03/09/2011 4:05PM

What Is the World's Greatest Race?


Is there such a thing as the greatest race in the world? Can a single race be placed above all of the others? And if so, what are the criteria to determine which is the greatest?

Let's start with last question first. Obviously, the world's greatest race much be a championship event of the first order, one that determines a national champion, if not a world champion, in a majority of its renewals. In other words, it must be an absolutely first class contest.

Secondly, the race must be set upon the highest stage, at a racecourse which conjures up some notion of glory, through both the memory of past championship events and the natural setting provided by the racecourse itself. To put it more plainly, the race must provide viewers with a spectacle. And it must produce in the memory a "look" that is firmly imprinted on the collective memory of the sporting world.

Some highly perceived races fulfill one or another of these criteria. The Breeders' Cup Classic generally produces the American champion, if not the world champion, but as it is run at a different location most years, it fails on the second count. The greatest race in the world must possess a certain look year-in and year-out, like the Epsom Derby or the Kentucky Derby.

The Dubai World Cup always had that look when it was run at Nad Al Sheba. It is now in the process of building a new reputation for itself at Meydan. But while there have been some truly great runnings of the World Cup like Cigar and Dubai Millennium, there have been too many runnings of the world's richest race taht have resembled low-end Group 1 contests.

Historically speaking, the Epsom Derby, or the Derby Stakes to use its official name, qualifies as a strong candidate for the title. Run in a magnificent amphitheater packed with up to 100,000 people on what is unquestionably the most difficult racecourse in the world, the Epsom Derby laid the foundation for the Thoroughbred breed from its inception in 1780 through the early 19th Century. It even has its own nickname, the Blue Riband of the Turf. The turn for home, Tattenham Corner, is so famous they named the nearby train station after it. But while it has remained a great race since the middle of the 20th Century, world demographics have seen other races restricted to 3-year-olds equal and even surpass it.

One of those Epsom Derby rivals is the Kentucky Derby. With a nickname of its own, the Run for the Roses, with its memorable start tucked away in the upper corner of the track, and a turn into the stretch that is still guaranteed to send chills down the spine, the race well deserves its title of "the most exciting two minutes in sports." But like the Epsom Derby, its reputation for producing national or world champions has waned in recent years with the increasing accent on races for older horses.

For sheer popularity, the Melbourne Cup can hardly be topped. The two-mile marathon at Flemington has long been dubbed as "the race that stops a nation," and for good reason. Melbourne Cup Day, always run on the first Tuesday in November, is a holiday in the state of Victoria. And just like the World Series used to do in America, it provides an excuse for kids throughout Australia to skip school, or office workers to take extended lunches, to see the race on television. On the other hand, it is a handicap that is probably not even the best race in Australia, that honor going to either the Caulfield Cup or the Cox Plate.

We might here mention some other very good races with a look all their own that fail to qualify because of the lack the history or quality required: the Irish Derby, the Prix du Jockey-Club (French Derby), the 2000 Guineas, the Travers Stakes, the Preakness Stakes, the Belmont Stakes. All of these have a distinctive look that adds luster to their inherent quality, as do the Jockey Club Gold Cup, the Arlington Million and, until this year, the Champion Stakes, which, sadly, will be transferred from the highly distinctive straight 10 furlongs of Newmarket to the right-handed course at Ascot this year.

That leaves us with the Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe, a race that not infrequently produces the world Thoroughbred flat champion, and is run in the glorious setting of Longchamp Racecourse a stone's throw from the world's most beautiful city, Paris. The Eiffel Tower peaks over the tops of the trees of the Bois de Boulogne, creating a leafy backdrop on the backstretch. The race begins in the far corner of the track in front of an 17th Century mansion. And the turn into the stretch after coming off what is known as the "false straight" is every bit as exciting as those at Churchill Downs or Epsom.

So the nod for the world's greatest race goes to the Arc. Or does it? While the Arc may well be the world's greatest flat race, it places no better than second when the world's best jump races are taken into account.

