The Best Kentucky Derby Winners

There have been many great horses to win the Kentucky Derby and many arguments over who is the best. This list uses the criteria of most year end honors won in their 3-year-old season to select the best horses to ever win the Kentucky Derby. Only those who were both 3-year-old champion and Horse of the Year as well as the Derby winner are included and they are presented in chronological order.

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War Admiral horse racing
War Admiral book by Edward L. Bowen. Blood Horse Publications

War Admiral was the fourth horse to sweep the Triple Crown and he won his Kentucky Derby by 8 lengths. He went on to be champion 3-year-old colt and Horse of the Year for 1937 with 8 wins in 8 starts that year. He may be best remembered for his famous match race with Seabiscuit in 1938 where he lost. His lifetime record was 26 starts with 21 wins, 3 seconds, and 1 third with $273,240 in earnings.

War Admiral book review

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Whirlaway kentucky derby
Whirlaway's grave at Calumet Farm.
Calumet Farm's Whirlaway kept a busy schedule during his racing career and raced until he was 5-years-old. He was known to be erratic and have a tendency to bolt, so he wore special blinkers to try and correct that. He was named 3-year-old champion and Horse of the Year in 1941 and also champion handicap horse and Horse of the Year in 1942. In his career he started 60 times with 32 wins, 15 seconds, and 9 thirds with $561,161 in earnings.

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Count Fleet postcard
Count Fleet postcard. Count Fleet postcard
Count Fleet only raced at age 2 and 3, but was never out of the money, with 21 starts, 16 wins, 4 seconds, and a third with earnings of $250,300. He won all three of his Triple Crown races easily, the Derby by 3 lengths, the Preakness by 8, and the Belmont by 25. He was named champion 2-year-old for 1942, and champion 3-year-old and Horse of the Year for 1943.

More on Count Fleet's Triple Crown

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assault kentucky derby
Assault commemoration pewter plate. Cindy Pierson Dulay

Texas-bred Assault was the 7th Triple Crown winner and raced for 6 years, until his 7-year-old season. He broke the single season earnings record with his 3-year-old season ($424,195) which not only included the Triple Crown wins, but also the Pimlico Special against older horses. He was named champion 3-year-old and Horse of the Year for 1946. His lifetime record was 42 starts with 18 wins, 6 seconds, 7 thirds and $675,470 in earnings. As a yearling, he stepped on a surveyor's spike, seriously injuring his hoof and he walked with a limp the rest of his life, but it didn't seem to affect his running.

Assault book review

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Citation horse racing
Citation's grave at Calumet Farm. Cindy Pierson Dulay

Citation is often brought up as a top candidate in any argument over the best thoroughbred of all time. Only out of the money once in 44 starts lifetime, he won multiple championships including: champion 2-year-old colt of 1947, champion 3-year-old colt of 1948, champion Handicap Horse of 1948, and Horse of the Year for 1948. He still holds the record for most stakes wins in a year, 17 in 1948. He started 45 times with 32 wins, 10 seconds, and 2 thirds with $1,085,760 in lifetime earnings.

More on Citation
Citation book review

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horse racing secretariat
The Secretariat statue at the Kentucky Horse Park near Lexington. Cindy Pierson Dulay
Secretariat was the next horse to win the Triple Crown after Citation, breaking a 25 year drought. He is one of the few horses to win Horse of the Year honors at age 2 and the only to repeat it at age 3. He was also named champion 2-year-old for 1972, champion 3-year-old for 1973, and champion Grass Horse for 1973. He still holds the track record for both the Kentucky Derby and Belmont Stakes. He retired with a lifetime record of 21 starts, 16 wins, 3 seconds, 1 third, and $1,316,808 in earnings.

Secretariat book review

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Seattle Slew horse racing
Seattle Slew memorial at Three Chimneys. Cindy Pierson Dulay
Seattle Slew was a champion at ages 2, 3, and 4 winning champion 2-year-old colt for 1976, champion 3-year-old colt for 1977, champion older horse for 1978, and Horse of the Year for 1977. He was undefeated at age 2 and remained undefeated all the way through the Belmont Stakes. His lifetime record was 17 starts, 14 wins, 2 second, no thirds, and $1,208,726 in earnings. After he retired, he stood at stud at Three Chimneys Farm and sired many stakes winners including Slew o'Gold, Swale, and Landaluce.

