In celebration of the 50th anniversary of the Eclipse Awards, Brisnet staff and contributors have delved into the history of the past five decades of champions and come up with individual thoughts on the best, and not so best, among most of the equine divisions since 1971. We’ll highlight the 3-year-old males on Dec. 28 and two other divisions daily from Dec. 29-31.
For the marquee divisions of champion 3-year-old male and champion older dirt male, we’ve ranked the campaigns 1 through 50. For five other select divisions, our experts highlight what they believe were the top 10 and bottom 10 campaigns.
Vance Hanson (@VPHanson) kicks the series off with the past 50 campaigns produced by the classic generation:
1. SECRETARIAT (1973)
The abnormally large heart didn’t always guarantee him a trip to the winner’s circle, but his time records in the three American classics have been generally secure for nearly half a century and seem more so for a similar length of time. What horse or horses throughout history could have possibly beaten him in the Belmont Stakes (G1) or in the star-studded inaugural Marlboro Cup? Judging from his performances in the Man o’ War (G1) and Canadian International (G2), was he possibly the best grass horse this country has ever produced, too? He was simply all that and more.
2. SPECTACULAR BID (1979)
The still-mysterious setback in the Belmont would have him ranked lower on most others’ list, at least in relation to his two direct predecessors that won the title. However, on at least one important criterion, he beats them handily. His proximity to the best older horse of his year (a close second to Affirmed in the Jockey Club Gold Cup [G1]), and his two victories in stakes open to older rivals, trump both post-Triple Crown campaigns turned in by either Slew or Affirmed. His pre-Kentucky Derby campaign was rather special too.
3. AFFIRMED (1978)
Battle-tested like no Triple Crown winner has been by a rival nearly his equal, his reputation and courage can never be doubted. Post-Triple Crown was pure anticlimax though: a loss in the stewards’ room at the Travers (G1), a decisive setback to Seattle Slew in the Marlboro Cup (G1), and a likely victim of a hot duel with Slew in the Jockey Club Gold Cup even before the saddle slip. Was simply not up to the task in the fall, which brings him down a notch.
4. SUNDAY SILENCE (1989)
Like Affirmed, he had a near-equal rival to prove his greatness. But like Seattle Slew, a loss in the Swaps (G2) muddled the picture a bit. Breeders’ Cup Classic (G1) triumph was pure beauty, though, perhaps a top two in race history alongside Ghostzapper’s tour de force. Downing Easy Goer for a third time and what constituted a respectable but inferior group of older rivals, as night fell on Gulfstream, was one of the supreme performances of his era and would have been in many others as well.
5. AMERICAN PHAROAH (2015)
The widespread wish that the next Triple Crown winner after Affirmed would be a “proper” successor to the 1970s superstars was granted when this ultra-talented colt swept his preps, the classics themselves, and provided additional highlights into the summer and fall. His annihilation of older rivals in the Breeders’ Cup Classic was among the best in that race’s history; thus he joined the likes of Secretariat and Citation as a clearly dominant Triple Crown winner of his year.
6. SEATTLE SLEW (1977)
Perfection through the Triple Crown and facile prep victories beforehand will get you far. The completely unnecessary trip to California for the Swaps (G1) is still a head-scratcher and in part left him no opportunity to build on his record during the second half of the season. It’s pure conjecture whether he would have toppled a battle-weary Forego that fall, but it still would have been nice to have seen more of him that year.
7. HOLY BULL (1994)
Suffering only two black marks in a 10-race season, the speedy gray produced about as strong a campaign as a non-Triple Crown race winner possibly can to comfortably take division honors. Trainer Croll attributed the Kentucky Derby downer to nefarious tampering, but it proved his final setback in a season that included earth-scorching triumphs in the Florida Derby (G1), Blue Grass (G2), Met Mile (G1), and Woodward (G1), the latter two against older. His tenacity and gameness were on larger display in the Travers, hanging on by a neck over subsequent Breeders’ Cup Classic winner Concern with a 17-length gap back to dual classic hero Tabasco Cat.
8. RISEN STAR (1988)
Soundness ultimately betrayed Secretariat’s best son, but not before he asserted himself as head of a genuinely strong crop. That he didn’t get a true run in the Kentucky Derby remains a disappointment, but he made up for it in spades in the Preakness and Belmont. He won the latter by nearly 15 lengths and in time that was the fastest since his sire’s epic run 15 years before. Although it’s hard to say how he would have fared against a salty group of older runners led by Alysheba, it’s safe to assume he hadn’t yet grazed the ceiling of his potential.
