. Michael Seely of The Times was a fan who thought him a “magnificent stamp of a horse”
He won the Classic Trial by ten lengths and just ten days later won the Chester Vase by twelve lengths!!!
The Derby was no more than a training gallop. He won by ten lengths eased down.
His regular jockey, Walter Swinburn, was on a ban when the colt ran in the Irish Derby so Lester Piggott took the ride. Shergar won by four lengths, again eased down. Piggott, no bad judge of a horse, said he was one of the best horses he had raced on.
He was to be aimed at the Arc but connections wanted him to have a race beforehand. They decided on the St Leger. Shergar finished fourth, eleven lengths behind the winner Cut Above.
He was retired after that and of course tragedy struck fifteen months later. His peak rating was 140 and that Derby win is surely one of the most spectacular seen at Epsom.
6 – SEA THE STARS
The next three horses on the list gave me the most headaches. I kept on chopping and changing their positions and if you asked me again in a week, I could change them again. Maybe I should have tied them all in fourth place.
Sea The Stars won a Group One race a month for six months including the unprecedented 2000 Guineas, Epsom Derby, Prix L’Arc De Triomphe treble. He also won the Eclipse, Juddmonte International and the Irish Champion Stakes. He never won by more than a couple of lengths but maybe the horse was being a bit cute.
This is possibly why some leave him out of lists like this. Also, he was beating the same Coolmore horses each time (apart from in the Arc where he beat the luckless Youmzain). But he seemed to have that something extra which got him the win.
He was rated 140 by Timeform (level with Harbinger!) and was named top horse in the World Thoroughbred Rankings of 2009.
5 – DANCING BRAVE
“But here comes Dancing Brave powering down the centre of the track”.
The words of Graham Goode as Dancing Brave came to win the 1986 Arc. It looked a fantastic race beforehand. French Derby winner Bering was second favourite and Epsom Derby winner Sharastani was also in the field.
Add to that star filly Triptych, International winner Shardari, German champion and Grand Prix Saint Cloud winner Acatenango.
Darara and Saint Estephe were also high class. And he flew past them in a record time for the race. It was thrilling.
Dancing Brave had begun that season winning the Craven Stakes before going on to Guineas glory. He was three lengths ahead of Green Desert at the line. Walter Swinburn, who rode the runner up, said he thought he was going to win before Dancing Brave “just powered past and mowed him down”.
His close second in the Derby was put down to Greville Starkey giving the colt too much to do, even though Guy Harwood was concerned about him staying a mile and a half. Others have noted that Dancing Brave may have not acted around Epsom. If that is the case then that was some performance.
And we mustn’t forget that Sharastani was no mug. He went on to win the Irish Derby easily.
Dancing Brave’s first meeting with the older generation resulted in a four-length win in the Coral Eclipse. The King George at Ascot was his chance to avenge the Derby defeat but it was Shardari who gave him most to do with Dancing Brave less than a length ahead at the line.
Dancing Brave was predictably named European Horse of the Year and was given a rating of 140.
4 – NIJINSKY
The first horse for 35 years to win the Triple Crown and as I write he is the last to do so. And he was just a head away from winning the Arc too.
He was unbeaten as a two-year-old and his wins included a Dewhurst victory. He opened his three-year-old season with a win in the Gladness Stakes before winning the 2000 Guineas without any real problems.
At Epsom Nijinsky would face French ace Gyr. This horse was the reason trainer Etienne Pollet had delayed his retirement. Gyr was ahead at the two-furlong pole before Lester flicked the whip and Nijinsky got going.
He almost floated over the ground to score by two and a half lengths in a very fast time. He won the Irish Derby and the King George next, the latter being won eased down.
The Triple Crown had not been won since 1935 but Nijinsky was odds on favourite for the St Leger. He won by just a length but it was still easy. The others were rowing away while Piggott was just hand and heels, even looking behind at the furlong pole.