Seattle Slew obituary

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Affirmed horse racing
Affirmed's grave at Darley/Jonabell Farm. Cindy Pierson Dulay

Affirmed in 1978 was the last horse to win the Triple Crown. He had a frequent rivalry with Alydar who ran second to him in all three Triple Crown races. He won championships each year he raced, being named champion 2-year-old colt for 1977, champion 3-year-old colt for 1978, champion older horse for 1979, and Horse of the Year in both 1978 and 1979. He retired with a record of 29 starts, 22 wins, 5 seconds, and 1 third with $2,393,818 in earnings.

Affirmed vs. Alydar rivalry

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horse racing spend a buck
A painting of Spend A Buck winning the 1985 Kentucky Derby by Sara. Cindy Pierson Dulay
Spend a Buck won his Kentucky Derby in wire-to-wire fashion, coming home 5 1/4 lengths in front with a final time of 2:00.20 for the 4th fastest Derby win ever. He went on to be named champion 3-year-old and Horse of the Year for 1985. He was a bit controversial as he skipped the rest of the Triple Crown to run in the Jersey Derby instead because of a $2 million bonus he was eligible for because of his win in the Garden State Stakes, he of course won the Jersey Derby and collected the bonus. He retired with a record of 15 starts, 10 wins, 3 seconds, and 2 thirds with earnings of $4,220,686.

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Sunday Silence kentucky derby
Sunday Silence. Maui Boy
Sunday Silence was never worse than second in his 14 lifetime starts, with 9 wins and $4,968,554 in earnings. He is often remembered for his rivalry with Easy Goer who stopped him from being a Triple Crown winner by beating him in the Belmont Stakes, although Sunday Silence won their other 3 meetings including the Breeders' Cup Classic. He was named champion 3-year-old colt for 1989 and Horse of the Year for 1989. He was injured early in his 4-year-old season and retired to stud in Japan where he became one of their best sires ever. He died in 2002 after a long battle with laminitis.

Sunday Silence obituary

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Charismatic (1999)

horse racing Charismatic
Charismatic winning the 1999 Kentucky Derby. Andy Lyons/ALLSPORT/Getty Images
Charismatic was a long shot winner of the Kentucky Derby, but he still went on to win the Preakness and was 3rd in the Belmont where he broke his leg after the finish. Jockey Chris Antley pulled him up and kept the leg off the ground until the vet arrived. He had surgery the next day to repair the leg and is currently standing at stud in Japan at Iburi Stallion Station. His final career record was 17 starts, 5 wins, 2 seconds, and 4 thirds with $2,038,064 in earnings. He was named champion 3-year-old colt and Horse of the Year for 1999.

Preakness results and photos
Belmont results and photos
His injury and surgery

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California Chrome (2014)

California Chrome horse racing
California Chrome winning the 2014 Kentucky Derby. Cindy Pierson Dulay

California Chrome was undefeated coming into the Triple Crown but since he had only raced in California and started his career in state-bred company (including winning the very last stakes race ever run at Hollywood Park), some had their doubts. He put those fears to rest, winning the Santa Anita Derby, Kentucky Derby, and Preakness. However, he finished a disappointing fourth in the Belmont.  He would finish third in the Breeders' Cup Classic but came back to win the Hollywood Derby on the turf.  His 2014 campaign was enough to earn him 3-year-old male and Horse of the Year honors.

Kentucky Derby results and photos
Preakness Results and photos
Belmont Stakes results and photos

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horse racing kentucky derby
American Pharoah wins the 2015 Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs. Cindy Pierson Dulay

American Pharoah finally broke the long Triple Crown drought, sweeping the Derby, Preakness, and Belmont in 2015 under regular rider Victor Espinoza, making the Zayat Stables homebred the unanimous choice for both Champion Three Year Old Male and Horse of the Year.  Along with the Triple Crown, the Bob Baffert trainee capped off what should be a Hall of Fame career with a win in the Breeders' Cup Classic at Keeneland, a feat dubbed the "Grand Slam". He retired to Coolmore America's Ashford Stud with a record of 9 wins in 11 starts earning $8,650,300.

Kentucky Derby results and photos
Preakness Results and photos
Belmont Stakes results and photos