A 'Nasty' Challenge For Ruffian

If you ask someone to pick out one memorable victory by Ruffian they would have a hard time singling one out. That is because Ruffian’s career was not made up of one or two standout performances. Each one was equally as brilliant and that is why her career, as brief as it was, is remembered as an accumulation of spectacular processions.

To those who saw her run, and even those who have marveled at her through videos of her races, she was “The Black Stallion” disguised as a female who seemed out of place competing against Lilliputian rivals, all of whom were dwarfed and intimidated by her.

A total of 59 brazen fillies dared to challenge her, but she treated them all with disdain – all but one, which we will get into shortly.

Although it’s been almost 40 years since she last ran, Ruffian’s legend continues to grow and she remains the standard by which all great fillies are measured. Her name still evokes images of a larger than life Thoroughbred who has become more of a state of mind.

I will never forget being at Belmont Park on May 22, 1974. In the third race, a 5 1/2-furlong maiden special event for 2-year-old fillies, I was intrigued by a first-time starter by Reviewer, trained by the great Frank Whiteley (who trained my beloved Damascus). Named Ruffian, she was breaking from post 9 in a field of 10, which was not ideal, with such a short run into the far turn. I thought she was an overlay at 4-1 and was prepared to bet her when my friend and Daily Racing Form colleague Jack Zaraya talked me into taking a shot with a 30-1 shot owned by C.V. Whitney. A sucker for a price horse, I changed my mind and bet the Whitney filly.

Ruffian exploded out of the gate and quickly was three in front, then five in front. As I bemoaned by stupid decision, Jack uttered the words that I have thrown back at him numerous times over the years. “A half in :45!” he bellowed. “Don’t worry, she’s got to stop.”

She stopped all right…to the tune of 15 lengths, equaling the track record. You don’t see 2-year-old fillies equaling track records at Belmont Park in their career debut.

But as we were to learn, this was no ordinary filly. She would go on to compete in eight stakes during her career, at seven different distances from 5 1/2 furlongs to 1 1/2 miles, and amazingly set or equaled a stakes record in all of them. In her 10 career victories, including a sweep of the NYRA Filly Triple Crown, her average margin of victory was an astounding 8 1/2 lengths.

Let’s turn the clocks back even further. Whiteley, in 1973, stabled his horses at the Camden Training Center in Camden, S.C. over the winter. When I visited there in June, 2000, the training center had been deserted for almost two months. Whiteley by then had a 176-acre farm about seven miles outside Camden. The stillness and quiet of the Camden barn area was interrupted by the occasional song of a wood thrush. Whiteley drove up a narrow dirt road and pointed out a barn just ahead and slightly off to the left. In front of it, across the road, was an empty patch of grass where another of his barns once stood before burning down in the late 1970s, killing 10 of his horses.

As Whiteley drove past his old barn that still remained, he pointed his finger toward it and said, “Ruffian stood right there in stall 4. That was her stall when she came to me as a yearling in November until we brought her to the track the following April. And it was her stall when she came back here the following winter after her 2-year-old campaign.

“It’s just an empty stall now, but there are memories, that’s for sure.” That was as nostalgic as Whiteley would get, and even that short comment contradicted his usual crustiness. When I went into his house and saw a VHS tape that was labeled, “Ruffian’s Races” sitting atop his television,  I asked Whiteley about it and he said he hasn’t been able to watch her races for years.

“Is it too tough to watch?” I asked.

“Hell no,” he shot back. “I don’t know how to work the goddamn VCR.”

As we continued to drive through the training center, Whiteley did think back to the morning when he worked Ruffian three furlongs from the gate with another promising, fast filly named Lady Portia. Another of Whiteley’s fillies, named Yankeee Law, had just concluded her morning exercise. But instead of leaving through the gap, her rider decided to stand by the outside rail and watch the two brilliant young fillies work.

As they came charging down the stretch together, Yankee Law began backing up toward the inside rail, right in the path of the oncoming pair. Lady Portia collided with Yankee Law, sending both their riders crashing to the ground. Miraculously, no one was seriously hurt, with Lady Portia the only casualty, suffering a concussion and a bloody nose.