Is there a horse race that better fulfills the criteria for sheer specatacle than Aintree's Grand National Steeplechase? Probably not. While Aintree Racecourse is surrounded by some nondescript Liverpudlian homes, the difficulty of the 30 fences that must be manouvered through its grueling 4 1/2 miles make it "A Race Apart", the title of a 1987 Grand National history by Reg Green.

But as a Grade 3 handicap, the Grand National falls at the first in terms of quality, not only when compared to the best flat races, but to another steeplechase as well.

That is the Cheltenham Gold Cup. Run since 1924 at Cheltenham, a magnificently appointed racecourse set in the foothills of the picturesque Cotswolds, the Cheltenham Gold Cup stands alone as the supreme test of jumping quality. Its multiple winners Golden Miller (five times), Cottage Rake, Arkle and Best Mate (three times each) reverberate through history. Other winners like Easter Hero, Dawn Run, Desert Orchid and The Fellow have helped confirm the Gold Cup as an event that more than lives up to the third criteria required of any truly great race: the ability to produce a great story year after year without fail.

On Friday, March 18, they will line up for the 83rd running of the Cheltenham Gold Cup, which is run over 22 fences at a distance of 3 5/16 miles around the most beautiful ground this observor has ever witnessed- in any sport. The backdrop is provided by Cleeve Hill, an impossibly green swathe studded with rocky outcrops, a church steeple here, a farmhouse there, and off to the side a flock of sheep just beginning to fatten up on early spring grass. They go 'round the New Course twice in the Gold Cup, and so must make the arduous climb into the country twice, followed each time by the breakneck race down the hill heading into the stretch, where they will be greeted by a thunderous ovation not heard at Epsom, or Longchamp or Churchill Downs.

The 20th Century's most accomplished trainer Vincent O'Brien saddled four Gold Cup winners, Cottage Rake's triple from 1948 to 1950 plus Knock Hard in 1953. Michael Dickinson made history in 1983 when he trained the first five home. Their names were Bregawn, Captain John, Wayward Lad, Silver Buck and Ashley House. Dawn Run became the only horse to win both the Champion Hurdle and the Gold Cup with her 1986 triumph. In 1989, with the hopes of the British nation riding on his shoulders, the wildly popular gray Desert Orchid battled through rain and snow over a watterlogged course to achieve godlike status. In 1992, Cool Ground, The Fellow, Docklands Express and Carvill's Hill produced a seismic eruption in the grandstand by jumping the final fence in tandem, Cool Ground ultimately prevailing by a short head from The Fellow.

Next Friday, Kauto Star will attempt to make history as he goes after his third Gold Cup title. The 11-year-old is going about it the hard way, however, as he seems to win the race in odd-numbered years only. Successful in 2007 and 2009, he will be challenged by the 2008 winner, his Paul Nicholls-trained stablemate Denman, and the 2010 winner Imperial Commander, who is everyone's antepost favorite. That is the thing about the Gold Cup. It is a race that can produce three different winners of its last four runnings.

As usual, about 70,000 jumping mad racegoers will flock to Cheltenham on the day for the privilege of paying up to $100 just to walk through the gates in what is very often the most miserable weather imagineable. They will travel from London, 120 miles to the east. From across the Irish Sea they will come in droves, all for the honor of being present at the world's greatest horserace: the Cheltenham Gold Cup.