9. KEY TO THE MINT (1972)
Although lackluster in the Triple Crown races he tried, he snatched the title from future Hall of Famer and dual classic winner Riva Ridge the hard way by beating older rivals three times, a feat duplicated only by Secretariat since. Four-race win streak of the Brooklyn Handicap, Whitney, Travers, and Woodward weren’t flashy, but he beat Riva twice down the stretch and older champ Autobiography three times.
10. TIZNOW (2000)
After a string of three champions who fell short of Triple Crown glory came this California-bred, who showed that sometimes you don’t need a whiff of the classics at all to be judged best. His stakes season was perfectly balanced between age-restricted and open races, and it was the latter that provided the physically-imposing specimen his noteworthy triumphs in the Goodwood H. (G2) and Breeders’ Cup Classic, the latter against European superstar Giant’s Causeway after a spine-tingling stretch duel.
11. WAJIMA (1975)
From the final crop sired by Bold Ruler, he provided a fitting coda to that legacy when snatching the title claim away from Derby winner Foolish Pleasure and beating the mighty Forego in two of three encounters, albeit while receiving significant weight concessions. His own Horse of the Year aspirations came undone when edged by the unheralded Group Plan in the final Jockey Club Gold Cup contested at two miles, but overall he’s entirely worthy of being considered his legendary father’s second best son.
12. ARROGATE (2016)
Put in hardly any campaign at all, which ultimately hurt him in Horse of the Year balloting. Still, if any horse could possibly win this title off a mere two stakes appearances, he was the one to do it. Track-record performance in the Travers by more than 13 lengths was other-worldly, and the deposing of older champion California Chrome with a tremendous final surge in the Breeders’ Cup Classic was befitting of the race’s name.
13. CURLIN (2007)
Despite lacking a juvenile foundation, he made rapid progress during the course of the campaign while weathering a few bumps in the road (i.e. Kentucky Derby, Haskell). Truly emerged as the outstanding talent of a highly-regarded crop in the final months when edging older champion Lawyer Ron in the Jockey Club Gold Cup and then decisively claiming this crown and Horse of the Year in raw conditions at the Breeders’ Cup at Monmouth Park, which beefed up a record that already included the Preakness and Arkansas Derby (G2).
14. A.P. INDY (1992)
Hoof trouble and the recovery from it limited the number of starts this regally-bred and expensive colt was able to make. After missing the first two legs of the Triple Crown, he ran the co-fastest second time ever in the Belmont, winning narrowly. A dull showing at Woodbine and excuse-filled third in the Jockey Club Gold Cup followed, but he was back to his best self on Breeders’ Cup Day winning the Classic with relative authority over champion older male Pleasant Tap. His highs were excellent, but they were not plentiful in any quantitative sense.
15. BERNARDINI (2006)
Although emerging in one of racing’s darkest hours in the Preakness, he continued to reproduce that effort each and every time the rest of the season, accounting for the Jim Dandy (G2), Travers, and Jockey Club Gold Cup. Only when he ran into the older Invasor did he finally meet his match, which was far from a disgrace in any event. Like many others here, a sparkling sophomore campaign left us wanting more but were unlucky not to receive.
16. POINT GIVEN (2001)
Nearly two decades later, the Kentucky Derby performance remains hard to fathom considering the relative ease with which he lorded over his peers during the rest of the season. Also a shame was the fact he never had an opportunity to strut his stuff against the older generation, though that didn’t stop him from receiving Horse of the Year honors and a spot in the Hall of Fame. A physical and professional powerhouse, indeed.
17. JUSTIFY (2018)
Although hard in theory to rate an undefeated Triple Crown winner this low, there’s not much from which to measure his relative talent with a sample of only four stakes appearances over the span of two months. The fact he completed the sweep less than four months after debuting was the more jaw-dropping aspect of a career that was over barely after it started.
18. SMARTY JONES (2004)
Besides Real Quiet and Silver Charm, his failure to last in the final furlong of the Belmont perhaps stung the most of all would-be Triple Crown heroes during the great drought (1979-2014). In part a tactical defeat, it didn’t diminish his status as hands-down leader of the crop and his record arguably stands up very high among those that did not race or barely did so beyond the classics.