In the Arc the horse could be said to be unlucky as he did not get a totally clear run but when he made his final assault, he had time to pick up Sassafrass. His jockey, who had taken some criticism for giving the horse too much to do, thought the horse was “past his peak for the year” and this was borne out by his defeat in the Champion Stakes a few weeks later.
He was retired to stud which is a shame. Had he trained on he would probably have faced the likes of Brigadier Gerard and Mill Reef. Now that would have been something to witness.
3 – FRANKEL
Fourteen runs. Fourteen wins. Pretty much says it all really. This horse was a freak. Apart from a narrow win from Nathaniel on his debut (the only time he started at odds against) and a worryingly close call in the St James’s Palace Stakes his margins of victory were ridiculous.
The 2000 Guineas win where he made nearly all is unlikely to be seen again. I had heard of him but the first time I saw him was on the BBC (remember when they liked horseracing?) when he won the Royal Lodge. He made his rivals look like they were standing still.
He won the Dewhurst to cement his place at the top of the two-year-old rankings and on his first run at three he began his terrorising of Excelebration as he beat that horse by four lengths in the Greenham.
That 2000 Guineas was just ridiculous. He had a pacemaker but Rerouted just couldn’t go the pace. Frankel was surely idling in the final furlong but still won by six lengths. The second and third were another eleven lengths clear of the rest.
The St James’s Palace Stakes was an odd race. Rerouted did get to the front this time and Frankel took it up three outgoing six clear. But for some reason instead of extending the advantage he was just under a length ahead of the fast finishing Zoffany at the line.
Was he dossing in front? It didn’t look like it to me. Maybe he just had an off day but was still good enough to win.
His next run was in the Sussex Stakes which was billed as The Duel on The Downs as he was facing defending champion Canford Cliffs. I was worried partly due to the run at Ascot and partly because Canford Cliffs was a hold up horse and Frankel was bound to ensure a good pace.
Frankel was just too strong. Canford Cliffs was reported to have suffered an injury but he couldn’t live with Frankel. His last run as a three-year-old was another win over Excelebration, this time in the QEII.
Thankfully Frankel stayed in training as a four-year-old and his first run was in the Lockinge where he again beat Excelebration (now trained by Aiden O’Brien).
His next run was again amazing to watch. The Queen Anne Stakes is the race that kicks off Royal Ascot and after Frankel’s eleven length demolition job the rest of the week was always going to be a bit of a sideshow. He won his second Sussex Stakes six weeks later before his, for me, greatest performance. He was stepped up to ten furlongs for the first time in the Juddmonte International and he was just imperious. As Simon Holt said in his commentary “they can’t get him off the bridle”.
It was almost effortless and he had proper horses like St Nicholas Abbey behind him.
He ended his career with a Champion Stakes win on ground not suited to him beating Cirrus Des Aigles, a horse who had form on soft. He was given 147 which makes him the highest rated horse ever on Timeform. And he is only number three for me.
2 – BRIGADIER GERARD
A three-season career racing 18 times and suffering just the one, shock, defeat. Brigadier Gerard is my pick as the best British racehorse of all time. I never saw him run but grew up hearing his name whenever racing fans got together.
He won the Middle Park by three lengths, beating Mummys Pet and Swing Easy who would be top sprinters the following year.
The 1971 2000 Guineas was eagerly anticipated.
Brigadier Gerard made his seasonal debut in the race. He was up against just five rivals but two of them were top notch. Mill Reef had won the Gimcrack and the Dewhurst at two and started the season with a Greenham win. My Swallow had won the Prix Morny and Prix Robert Papin (beating Mill Reef) the season before.
Subsequent races hint that My Swallow may not have trained on but we know Mill Reef was exceptional. Brigadier Gerard was a three-length winner of what Jimmy Lindley called the “best Guineas in fifty years”.
Mill Reef looked to have run to form so the winner was very special.
The Brigadier continued to win the top mile races that season. The fields were usually small perhaps connections steering clear of the best miler in Europe. After winning the QEII, beating Jacques Le Marois winner Dictus by eight lengths it was time to step in trip.
