Not all horse races are created equal. Some of the biggest events in horse racing almost transcend the sport itself when you combine history, stories, prize money and prestige. Around the globe, there are very special horse races that take the excitement to whole new levels.
It’s like the Grand Slams in tennis or the Majors in golf. There are just those incredible shows of racing that make people stop, even non-racing fans, and pay attention. Those are the headline grabbers, where horses etch their name into the history books, races like the Kentucky Derby, The Grand National and the Cheltenham Gold Cup.
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Here are 10 of the most famous horse races in the world.
Grand National – Aintree
You are going to be hard pushed to find a more spectacular sight in sport. Since 1839 the Grand National has become one of the most remarkable spectacles for racing fans. It is a steeplechase epic which goes over 4 miles and 514 yards around Aintree. This is such a special race in British culture. It’s the one that spawns office sweepstakes and gets the most casual of punters off their seats.
40 runners taking on 30 fences in a gruelling and unpredictable test of endurance. There is no more valuable jump race in Europe. It also was the stage for one of the most famous horses of all time to forge his name into legendary status. That was Red Rum with his three wins at the National (1973, 1974 and 1977) a feat to this day which has never been matched.
Cheltenham Gold Cup – Cheltenham
Owners, trainers and jockeys all dream of winning the Cheltenham Gold Cup. It is the pinnacle of National Hunt racing. The race itself is 3 miles 2 furlongs and 70 yards with 22 jumps for the runners to get over. Like the Grand National, this is a steeplechase event and it is what the yearly Cheltenham Festival builds up to. The Gold Cup is hosted on a Friday, the final day of the four-day Festival.
The Cheltenham Gold Cup is regarded as being the Blue Riband race of National Hunt. Some of the most famous names in racing have taken first place at this one including the likes of Arkle, Best Mate, Denman and Kauto Star. To this day the real legend of the Cheltenham Gold Cup remains Golden Miller who not only won the race five times but in five consecutive, untouchable years. Arkle won it three times in a row as did Best Mate.
Epsom Derby – Epsom Downs
The Epsom Derby has a special place in British Racing. It is one of the top flat races that there is. Not only is it one of the five British Classics, but it serves as a part of the Triple Crown as well (sitting in the middle of the 2000 Guineas and the St Leger). The Epsom Derby comes around annually on the first Saturday of June. Just as a testament of the status of this race, of all the other races around the world which bear the moniker ‘Derby’, this is the original they all copied from.
The Derby is only for three-year-olds. So this is not a race that creates a situation of title defences. The history of the race on the Epsom Downs goes back to 1780. One of the most famous wins at the race came in 1981 when Shergar took the title by a massive 10 lengths. That’s the biggest winning margin in the long, rich history of the race. It was part of Shergar’s remarkable one year on top of the racing world before he famously went missing. He was never seen again.
Kentucky Derby – Churchill Downs
Louisville, Kentucky hosts this famous horse race which was inaugurated in 1875. This goes under the nickname of “The Most Exciting Two Minutes in Sports” so that’s a massive claim for the expectation to live up to. But it does. The race is over 10 furlongs on the dirt for colts, geldings and fillies alike. Not only is the stand-alone event huge, but it also forms a part of the famous Triple Crown along with the Preakness Stakes and the Belmont Stakes. The Kentucky Derby is the opening leg of that Triple Crown.
This is the most attended race in North America and it is part of the Kentucky Derby Festival, which is a whopping two-week affair. In 1973 one of the legends of horse racing, Secretariat posted a speed record which has to this day, never been beaten. He went on to win the Triple Crown that year. Other famous names which have gone on to win the Triple Crown include War Admiral, American Pharoah and Justify. The wonderful thing is that the Kentucky Derby is only open to 3-year-olds so horses only ever get one shot at the Derby and therefore the Triple Crown.
Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe – Longchamps
France’s most famous race at the equally famous Longchamp Racecourse which sits in the capital, Paris. This is a flat race over one and a half miles and it’s open to horses three years old and up. There is kind of pecking order of prestige in European flat racing. The Epsom Derby is top of that list, the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe is second. The race got its start back in 1920 after some previous incarnations.
This major horse race is hosted in the Arc weekend, without question the biggest weekend in French horse racing. The Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe is one of the richest flat races in the world. Famous winners of the race include Ribot, Sea-Bird, Alleged and modern star Enable.