19. CONQUISTADOR CIELO (1982)
Wheeling back in five days to win the Belmont by 14 lengths after winning the Met Mile (G1) by more than seven lengths in 1:33 was one of the more remarkable pairings of wins by any on this list. A couple relatively minor victories followed and he was done after being dueled into submission in the Travers. Surely as good as he looked, which wasn’t seen enough.
20. SPEND A BUCK (1985)
Took the path of least resistance multiple times during his campaign but earned beaucoup bucks in doing so. Dominating twice at the newly-reopened Garden State Park, he proceeded to crush his Kentucky Derby rivals in what was then the third fastest time in race history. Earned a huge bonus by skipping the Preakness and eking out a Jersey Derby (G3) win over subsequent Belmont hero Crème Fraiche, he then stayed in Jersey for two more starts, one a track-record performance in the Monmouth H. (G1) against a relatively modest group of elders. Avoiding some of the sport’s larger stages knocks him down a few pegs.
21. SILVER CHARM (1997)
He was always one you wanted when the going got tough, even if the odds of success were no better than a coin flip. Avenged two photo-finish prep losses to Free House in both the Kentucky Derby and Preakness while also beating stellar rivals like Captain Bodgit and Touch Gold. The latter, of course, overcame persistent foot problems to deny him in the Triple Crown. Not much was seen of him the rest of the year, unfortunate given the attrition in both this division and the older by season’s end.
23. SKIP AWAY (1996)
Among the “Fabulous Fifth” that earned the title without a classic victory to their credit, he nonetheless finished up strong to win four of his last five starts. The most important of these, obviously, was the Jockey Club Gold Cup over dual Horse of the Year Cigar and Preakness winner Louis Quatorze, both of whom would narrowly lose the Breeders’ Cup Classic in this blue-collar gray’s absence.
24. SWALE (1984)
Gone just eight days after a decisive victory in the Belmont, which gave him two of the season’s classics after giving Claiborne Farm its belated first Kentucky Derby victory. Generally had excuses for his three defeats in an on-and-off campaign of seven races, though feeling is he would have acquitted himself and his generation further if fate had not intervened.
25. SNOW CHIEF (1986)
Dark brown Californian stampeded his way through Florida and his home base on the way to Louisville, where he was seemingly caught out as a possibly distance-limited sort. However, he immediately reverted to winning ways in the Preakness and did see out 1 1/4 miles a mere nine days later in the Jersey Derby (G2). Raced only twice more that season, but easily the most accomplished of an interesting generation that often had trouble holding themselves together for full campaigns.
25. PLEASANT COLONY (1981)
Converted from fringe player into a champion under the tutelage of the brash Johnny Campo, his Triple Crown quest came undone due to a soft pace in the Belmont. Setbacks followed in two of his three remaining races as well, although an ideal pace setup got him a win in the Woodward (G1), a notch against older runners that eluded many other dual classic winners on this list.
26. SLEW O’ GOLD (1983)
A tale of two horses — so good against older rivals when starting to hit his peak in the fall and yet an infrequent winner against his own peers through the first eight months of the season. Did edge older champion Bates Motel both times he faced him, and raw time of his Jockey Club Gold Cup among the fastest 1 1/2-mile races in Belmont Park history not belonging to Secretariat.
27. TEMPERENCE HILL (1980)
Certainly won the kind of races that in most years would have yielded a Horse of the Year crown, but scores in the Arkansas Derby, Belmont, Travers, Jockey Club Gold Cup, and Super Derby were offset by some highly marginal tries in the Pennsylvania Derby (G3), Brooklyn H. (G1), and Marlboro Cup. Obviously having to follow in the hoofsteps of the great triumvirate of colts that ended the 1970s was never going to be easy for him, and it wasn’t.
28. ALYSHEBA (1987)
Didn’t fully blossom until age four, but early signs of it were evident late in the fall when tacking on a victory in the Super Derby (G1) and a near-miss in a depleted Breeders’ Cup Classic to earlier scores in the Kentucky Derby and Preakness. Hard to say he was the dominant figure of his crop that season with Bet Twice and Java Gold having had their say against him at times, but was the last one standing among the trio by November.
29. THUNDER GULCH (1995)
Like some others here, more workmanlike than flashy, and main challenger to the title was a stablemate who bowed out in early summer. Still, a seven-win campaign over tracks in Florida, Kentucky, California, and New York is rather praiseworthy by today’s standards. Gets credit for beating older rivals in the Kentucky Cup Classic, but it was tougher than it should have been against that field, and obviously no match to the far superior Cigar in the Jockey Club Gold Cup.