He won the first of his Champion Stakes by just a head and really had to tough it out to repel Rarity. It may be that the soft ground hindered our boy and helped the runner up. But the Brigadier was still unbeaten.
His debut run as a four-year-old resulted in a win in the Lockinge before another brilliant performance in The Prince Of Wales Stakes where he lowered the race record time winning by five lengths. The ground was against him in the Eclipse but he was still too good for his rivals.
His next run was arguably his most difficult. The King George and Queen Elizabeth Diamond Stakes would take the Brigadier into unknown territory once they hit the two-furlong pole.
The fact he won showed what an outstanding horse he was and Joe Mercer has said in interviews that it was only his class that got him the win over a distance at least two furlongs further than his optimum.
Could this have caused his only defeat next time out? It was the first running of the Benson and Hedges Gold Cup at York (a race we now call the International) and he was the 1/3 favourite against Roberto and Rheingold who had finished first and second in the Derby that year.
Braulio Baeza, Roberto’s Panamanian jockey, made nearly all and won by three lengths in a record time. Brigadier Gerard was at least ten lengths ahead of the third and was giving the winner 12lbs so it was some run.
He won his second QEII in a record time before bowing out with another Champion Stakes win.
At the end of his four-year-old season he was given a Timeform rating of 144 which was the joint second highest until Frankel came along.
He was just very special.
1 – SEA-BIRD
Unlike a few in my top ten Sea-Bird was with us for a relatively short time only running eight times. He won two from three as a juvenile. His sole defeat was in the Grand Criterium when he was beaten by stablemate Grey Dawn.
Pat Glennon had chosen to ride Grey Dawn that day and Sea-Bird was given a huge amount to do by Maurice Lauraun, flying at the finish. His trainer, Etienne Pollet, was far from disappointed (although the jockey never rode the horse again).
At the end of his juvenile season he was rated three pounds below Grey Dawn. An almost effortless three length win in the Prix Greffulhe of 1965 showed his trainers confidence was not misplaced and even better was to come when he won the Prix Lupin by six lengths from the previously unbeaten Diatome and French Guineas winner Cambremont. And again, the jockey was almost a passenger.
So, he was off to Epsom to take on 21 rivals. The fact he went off at odds of 7/4 seems ridiculous now, but in those days we didn’t have wall to wall coverage of international racing.
He won by just two lengths but he was never extended. I have a friend who was there that day and he says his main memory is that Pat Glennon hardly moved on the horse. Back in second was Meadow Court who went on to win both the Irish Derby and King George that season.
Sea-Bird’s next assignment was in the Grand Prix De Saint Cloud which he won eased down before being rested for his big Autumn date at Longchamp. Sea-Bird faced an all-star international line up in that years Arc. He was of course favourite.
His rivals included Reliance who had won the Prix Du Jockey Club, Meadow Court was there again, and Tom Rolfe, the Preakness winner was over from the US. Even the USSR had a representative with Russian Derby winner Anilin, rated their best ever horse, taking his chance. Oncidium had won the Coronation Cup and Blabla was the winner of the Prix de Diane.
It made no difference. He hit the front early in the straight and made very good horses look leaden footed. That is what champions do. Make the very good look ordinary.
He veered to the left late on yet still won by about four lengths with Pat Glennon patting the horse down the neck in the final furlong.
Sea-Bird was given a rating of 145 which was the highest ever Timeform had given (once again until Frankel) and had he really had put the effort in he may have won by similar margins to my number three horse. But he won his races with ridiculous ease.
Despite being trained in France and only running once over here he was voted British Racehorse of the Year by The Racegoers Club. Of the 240 votes cast only twelve were not for Sea-Bird.
For us Brits to be so keen on something French shows what a mark he made on us.
Gary Sears’ 10 Top Flat Racehorses http://wp.me/p8e3Dl-3P4