Ruffian, meanwhile, never batted an eye through the entire incident and continued the final eighth of the work on her own. Despite all the turmoil and losing her workmate, she still worked her three furlongs in a blazing :33 flat. Demonstrating that kind of incredible speed and professionalism at such a young age was the first indication that Whiteley had something very special on his hands. She had come within inches of disaster, but instead bounded away unscathed and into history.

Whiteley actually had fallen in love with the Reviewer filly the first time he saw her as a yearling at Claiborne Farm, shortly before she was sent to him at Camden. Whiteley knew he was about to unleash a running machine, and he would wait until 9:30 or 10 o’clock before taking Ruffian out to the track for training. He wanted to make sure no one was around except his help. This was one horse he was intent on keeping under wraps until it was time to send her up to New York.

“You knew damn well the word would get out on her,” he said.

After bringing her to New York, Whitelely made sure she did not work a half any faster than :50. And he did little talking about her. He didn’t even put a pair of shoes on her until the morning of her first race. She had breezed with nothing on her feet her whole life.

As Whiteley said, “Hell, she came into the world bare-footed. Even though they pick up five or six lengths with shoes on, they stay sound longer without them.”

After Ruffian blew her opposition away in her career debut, she went into the grade III Fashion Stakes against Cragwood Stable’s one-eyed speedster Copernica, who had won both her starts by a total of 19 3/4 lengths. Copernica ran her heart out, but was no match for the speed and power of Ruffian, who won under a hand ride by almost seven lengths, equaling her own track record for 5 1/2 furlongs.

Then came the grade III Astoria Stakes and another seemingly formidable challenger in the brilliantly fast Laughing Bridge. But it was the same story, as Ruffian crushed her rival by nine lengths, this time breaking her track record by a fifth of a second (in 1:02 4/5).

Ruffian’s next start, the six-furlong, grade I Sorority Stakes at Monmouth Park, seemed like a mere formality. But three days after her victory in the Astoria, a new phenom emerged on the scene in the Hollywood Lassie Stakes.

Hot n Nasty, a miniscule daughter of Reflected Glory, out of Lady Maggie, by Poona II, had broken her maiden at Monmouth by 13 lengths, and like Ruffian, her time of 1:03 3/5 equaled the track record.  In her next start, the Schuylkill Stakes at Liberty Bell Racetrack, she galloped home by 12 lengths in a near track record 1:04 3/5 over a dead racetrack.

In a bold move, trainer Gordon Potter shipped her out West for the Hollwood Lassie Stakes, where she would face the fastest filly in California, Miss Tokyo, who had won her three lifetime starts by a total of 21 1/2 lengths. But Hot n Nasty ran her opponents into the ground with a :44 4/5 half, while opening a six-length lead at the eighth pole. She went into cruise control the rest of the way, winning eased up by three lengths in a blistering 1:09 flat.

Now, it was time for this Mighty Mite to take on the Black Terror in the Sorority Stakes. Something had to give. Hot n Nasty had the advantage of having already run and won at six furlongs. But Whiteley continued to give Ruffian short, fast works. It was quite a sight seeing Ruffian work half-miles in :45 flat and :46 flat without even raising a sweat. Hot n Nasty, on the other hand, drilled a sharp five furlongs in :59 3/5 at Monmouth.

Back then it was common practice to blow a horse out three furlongs the day before a race, and Ruffian zipped her three panels in :34 4/5, while Hot n Nasty went in :35 3/5.

A crowd of 26,133 showed up at the Jersey Shore to witness this epic showdown. Only two others, Wee bit of Irish and Stream Across dared to show up. At the start, Ruffian broke a step slowly, as Darrell McHargue gunned Hot n Nasty to the lead on the outside. Ruffian gathered herself and quickly was at Hot n Nasty’s throat. It wasn’t until Ruffian opened a one-length lead that the crowd realized what a physical mismatch this was.