30. AFLEET ALEX (2005)
Although there wasn’t much to beat in the crop, which makes his sub-par third in the Kentucky Derby even sadder, blowout wins in the Preakness (where he averted a potentially devastating fall), Belmont, and Arkansas Derby were utterly dazzling. Which made his departure from the scene after the Triple Crown even more disappointing. Perhaps a bit of projection having him this high while others with similar achievements are farther down, but surely had a lot more to give.
31. REAL QUIET (1998)
Will always be remembered for the absolutely brutal loss in the final stride that denied him from becoming the 12th Triple Crown winner, which turned out to be his season finale. Pre-Derby campaign was no great shakes, but it ultimately proved a warm-up to some fine efforts against an above-average crop.
32. HANSEL (1991)
Scary good when he was on, which wasn’t always the case in an uneven year. While Kentucky Derby no-show remains a complete head-scratcher, his Preakness comeback was breathtaking and his Belmont performance gutsy. Narrow Travers loss could be viewed as a moral victory as he continued to fight to the wire despite having suffered an injured tendon in the final quarter mile.
33. BOLD FORBES (1976)
Certainly one of the earliest to achieve bi-coastal success during the Triple Crown prep season, he outlasted an odds-on favorite in the Kentucky Derby after setting a demanding pace, weakened late in the Preakness after facing a stiffer early challenge, and then lasted around one lap of Belmont with the help of Angel Cordero Jr., who was able to harness his natural speed more than at any other time in his career. Demoted from second to third in the Vosburgh H. (G2) in his only post-Crown stakes appearance, he was a very fast horse whose star shined for only a brief time.
34. AUTHENTIC (2020)
The presumptive champion of the current year started early (Jan. 4) and outlasted not only some highly-rated members from adjoining stalls but also the rest of the crop in a stop-and-start season that messed with virtually everyone. Arguably benefited quite a bit from the postponement of the Kentucky Derby, allowing his stamina to eventually come to the fore, and was somewhat gifted the Breeders’ Cup Classic when not challenged early. Perhaps a little high here, but there weren’t many obvious flaws on the résumé.
35. BIG BROWN (2008)
If willing to overlook the farcical Belmont Stakes, and all that surrounded it, the campaign of this seemingly fragile sort stands up well — to an extent. Although there wasn’t much to the division as a whole, his career finale remains an intriguing bit of a trivia as he was the first crown holder since Secretariat to beat older rivals on the grass.
36. WEST COAST (2017)
Although not ready in time to make his presence felt in the classics, this “second half” colt left no doubt about his being cream of the crop after a crushing win over all three Triple Crown race winners in the Travers and a dominant follow-up in the Pennsylvania Derby (G1) for good measure. But the overall limitations of his generation was evident when only third best behind Gun Runner in the Breeders’ Cup Classic.
37. SUMMER BIRD (2009)
One of the few on this list who couldn’t be considered the best 3-year-old of his year regardless of sex, and that was a proven fact after being demolished by Rachel Alexandra in the Haskell. On the plus side, this long-winded late bloomer racked up wins in the Belmont, Travers, and Jockey Club Gold Cup, and was a fair fourth in the Breeders’ Cup Classic given his unfamiliarity with a synthetic surface.
38. UNBRIDLED (1990)
Won the two most important races on the calendar — the Kentucky Derby and Breeders’ Cup Classic — but only other triumph in a long campaign was in the Florida Derby. The Classic, in which Rhythm was favored (!), lacked all the major stars of the older division as well as this one’s great rival, Summer Squall, who won two of their three meetings decisively.
39. CALIFORNIA CHROME (2013)
The last in a long string of Triple Crown near-misses, his was a prosperous and generally consistent campaign. That said, was outrun twice by Bayern down the season stretch and didn’t have the multiple wins against older rivals that stamped the unlucky campaign of fellow peer Shared Belief. Season finale in the Hollywood Derby, a rare turf win by a titlist in this division, was more opportunistic than anything given the softness of the opposition.
