Jim Wofford on the Greatest Horses of All Time

In the April 2008 issue of Practical Horseman, veteran eventing coach and Olympian Jim Wofford lists the horses he thinks are the best of all time. Here are some others that 'almost' made his list.

William Steinkraus and Bold Minstrel | Photo courtesy, USET Foundation Archives

There are other great horses I have left off my list, and I am sure you will have some different names on your list. But that is OK, because if you ask two different horsemen a question, you will get three different opinions. I was sad to leave Merely A Monarch off my list. I watched him jump two 5-foot white gates set 60 feet apart taking only three strides in between. For those of you still trying to work out the math, that’s one less stride than normal, and at 5 feet as well! It is not just that he did it, it is how easy it was for him, and how round he was over both fences. He was the first horse to win Badminton and Burghley in the same year, and went on to show jump for England with Anneli Drummond-Hay for years.

Bold Minstrel was on the eventing team in the 1964 Olympics at Tokyo, with Mike Plumb aboard. They brought home a silver team medal. Bold Minstrel was the easiest keeper you ever saw, and had the affectionate stable name of “Fatty.” A 16.3-hand gray gelding, Fatty was a Percheron-Thoroughbred cross. Before he went in the Olympics he had won the Working Hunter Championship and the Conformation Hunter Championship at Madison Square Garden–at the same time. After his Olympic eventing career, he went show jumping for the U.S. Equestrian Team, ridden by the legendary Bill Steinkraus.

It takes something special to make me wear a white tie and tails to a horse show, but the old Garden was special. I was willing to dress up like the Phantom of the Opera to watch quality show jumping. It was even more special when Bill Steinkraus came out of the corner next to me on his way to a 6-foot 7-inch puissance wall. With his uncanny eye for a distance, Bill saw a steady seven strides to a deep distance. This is just what you want when you are about to jump a big puissance wall. Unfortunately, Fatty saw a going six, grabbed the bit and opened up his stride. The book will tell you that you can’t jump that big a fence from that big a stride, but Fatty left it standing, much to Bill’s relief. Bold Minstrel was a great one, you just might not have heard much about him.

What about other horses? What about steeplechase great Jay Trump or show-jumper Touch of Class? Reiner Klimke’s dressage horse Aherlich? Legendary steeplechaser-turned-show-jumper Von Csadek? Any list of great horses would stretch on for quite a ways. I could go on for hours.

Certainly, there have been great horses in every aspect of the horse world. I still think that when Secretariat made his move at the top of the stretch in the Belmont to win the Triple Crown, he defined equine greatness. I was watching television with a boisterous, knowledgeable crowd of horsemen that afternoon. We were standing in the shade of the oak trees at the Upperville show grounds. A black-and-white TV had been plugged into the announcer’s stand at the in-gate to the main arena. There was the usual horseman’s chatter throughout the race, and a fair amount of noise, but when jockey Ron Turcotte put his hands down and Big Red began to pull away from a quality field, the crowd fell silent. Not a word was said until after Secretariat started to pull up. That must be the greatest compliment: A group of expert horsemen were struck speechless by sheer compelling, dominating excellence.

Equix Biomechanics (a company in Lexington, Ky., that conducts biometrical analyses of Thoroughbreds) says that 2006 Preakness Stakes winner Bernardini had a 26.5 foot stride, while Secretariat had a 24.8 stride. On paper, this means that Bernardini would beat Secretariat. However, if you look at Secretariat’s “splits” (his time per furlong) in the Belmont, you don’t see how any horse in the world could beat him. Still, that’s why they have horse races.

To find out which three horses made Jim’s list of top eventing horses of all time, see the April 2008 issue of Practical Horseman magazine. Have your own opinions on who should make a list of the top horses of all time? Chat about it in the Practical Horseman forum.

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