Instead of two big powerful fillies battling each other for supremacy in their division, it looked more like a yearling trying to keep up with a hulking stallion. But little Hot n Nasty was keeping up with Ruffian through a torrid quarter in :21 3/5. Around the far turn, Jacinto Vasquez, on Ruffian, could see that this pesky little filly wasn’t going away, and that one of Ruffian’s biggest weapons – intimidation – wasn’t working.

He urged Ruffian on with quick pumps of his wrists, but Hot n Nasty moved up alongside. When she did it was as if she had vanished into thin air, hidden behind Ruffian’s massive frame. You could not tell she was even there.

As they turned for home, the star-spotted head of Hot n Nasty emerged, and for a second, seemed to inch ahead of Ruffian, who was beginning to bear out slightly. The half was run in a brutal :44 1/5. Something had to give.

Vasquez then did something he had never done nor would he ever do again to Ruffian. He gave her a short crack of the whip over her right shoulder. Ruffian’s head was back in front. Another crack and it was a neck in front, but the little filly kept battling back. Ruffian, who went through virtually her entire career without having to change leads, switched to her right lead, but still couldn’t pull away. Three more whacks of the whip, and finally, inside the sixteenth pole, Ruffian began to shake loose.  In a few strides, she was clear and home free.

Despite the struggle, Ruffian kept her head high and ears pricked the entire stretch run. She gave one final spurt late to cross the wire 2 1/2 lengths in front in a stakes-record 1:09 flat. The other two fillies were mere specks in the distance. Officially, Stream Across was 22 lengths back in third.

One can look at the Sorority as Ruffian’s least impressive performance, while others can look at it as one her best performances, because she showed her courage under fire for the only time in her career. To boost her performance, the following morning Ruffian was “coughing like hell,” as Whiteley put it, and was running a fever. Whitelely recalled that the night before the race, Ruffian was pawing at the ground all night and “tore her stall up."  Her cough was so bad and so persistent it looked as if she was not going to make the grade I Spinaway Stakes. Vasquez recalled that he believed Ruffian also popped a splint in the race.

But not only did she make the six-furlong Spinaway, she destroyed Laughing Bridge, who had already romped in two stakes at Saratoga, winning by 12 3/4 lengths in a scorching 1:08 3/5. But she was injured preparing for the Frizette Stakes and was out the remainder of the year.

History shows that Ruffian returned even better at 3, winning an allowance race, the Comely, Acorn, Mother Goose, and 1 1/2-mile Coaching Club American Oaks.

While Ruffian would go to blaze a path into racing folklore, little Hot n Nasty, without whom Ruffian’s courage under fire would never have been witnessed, would never be the same again. Although she did win a couple of stakes, including a division of the Test Stakes at 3, she had ankle problems and eventually slipped quietly into obscurity, winning two of her final 13 starts, all in allowance company. After producing two foals at owner Dan Lasater’s farm in Ocala, she died of cancer of the lymph glands at the age of 9. She will always be remembered by those who were there as the only filly to put a scare in the great Ruffian.

Following Ruffian’s victory in the CCA Oaks, NYRA was forced to cancel its proposed $300,000 “Race of Champions,” between Kentucky Derby winner Foolish Pleasure, Preakness winner Master Derby, and Belmont winner Avatar when Avatar’s connections decided not to travel east from California. Monmouth Park, meanwhile, had proposed a $400,000 match race between Ruffian and Foolish Pleasure. But when NYRA offered to change its original concept to a match race between the same two horses, Ruffian’s owner Stuart Janney accepted, much to the dismay of Whiteley.

Janney actually was not overly thrilled with the idea either, but he called Whiteley and said, “Frank, we’re going to have to do something one of these days and I’d rather do it in New York.” Whiteley balked at it, but Janney told him he felt obligated because the media and the public wanted to see it.

Whiteley felt there wasn’t a horse in the country who could beat Ruffian, and he was thinking ahead more to the fall when he’d get the chance to “whip ‘ol Forego’s (butt).”

