5 Most Iconic American Horse Races

With a storied history that dates back over 4000 years, horse racing has captured the imagination of spectators and gambling enthusiasts since ancient times. Introduced to the new world by British settlers during colonial times, it’s had a rich history in the US for centuries.

In that time, horse racing events have become grander and more prestigious. Today, there are now a plethora of major horse races that take place in the US that are recognized as world-class events. In no particular order, here’s a look at the five most iconic races among them. 

  1. Kentucky Derby 

The Kentucky Derby has become a world-famous race. Often counted among the most lucrative races for gamblers, the Derby has grown in popularity as online horse racing platforms have become more successful. According to betting expert Lewis Humphries, 30 US states have legalized online gambling for horse racing, with over $12 billion bet on events stateside in 2022. 

The popularity of online betting on horses has grown exponentially, with the numbers expected to continue rising. Per the official stats of the iconic Churchill Downs track, over $210 million was bet on Mystik Dan alone in 2024’s Kentucky Derby. As the winning horse in the Kentucky Derby, Dan became the 150th winner of the famous race, against closing odds of 18 – 1.  

It’s that kind of unexpected drama that’s given the Derby its legendary reputation. Affectionately known as “The Run for the Roses”, the race happens every year in May. Its long and famous history has seen countless iconic moments down the years, with the event playing host to some of the greatest horses and jockeys to ever participate in the sport. The first leg of the famous Triple Crown of horse racing, and rich in tradition since 1875, the race is known for the elaborate hats worn by spectators, and is a 1.25-mile race for three-year-old thoroughbreds. 

  1. Preakness Stakes 

Taking place just two weeks after the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness Stakes is known as the second jewel of the Triple Crown. It takes place annually at the Pimlico Race Course in Baltimore and is usually run on the third Sunday in May. Also a thoroughbred race, this one is a 6.5 furlong (13/16 mile) race that has been run since 1873. 

Traditions include spectators enjoying a Black-Eyed Susan, the official cocktail of the Stakes, and reveling in the fun and boisterous atmosphere that usually pervades the course on race day. Another significant event associated with the race is the “Alibi Breakfast”, a get-together for jockeys, trainers, members of the media, and horse owners who meet to discuss race events and the prospects ahead. 

Named after the colt Preakness, who won the Dinner Party Stakes on the day the course opened back in 1870, the event has a rich heritage behind it. As one of the oldest and most prestigious US horse race events around, it’s seen some dramatic races over the years and has played a large part in the fortune of many jockeys, horses, trainers, owners, and punters alike in that time. 

  1. The Belmont Stakes 

The Belmont Stakes is the final jewel in the Triple Crown and another US horse racing event that has become iconic over the years. It features a long and taxing 1.5-mile run, which makes it the longest race of the Triple Crown. Given its grueling nature, the Belmont Stakes is a test of a horse’s endurance as much as its speed. 

Back in 1973, the now legendary horse Secretariat, set an astounding record when he won the race by a staggering 31 lengths. Finishing in 2 minutes and 24 seconds, it’s a record that still stands to this day. As the last race of the Triple Crown, taking first at Belmont Stakes after winning the first two jewels forever cements a horse as an icon. 

In the Triple Crown’s history, there have so far been only 13 horses to hold that distinction — a feat achieved most recently by Justify in 2018. Taking place at the beautiful and sweeping Belmont Park course in New York, the race has traditionally been held there since 1905.

Typically held on the first or second Saturday in June, this provides for a longer rest period after the Preakness Stakes, which comes in handy given the physical demands of the Belmont. 

It features traditions like renditions of “New York, New York” being sung by the crowd before the race and the floral blanket of white carnations that gets draped on the winner. The Belmont Stakes has its own unique atmosphere and heritage that has made it one of the most highly anticipated and iconic horse races in the US. 

  1. The Breeders’ Cup 

While the Triple Crown races are known for being specialized races for three-year-old horses, the Breeders’ Cup is a race that is open to various age groups. Consisting of various races over two days, it typically features up to 14 races. Covering a variety of different race distances and surfaces, the races have a unique appeal to certain kinds of horses and jockeys. 

They include sprints and long-distance, with runs taking place both on turf and dirt surfaces. The array of races means that all kinds of horses, including colts, fillies, mares, and juveniles can all participate in one or another of the races. Featuring a truly global line-up of horses, trainers, owners, and jockeys, the event is known for having a rotating venue, and high stakes that see the feature race boast a $6 million purse. With those kinds of stakes, it’s been known to attract top competitors and high-end punters who drop a pretty penny to wager on races. 

With the massive worldwide appeal of online gambling growing all the time, sports punters and horse racing enthusiasts have far more ways to access great odds on races like the Breeders’ Cup. Even for gamblers who prefer a more private experience, there are now crypto platforms and other online services like those offered at anonymous casino sites that dispense with KYC policies and provide anonymity for players. Given how much more accessible such events are to online punters now, in addition to how iconic the Breeders’ Cup is, it’s also become one of the most lucrative races around. 

  1. The Travers Stakes

One of the most prestigious horse races in the US, the Travers Stakes is also known as the “Mid-Summer Derby”. It was first held in 1864, giving it one of the oldest heritages of any American horse race, even making it older than any of the Triple Crown events. It takes place annually at the Saratoga Race Course in Springs, New York.

Run over 1.25 miles, it features three-year-olds but is open to both colts and fillies. The winner of the race gets a replica of the iconic gold trophy, a beautifully crafted award that was designed by Tiffany & Co. Previous winners of the Travers Stakes include some of the most famous horses in history, such as Triple Crown winners like Whirlaway. Rich in history and heritage, this race includes a tradition of painting a canoe in the colors of the winning owner’s stable. 

Conclusion

Horse racing in the USA has a long, vibrant, and lucrative history steeped in tradition and prestige. Some of the most iconic races run annually in the States include the legendary Triple Crown, which is made up of the Kentucky Derby, The Preakness Stakes, and the Belmont Stakes. Other prestigious races include the Breeders’ Cup and the Travers Stakes. Each event is steeped in traditions and unique atmospheres that attract the best horses and riders around.