Rob More than 1 year ago
I hope some of you managed to see today's Cheltenahm Gold Cup. A fantastic spectacle won by a true corinthian amateur jockey riding his family-owned horse. In nearly fifty years of watching horse-racing this was one of the best sporting events I've ever witnessed - anywhere. Best wishes from Staffordshie, England. (In Saturday's Daily Mail, no less an authority than Peter Scudamore, eight times the champion jumps rider iin Britain, called it "the best race I have ever seen." Not many would disagree.) AS
Perplexed Punter More than 1 year ago
Alan-- The main criteria for the "Greatest Race" has to be that the champ can defend the crown. So that eliminates all the three-year-old Derbys. You are bang on with the Arc as the greatest flat race. Cheltenham is great because of all the quality that the Festival brings together, but it is still mainly a UK/Irish event. So, given the Arc's true International flavor, it has to be the winner. That being said, the roar that goes up when the Supreme Novices starts the Cheltenham festival is unlike any thing else in horse racing. And, three or four days racing at Kneeland is truly soul restoring. (You misread my blog. In no way did I say that the main criteria for the title of world's greatest race was for a champion to defend its crown. I said that the race must consistently produce a national or international champion and do it in a setting deserving of such a title.)AS
MarilynK More than 1 year ago
Firstly I think comparing jump and flat racing is like apples and oranges but if this quest is to choose the best horse race based on the class of the entries and the setting, should it not also include harness racing? Considering the question as it relates to flat racing, I feel that to be a world championship race, it cannot be restricted to 3 year olds and it needs to have a sizable international entry. Otherwise it is just the greatest 3 year old race or national race of the country in which it is held. The Dubai World Cup is truly an international event and in 15 short years has grown in prestige and stature, attracting an ever increasing number of top class entries from many countries. However, since moving to Meyden and a new Tapeta surface, it remains to be seen if it will continue to attract entries that are used to dirt surfaces. I would rule out the Breeders Cup Classic simply because it does not attract enough of an international entry to be called a World Championship. Thus the winner for me is the Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe. (If we are to include a harness race in the mix, there is no question that the title belongs to the Prix d'Amerique, run in late January at Vincennes, the world's most important trotting track, in eastern Paris. At 1 3/4 miles it is a great antidote to the never ending series of one-mile races on the American harness scene. Trotting in Europe is run at all distances between a mile and beyond 1 3/4 miles. How refreshing! As for the Dubai World Cup, I must take issue. Outside of three or four years (Cigar, Dubai Millennium, Invasor and Curlin), it has not been a world championship event. Moreover, in every year it has been run, there has been a lack of depth in the field. That may change this year, as there appear to be eight or nine first class horses headed to the race, almost all of them most adept on turf, which, by the way, in no way lessens the quality of any race, per se.)AS
MarilynK More than 1 year ago
Alan I think you misunderstood. What I said about the Dubai World Cup was that it is truly an international event. It is therefore, in my opinion, more deserving of the title "World" Cup than races which attract fewer international entries. As far as quality, there have been less than stellar years (i.e. 2001, 2005) but I would not say that the race has lacked depth every year, given the talent of horses like Victory Gallop, Daylami and Silver Charm in 1999 and the fields of the last 3 years. With a few exceptions, it has been consistently improving in quality. It is not surprising that Meydan's Tapeta surface is attracting more turf runners, as it did last year, but I still wonder what effect it will have on entries of dirt runners.
suzanne More than 1 year ago
Good food for thought, Alan. I knew the Champion Stakes was moving to Ascot, but I did not know that at Newmarket it was run on a straight course. Do you know of any resource that gives a description of the course for the major English, French, and Irish Group 1 and Group 2 races? I have a diagram of the race courses, but not for the individual races. Thanks. (Suzanne, You can try my book, Global Racing, The Complete Guide to the Greatest Foreign Racecourses. It not only includes diagrams, but descriptions of how the courses go and a list of all the group races at each major track. It is available through www.drf.com) AS
Bill Daly More than 1 year ago
Undoubtedly this race is one of the ultimate tests of a thoroughbred. Unfortunately, it is all but ignored here in the states. That must change if we are to develop a less parochial view of horseracing here. I wish that the classic races from all over the world were promoted more here. It might help people understand there is a lot more to racing than the Kentucky Derby and Breeder's Cup. Thanks for this article.