40. CANONERO II (1971)
The “Caracas Cannonball” is perhaps the greatest Triple Crown story of those that did not ultimately sweep it. The pride of his adoptive Venezuela and thus a hero to many, he braved an arduous trip to Kentucky and put his Derby rivals to shame in dazzling style. His Preakness, a track-record setting win, was another glorious chapter, which enticed a crowd of more than 82,000 to show up at Belmont, a record that stood for decades. Whatever that could go wrong in the interim did, and his season was finished. The first Eclipse Award winner, but definitely not the last whose true ability on the racetrack perhaps wasn’t ultimately seen.
41. I’LL HAVE ANOTHER (2012)
Consistently underrated throughout a brief four-race campaign, but proved game in winning twice at Santa Anita before taking the first two classics over the speedy but distance-limited Bodemeister. Withdrawal from his date with the Triple Crown among the legion of “What ifs?” in the sport’s long and living narrative, and retirement soon after left him a figure largely difficult to assess.
42. CHARISMATIC (1999)
His rise from two-time claiming winner to a near-Triple Crown champion was both unexpected and a great story. Didn’t trip out well at all in the Belmont and was unfortunately injured near the finish, though thankfully saved for a second career. Like the preceding two dual classic winners on the list, there were no serious challengers to his crown in the second half of the season, but doubt his best would have been up to beating the cream of that year’s older division.
43. WILL TAKE CHARGE (2013)
It’s a stretch to believe that a horse so soundly beaten in all three Triple Crown races could rise up to win this award, but proved a completely different animal in the second half of the season when taking the Travers, Pennsylvania Derby (G1), and Clark H. (G1) while narrowly missing in the Breeders’ Cup Classic. A Jekyll and Hyde sort, his championship credentials are certainly unique among this group of 50.
44. LOOKIN AT LUCKY (2010)
Although properly ranked in the second tier among the many Bob Baffert-trained representatives on this list, he possibly would have rated higher if not for being slammed into the rail passing the stands in the Kentucky Derby, for which he drew the dreaded 1 post facing a full pack of 19 rivals. Less flashy and more of a workmanlike champion against an iffy group, his effort in the Breeders’ Cup Classic was actually quite good considering who he was up against.
45. PRAIRIE BAYOU (1993)
A tragic figure, he did virtually little wrong up until taking a bad step when racing down the backside in the Belmont Stakes. That he was the class leader up to then is unquestioned after making amends in the Preakness following a second-place finish in the Kentucky Derby as a lukewarm favorite, but the relative weakness of the crop and very modest speed-figure production drag him down.
46. LITTLE CURRENT (1974)
Seven-length wins in both the Preakness and Belmont Stakes are pretty authoritative, generally speaking, but this deep-closing son of the legendary *Sea-Bird II managed to lose photos in both the Monmouth Invitational and Travers to an inferior rival, and he also went unplaced in seven of his eight other stakes appearances. The nominal head of a class that was pretty weak sauce.
47. MAXIMUM SECURITY (2019)
An historically unconventional set of stakes wins — Florida Derby, Haskell, Bold Ruler (G3), and Cigar Mile (G1) — were plenty to offset his history-making disqualification from Kentucky Derby glory, but clouds continue to hover over the career of this leader of a crop that didn’t quite live up to its early reputation.
48. WAR EMBLEM (2002)
Winning the Kentucky Derby and Preakness off the bat for new connections put him in line for an unlikely classic sweep, but a stumble leaving the gate in the “Test of the Champion” squelched the bid before it even started. Pretty much needed to dictate terms to succeed, opportunities he had a couple other times outside the Triple Crown to pad his record. But doubts whether he was still the best of the division at season’s end arguably existed after checking in far behind in both the Pacific Classic and Breeders’ Cup Classic.
49. FUNNY CIDE (2003)
Certainly loveable and a great story in his time, this New York folk hero was best in class for roughly five weeks after notching the first two legs of the Triple Crown. However, much of the rest of his output left much to be desired. Had one win versus two losses to a more consistent rival in Empire Maker, who spoiled the gelding’s date with destiny in the Belmont and also beat him a measured neck in the Wood Memorial.
50. ANIMAL KINGDOM (2011)
A champion by the skin of his teeth at the polls, largely because his final win of the season was on the first Saturday in May at Churchill Downs. That unprecedented low bar is unlikely to be repeated, but was understandable in his case given the dearth of plausible alternatives that were two-turn specialists. His only other stakes win was on synthetic, he placed second in the Preakness and had excuses when injured in the Belmont, which turned out to be his final start of the year.