Dubai World Cup
Meydan is the scene for the Dubai World Cup. There is some serious money in this race and indeed it is billed as the richest horse race in the world. This is a fairly new incarnation on the world racing scene as it was started only in 1996. The race is run on Dubai World Cup night, the last night of the Dubai World Cup Festival. The Dubai World Cup is held on the last Saturday in March and the race is open to any thoroughbred from around the world of a minimum age of four.
It was briefly held on an all-weather track when the race moved from Nad Al Sheba to Meydan in 2015. American participants didn’t like it and because of the high costs, it was moved back to dirt. It was an American horse that took the inaugural Dubai World Cup, Cigar taking that honour. Famous winners of the Dubai World Cup include Ireland’s Thunder Snow (who created history in 2019 by becoming the first-ever to win the race back to back), California Chrome and Silver Charm. Even though its comparative newness, the Dubai World Cup has become one of the biggest horse races in the world.
Preakness Stakes – Pimlico Racecourse
The Preakness Stakes is the second leg of the American Triple Crown at Pimlico in Baltimore, Maryland. The race had its inauguration in 1873. This is a tough one for Triple Crown hopefuls as it comes only two weeks after the Kentucky Derby. The Preakness runs, therefore, on the third Saturday of May. The Derby is the only race in North America which draws in bigger attendances than the Preakness.
Secretariat set a record for the fastest ever race time back in 1973 which has not been touched since. This second leg of the Triple Crown is at 1 3⁄16 miles and although it is the seventh different distance that the race has gone with, it has been settled on that distance since 1925. Along with Secretariat, other big winners of the Preakness include Affirmed, Seattle Slew, War Admiral, American Pharoah and Justify.
Belmont Stakes – Belmont Park
Hosted in Elmont, New York this is the final leg of the American Triple crown. What a spectacle it is. It is the longest of the three legs as well. It comes just three weeks after the running of the Preakness and is arguably the toughest of the Triple Crown races. The Belmont Stakes is 1.5 miles. Because of its positioning in the Triple Crown, this is where all of the glory happens. This is the scene of the wildest celebrations.
Like when Secretariat nailed the Triple Crown in 1973 (setting a speed record in all three legs); when the great War Admiral did it in 1937, American Pharoah in 2015 and Justify in 2018. The track itself is one of the greatest in North America, almost with an unrivalled history of the calibre of runners it has attracted in over one and a half centuries of operation. In the first-ever edition of the Belmont Stakes, which was in 1867, it was filly Ruthless who took the win at Jerome Park. The race moved to its new home at Belmont Park in 1905.
Melbourne Cup – Flemington Racecourse
The Melbourne Cup is one of the biggest horse races in the world. It is without question the biggest in Australia. This one is hosted on the turf at Flemington Racecourse in Melbourne. It is a two-mile flat race. The race itself is the highlight of the Melbourne Spring Cup Racing Carnival ran on the first Tuesday of November. It’s hosted on a Melbourne National holiday which helps boost the race’s popularity and status. It’s known as ‘the race that stops a nation”.
The race itself is open to 3 years old and over and goes under handicap terms. It is the richest two-mile race in the world and it is open to international horses. The first running of the race was in 1861 which was won by Archer, who defended a year later. The great Phar Lap produced a win at the race in 1930 and to this day remains the shortest price ever winner of the Melbourne Cup (8/11 odds). This is so popular of a race that anywhere between 300 and 400 horses annually get nominated. Only 24 get to run the race.
Breeders Cup Classic – Various
The Breeders Cup Classic doesn’t have a home as such, it moves around to different US tracks on an annual basis. It’s a little strange that this is a bigger thing than the Kentucky Derby is in terms of prize money (at times) and prestige. But it doesn’t grab the headlines that the former does. It’s probably because this isn’t part of the Triple Crown. However, it’s now often referred to as the fourth leg of a Grand Slam along with the Triple Crown.
American Pharoah was the first to win that Slam in 2015 following up his Triple Crown success with victory in the Breeders Cup Classic. Horses have to earn their spot at the Breeders Cup. That’s because of the Breeders Cup Challenge which is a series of races around the globe, from which the winners get a spot at the main event. The term they use is “Win and You’re In”. There are eight such qualifying races.
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