Larry Ensor More than 1 year ago
Alan, bit disappointed that the Maryland Hunt Cup was not given honorable mention. It has attracted crowds so large that unfortunately tickets had to be restricted some years back. And there is only 1 race on the card. Run for over 100 years and at has been at the same course since 1922 and the only thing that has changed is a few trees, more or less and the road dividing the race course is now paved. Timber jump racing is all American.
Gerry from Miami More than 1 year ago
Thank you for a wonderful article on The Greatest Race in the World. I agree absolutely with Alan's choice. Having been to Cheltenham a few times for the Gold cup I was reminded of the best "buzz" I have ever had at a race track. The crowd enlivened by the invasion of the Irish (with not a few priests among them) are the most knowledgeable and enthusiastic racegoers one could ever hope to meet and the roar as the horses clear the last fence is heart stopping. Better than any country's Derby.
henge More than 1 year ago
Alan, I love Cheltenham and I love the Cheltenham Gold Cup. I've been a couple of times, watched it many more and I agree it provides exquisite memories. But for me, Cheltenham is about the Festival as a whole. It's about the anticipation of a series of championship races over several days. It's about the roar of the crowd as the First race starts on the First day. It's about the running tally of UK vs Irish winners and the jovial enthusiasm of everybody at the course throughout. I would think many of the racegoers during the Festival go there with a favourite race in mind, but I don't think that race is always the Gold Cup, wonderful though it is. For that reason, and because I believe it does not quite have the broad, international (ie outside UK and Ireland), widespread recognition that some other top global races have, it would not strike me as the greatest race in the world. Sadly that would necessarily write off all other jumps/National Hunt races for the simple reason that too many racegoers from the major racing nations worldwide just are not really into it. While loyalties are arguably fairly evenly divided between flat and jump-racing in UK and Ireland (and to a lesser extent France), the same cannot be said for the US, Japan, Hong Kong, Singapore, South Africa, Australia, New Zealand, South America etc., where flat racing rules. Having said all that, I would make space for Aintree's Grand National in my top 5, as I think if there is one jump race that has major international, it is that. What a roller-coaster ride it is! My top 5 (6!):- 1. The Arc (by a distance) 2. BC Classic 3. Grand National 4. Melbourne Cup 5= Kentucky Derby & Epsom Derby (You're absolutely right, Henge. The Cheltenham Festival is the best 3 or 4-day racing festival in the world. The atmosphere is unparalleled.)AS
Alice More than 1 year ago
Alan, as a British racing fan, I've really enjoyed reading your articles. I appreciate that the media cater to and report on events that are more salient to their readers, but I've often be disappointed on the limited of European racing coverage by USA based reports. Especially when they usually neglect to report on a huge part of the sport in National Hunt racing. I do agree with the sentiment expressed by some that there is no greatest race, as the sport is too diverse for all to compete equally in a single race. Certainly the Gold Cup is one of the greatest tests the modern thoroughbred can experience, it requires jumping prowess, stamina, speed, class and courage to win, but there have been some lesser lights that have pulled it off. Think Norton's Coin the year after Dessie! To a couple of the disgruntled American posters above, no one is belittling your races by claiming the Gold Cup to be the greatest race. Everyone has an opinion in this sport, and many people feel that racing round an flat, left handed oval is less of a test than an undulating course with a sharp down hill run before a stamina sapping climb to the finish. To KY Crusader, every American trainer with a decent dirt 3 yo wants to win the Kentucky Derby, just as every British trainer with a decent 3 yo colt wants to win the Epsom Derby, and every NH trainer with a decent chaser wants to win the Gold Cup. BTW, many of the races are up on Youtube. Sadly not Kauto Star's Gold Cups for some reasons, but check out the 2009 King George Chase to get an idea of his ability. Best.
Andy Glen, NYC More than 1 year ago
Thanks for the excellent article Alan - I had the pleasure of travelling to Cheltenham almost 10 years ago and I can completely endorse everything written. It is an experience which any horse racing fan should try to get to see at least once and the wall of noise which builds as the runners drop down the side and then hits the leaders as they meet the hill to the huge grandstands is something which is impossible to forget. For anyone interested in watching Desert Orchid's Gold Cup which Alan mentions, there is a Youtube link below. It's a race that I only came to appreciate retrospectively but loses nothing for that. A display of astonishing bravery and class from a great racehorse in barely raceable conditions on a track where he was never at his best. Oh, and one of the all-time great racecalls. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GcCuIVn6egM&feature=related