There was a strange feeling in the air that afternoon of July 6, whether it was something foreboding I can’t really say. The media was having a field day with the match race and you could feel the excitement and tension all afternoon.

I went to the backstretch and followed Ruffian through the tunnel to the paddock. As she walked down the ramp leading to the tunnel, Whiteley was in front of her and I was behind her. I took a photo, which has gotten lost over the years, of Whiteley turning his head back and looking down at Ruffian’s legs. That photo became too disturbing and I stopped looking at it after a while.

In all my years following racing, I had never seen or heard of a top horse breaking down, and the thought of a horse suffering a fatal injury and having to be euthanized never crossed my mind.

So, when Ruffian was pulled up down the backstretch, it seemed at first surreal, and for a split second I thought Vasquez had simply eased her back off Foolish Pleasure and let him go, because the pace was so brutal. Foolish Pleasure wound going the half in :44 3/5 and three-quarters in 1:08 3/5, unheard of in a 1 1/4-mile race.

Whiteley watched the race with Janney and knew right away it was bad. He said he was too numb to think about anything except getting down to her. When he got to the track the guards wouldn’t let him on because Foolish Pleasure still hadn’t crossed the finish line. Veterinarian Jim Prendergast was at the gap and drove Whiteley to his stricken filly on the backstretch. Whiteley could see right away the fracture was compound, and when he saw all the dirt ground in there, he told Janney later, “We haven’t got a shot.”

No one in the stands knew how serious the injury was and I went to sleep that night not knowing Ruffian’s fate. It wasn’t until the following morning that I heard on the radio that the great filly had been euthanized. It was so hard to accept. For me, the age of innocence in racing was over.

Ruffian had come out of the anesthesia flailing her legs in all directions. Two men had to sit on her head trying to hold her down. But she threw the cast off, and all that was left to do was operate again or put her out of her misery. Dr. Alex Harthill called Janney, who was staying with the Phippses, and Janney told him, “Don’t let her suffer anymore.”  

Dr. Edward Keefer, a cardiovascular surgeon at New York Hospital, was an innovator in his field, setting up the first transplant bank for human blood vessels, and was profiled in the New York Times Magazine, and even though he was not a veterinarian he helped save the life of Hoist the Flag and devised the first artificial leg for a horse, the top-class sprinter Spanish Riddle. Keefer was at Ruffian’s surgery and designed and built her cast. Keefer used to fox hunt with Cynthia Phipps, who knew about his miraculous work with Spanish Riddle. Phipps introduced him to her uncle, Stuart Janney, who said he would appreciate any help he could get with Ruffian’s surgery.

Keefer made the cast and put in on her leg following the surgery, but she kicked it right off after coming out of anesthesia. She had been given tranquilizers, but they couldn’t control her for very long.

“It was unfortunate we were in a learning period at the time,” Keefer said prior to his death in 2000 at age 84. “Vets are really doing a hell of a job now and have improved tremendously in their knowledge and how to handle these catastrophic occurrences. As for Ruffian breaking the cast, the vets didn’t have the equipment and the drugs they have now. They have much better tranquilizers, and the anesthesia is more sophisticated.”

Later that night, Ruffian was buried in the infield at Belmont Park. There were only four or five people there – Whiteley, assistant Mike Bell, Vasquez and Bill Rudy of the New York Post.

“They covered her up and Mike went down into the grave and put two blankets on her,” Whiteley recalled. “I was afraid the damn grave was going to cave in on him. The next day was tough, but what the hell, I had to go on. I never thought it would have the impact it has for so many years, but she was in a lot of people’s hearts.”

That was 39 years ago today and Ruffian is still in a lot of people’s hearts, and there she will remain, forever equaling and breaking records; a gust of wind that blew through the Sport of Kings all too briefly.

Walter Farley in describing The Black Stallion, could easily have been describing Ruffian – “You've never in your life seen a horse run so fast! He's all power-all beauty.” 

View a slideshow of Ruffian's career.


