10 Most Memorable Horses In Kentucky Derby History

By  //  April 8, 2022

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The Kentucky Derby is an American Thoroughbred horse race held annually at Churchill Downs, located in Louisville, Kentucky. With a purse of $2 million on average, it is one of the most iconic events on the horse racing calendar. It is the first leg of the U.S. Triple Crown series for 3-year-old thoroughbreds. 

There is a huge cultural interest in the Kentucky Derby in particular because the Churchill Downs have kept many unique traditions alive. These include the smart dress code, having their own drink which comes in a commemorative cup, and the way in which the thoroughbred racers are celebrated. 

These are some of the most memorable horses who competed in the Kentucky Derby. 


Firstly, Donerail was one of the very first thoroughbreds to win the Kentucky Derby in 1913. While they entered the Churchill Downs with some of the worst odds against them, Donerail and jockey Roscoe Goose surprised everyone during the last leg of the race and took home the roses. 

This made for one of the most memorable races, because nobody had anticipated such a smooth win by the thoroughbred. The Kentucky Derby win appeared to be seamless, and nobody would have known that Donerail was working against so many bad odds against him and his jockey. 

Genuine Risk

In spite of being a filly, and the odds being against her, Genuine Risk became the second in the Kentucky Derby to win the run for the roses in 1980. To this day, Genuine Risk is one of only three fillies to have won the Kentucky Derby. The others are Regret and Winning Colors, who won their respective races in 1915 and 1988. 


This racer is widely considered to be the most famous horse in Kentucky Derby history. Secretariat made headlines in 1973 when he set the fastest time around the Churchill Downs, which still stands today. 

Not only that, but Secretariat went on to win each event of the Triple Crown that year, after setting record times for each race. This horse truly is an icon in the history of the Kentucky Derby because of his powerful record and speed, which remains unmatched. Secretariat is still considered one of the best racehorses of all time, and it isn’t hard to see why. 

American Pharaoh

2015 was a huge year for this young thoroughbred. American Pharaoh secured the first Triple Crown win in 37 years. This horse is the most recent Triple Crown winners to finish every qualifying event in first place. His closing quarter mile was actually faster than Secretariat’s at the Kentucky Derby. 

Of course, many people know American Pharaoh for bringing a lucky mascot to every event. The thoroughbred had a strong bond with a gray pony known as Smoky, who accompanied the racer to every event. 


Another historical win came from Citation, who was the eighth thoroughbred to win the Triple Crown after his success in the 1948 Kentucky Derby. However, it was the prize money which made Citation so memorable. He was the first horse to make more the $1 million during his career. 

Smarty Jones

2004 was a huge year for this racer, who ended a long streak without an undefeated horse in the Derby. Not only that, but Smarty Jones’ jockey, Stewart Elliot, was the first to win a Kentucky Derby debut since 1979. 

Smarty Jones won the Preakness Stakes as well as the Kentucky Derby that year, and was one of the most memorable horses of this century who set the standard for future generations of thoroughbred racers. For accurate predictions and the latest odds, check out recent odds for 2022 kentucky derby to see how the racers’ predecessors have raised the bar.


This was the twelfth Triple Crown winner who had an intense rivalry with Alydar. The pair competed against each other ten times in total. Affirmed became a record-breaking thoroughbred after he won the 1978 Triple Crown. 

This was only one year after Seattle Slew, which made this the first time that these events have been won back-to-back. The rivalry is recorded in the Kentucky Derby Museum, and Affirmed is one of the first horses to win more than $2 million. 

Seattle Slew

In 1977, the Kentucky Derby was won by Seattle Slew. He then went on to win the Triple Crown after this. Seattle Slew was the tenth horse to win, but the first horse to win undefeated. 

He may have been purchased on the relatively cheap side, but Seattle Slew was anything but. The racer became known for his undefeated career, which is highly impressive to this day. 

Gallant Fox

Gallant Fox was the first horse to win the Triple Crown after it was named, although he was the second to win in the history of the event in 1930. This was truly a monumental occasion for horse racing, and the Kentucky Derby records. 

Although his career was relatively short, Gallant Fox won all three events of the Triple Crown and totaled eleven wins out of the seventeen he competed in. 


Racing runs deep for this racer, who is actually a fifth generation descendant of Secretariat himself. Nyquist is the second to win the Kentucky Derby as an undefeated season champion at two-years old. 2016 saw this powerful racer win the Kentucky Derby by one and a quarter length. 

This was the racer’s last event before retiring, and Nyquist certainly left an impact at the Churchill Downs that year. 


There are so many horses who are a huge part of the Kentucky Derby history, who have helped make the Triple Crown what it is today. Because of this, only a handful of the memorable racers have been highlighted above. 

Thoroughbreds are training hard all the time to improve their speed and stamina. Secretariat’s record time around the Churchill Downs is still being challenged, and it is worth looking out for new racers on the horizon who are proving a threat to this.