Harvey W More than 1 year ago
Hi Mr. Shuback! Besides of Breeder's Cup in the state, I don't see anything more excited than playing races from Australia, England, Ireland and France. U.S. have lots of lower than par races, I'm not talking about the field size, the quality of horse in the state is cut below than 15 years ago. When you talking about turf racing, I don't see any good stock from U.S., mostly we still, still see great grass runner from Europe. I'm not quite comfort to play races from U.S., these couple years I turn my attention to foreign races. Thanks for your great book two years ago - GLOBAL RACING hope to see you have any updates of the Meydan race track in the book, looking forward to see your expert handicapping for the upcoming Dubai World Cup night, the question mark " Will there be any other horse much better than TWICE OVER entering in that race? " Thanks very much, Alan!
Al P. More than 1 year ago
When debating which is the greatest race in the world, I feel the first criteria should be is to determine whether or not anyone has even heard of the race. I can assure you that 90% of us from “across the pond” and in many other parts of the world, have never heard of the Cheltenham Gold Cup nor would we accept the privilege of walking through the gates if we were given $100 to do so, even in fantastic weather. No offense to fans of steeplechase racing but in my opinion, that’s a different sport to begin with and cannot be compared to flat racing. People all over the world can argue whether the greatest race in the world is the Kentucky Derby or the Breeders Cup Classic or the Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe or the Epsom Derby or possibly a few others but to suggest that the greatest race in the world is something called the Cheltenham Gold Cup is a big stretch. If your article was meant to be a joke, it went over my head, and if so, boy do I feel silly for my response. (I take it that you are an American who has never been outside of the United States. As a result, I should suggest that you are not entitled to partake in the argument. Provincial attitudes like yours are what's killing racing in America.)AS
John More than 1 year ago
Alan, There IS no world's greatest race. End of story. Any attempt to promote any of Europe's best races are biased from your 'rose colored glasses' point of view. And please, Paris is NOT the world most beautiful city. Tell that to the multitude of Muslims that have tried to blend into the society there. Dude, you really need to rid yourself of this arrogant European attitude. But, if I had to guess as the "world's greatest race" - presently it would be the BC Classic. (My opinions stem from watching racing in this country since 1957, watching racing throughout the rest of the world-in person- since 1983, plus research into the worldwide history of the sport. What's you excuse?)AS
junie wise More than 1 year ago
Alan, Since I was born about 2 miles from Churchill Downs you know what race "I" think is the"Greatest". But since I always read your columns,you might be right!!!....Do you know how one can watch this race in the States???....I would like to watch it and all that goes with it. Lets get "Lucky" Junie Wise Rineyville,Ky (The Cheltenham Gold Cup will be televised on HRTV on Friday, March 18. The race ususally goes off at about 3:10pm British time, which will be 10:10am EST.)AS
ross darley More than 1 year ago
may i ask sir are you american. if so i ask is it unusual for an american to laud our top european races. i am also glad that you mentioned national hunt racing in this blog because in europe it is not seen as inferior racing to the flat.national hunt and flat racing are every bit as equal over here.it's a pity that all the race courses in america are the same as i think american race fans would love national hunt racing. regards ross......... (Yes, I am an American, Ross. My first experience of jump racing in England came in 1989 when Desert Orchid won the Gold Cup. That remains the single greatest horse race I have ever witnessed, a veritable Greek odyssey. Yes, it is a pity that virtually all North American flat racecourses are the same, Belmont, the Woodbine turf course, the Santa Anita turf course and Kentucky Downs the only ones offering a test different from the usual level, left-handed ovals with painfully short stretches. In the long run, the cookie-cutter aspect of American racetracks have had a deleterious effect on the breed, as they strongly favor close coupled types over long striding gallopers.)AS
KY Crusader 75 More than 1 year ago
I very much enjoyed the article and wish I could see even a few of the races cited. I cannot imagine a race to equal, let alone surpass, the Kentucky Derby. It's the race everyone wants to win, and you only get one chance at it.