Thursday July 9th, 2009

These lists are not mere compilations of all-time bests in their respective sports but all-time bests at quickening the pulse and evoking a visceral response from those fortunate enough to have witnessed their artistry.

10. Man O'War The great chestnut colt raced 21 times in 1917 and 1918, winning all but the '17 Sanford, when he was beaten by Upset (hence the entry of that name into sporting language). By the end of his 3-year-old season, Man O'War had proven so overwhelming he scarcely found competitive opponents. In the racing game, his name continues to signify legendary dominance.

9. Cigar Nothing special early in his career, at age 4 Cigar -- named not for the tobacco product but for an air navigational term -- embarked on a 16-race winning streak that enthralled the sports world. He was not beaten from October, 1994, until late-summer '96. Overflow crowds packed struggling racetracks to watch him run, breathing life into the industry.

8. Funny Cide The 2003 Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner failed to win the Belmont and the Triple Crown, but the saga of his ownership -- in part -- by five high-school buddies from a small town in upstate New York made racing fans believe the common man could take down the bluebloods and royalty who so often dominate the game. If he could win, we all could win.

7. Affirmed and Alydar Their rivalry captivated the U.S. in the spring and summer of 1978. By virtue of their contrasting styles -- Affirmed was fast and nimble; Alydar closed fast -- and the first letters of their names, they created enduring emotion. Affirmed won the Triple Crown, beating Alydar by decreasing margins that culminated in his victory by a head at the Belmont Stakes, regarded as one of the most exciting races in history.

6. Silky Sullivan He will never be mentioned among the great racehorses of the 20th century, but his improbable come-from-behind style made his name synonymous with rallies from all kinds of desperate deficits. He once won a race after trailing by 41 lengths and won the 1958 Santa Anita Derby after falling 28 lengths behind in the first five furlongs. Never near the front early, he was almost closing at the end, bringing crowds to their feet.

5. Steve Cauthen Not a horse, but a jockey and a true riding prodigy. A native of Walton, Ky., Cauthen climbed on his first winner at age 16 and a year later rode 487 of them. He induced the support of that coldest of creatures: the horseplayer. When he sat on a horse's back, he gave it chance to win, no matter its talent. Like Shoemaker and Arcaro before him, he had magic in his small, strong hands and fans felt it with him in every race.

4. Raise A Native The blindingly fast son of Native Dancer won all four of his races as a 2-year-old in 1962, seducing the sport with his speed and potential, breaking track records three times. Charles Hatton, the legendary columnist for The Daily Racing Form once wrote: "Raise a Native worked five furlongs along the Belmont backstretch today. The trees swayed.'' Such was his allure. He ran only those four races before a tendon injury ended his racing career.

3. Seabiscuit His appeal lay in his roots, as so brilliantly chronicled in Laura Hillenbrand's biography. At a time when America suffered (sound familiar?), the 'Biscuit, a physically unimpressive animal of whom little was expected, rose to the highest levels of the game and, at his peak, beat Triple Crown winner War Admiral in a 1938 match race that defined his career and his mythology.

2. Dr. Fager As headstrong and rank as he was fast and tough, the Doctor never was willing to let a jockey control his speed. He won 18-of-22 races from 1966-68, despite battling chronically sore knees and a one-dimensional racing style. He once set a world record for the mile carrying a crushing 134 pounds, and when he was in the starting gate, drama was a certainty.

1. Secretariat Big Red's 1973 Belmont Stakes defines greatness across the long history of the sport. His widening 31-length victory transformed the racetrack into a cathedral of adoration, unlike any other moment in the sport's history. It was not just thrilling, it was epic beyond description. And it came after he set track records in both the Kentucky Derby and Preakness.

Agree or disagree with Layden's selections? Weigh in here.

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