Leave a Comment:

dance with fate

Ruffian should be remembered for the beauty and brilliance of her young life and not defined by tragedy.  Yet I cried then & still cry.  "..loss is made endurable by love.  And it is love that will echo through eternity."  (from a reference to the music 'The Swan' by Saint-Saens)  Will keep your quote that she is "all power - all beauty" close at hand to bring a smile through the tears. Love you always Ruffian. Shine on forever.

07 Jul 2014 8:11 PM

Against my better judgement, I read this anyway.  I'll never forget my 11 year old heart breaking that summer. She is the standard that all fillies will always be compared to......If one has to read anything so sad and tragic, let it be in the words of you, Steve.... You have a way of putting a smile of rememberance on a face wet with tears........

07 Jul 2014 8:27 PM

Thank you for this recap of a truly great filly.  You cannot say her name, or think of her name "Ruffian" and not remember her power, beauty, and being true to her breeding.  Had to cry when fate intervened.  I lived in Camden, SC not to far from Mr. Whiteley's training farm, and was able to go there and watch few horses work out for another trainer.  Nice fields to gallop with up and down risers.  

07 Jul 2014 8:50 PM

Tomorrow at Keeneland at Welfare & Safety of Racehorses Summit Dr.Bramlage will present on "Training and Bone Development of Racehorses".He will make it clear, as he and other research vets have done numerous times before that early 2yo's can easily be trained in a way that greatly strengthens their bones. I predict this will go largely unreported again, and trainers will continue to train 2yo's for cardio instead of bone, as they have for 50+ years, and the Ruffians and Barbaros and thousands more of these magnificant animals will continue to perish on the track unnecessarily. The ignorant owners are to blame as well, of course, but big people in racing who claim to care about the welfare of these horses don't care enough, or something would be done about this fatal abuse. The horses surely deserve much, much, much better.

07 Jul 2014 8:52 PM

Mr. Haskin:

I was at the track that unfortunate day. I was a college student at the time and had been following Ruffian's meteoric career from inception. I told my wife we are going to the track to see Ruffian beat Foolish Pleasure. for some reason I decided to call an aunt that lived in Long Island and asked her if she wanted to go with us even though she had never been at a racetrack before. To my surprise she said yes and we picked her up on our way  to the track. During the drive to Belmont I briefed her about the race and told her about how beautiful Ruffian was. She was really excited. When Ruffian came to the track she was looking around and seem to be saying you all came to see me"  

07 Jul 2014 8:53 PM

Great article as always.I wish NY RADIO would make a statue of Ruffian similar to the one of Secretariat in the paddock.The statue should be when you walk into the entrance at Belmont.Unearth her remains and put the remain under the statue.There should be a nice flat screen TV showing all her races so all future and current fans can enjoy her greatness!

07 Jul 2014 9:01 PM

I was blessed to see her race once, in the Mother Goose. I was a teen and passionate about racing. Her death completely devastated me. I have a huge poster of her hanging on my wall even now and I know in my heart that I will never see a horse greater than she was. She will always burn bright.

07 Jul 2014 9:07 PM

Hello camarero58, as our disclaimer by the Submit Comment button states, all comments for our blogs are automatically sent to moderation, unpublished.

07 Jul 2014 9:08 PM

Ruffian was the first horse I ever bought books and DVDs about.  I've read Jane Schwartz's Burning From the Start twice and cried through it both times. Ruffian was like no other to me. "All power - all beauty" perfectly describes her. Thank you for writing this wonderful piece Steve. Even though it still breaks my heart every time I hear her name, I always love reading about her from people who actually had the privilege to see her in person. That must have been something.      

07 Jul 2014 9:16 PM
Brown brother

Another tear-jerker, which seem to be your specialty. Especially for those who were children when the events took place. I rooted like heck for ruffian to best foolish pleasure and when I saw the result  I was both horrified and hooked at the same time. I have remained hooked ever since    This piece motivated me to look at the YouTube video of the 74 sorority and it was just as you described, as usual.  Great work, please know you are appreciated and can move readers' emotions.

07 Jul 2014 9:21 PM

This is Steve at his best here.  I remain in awe of Ruffian today.  I too was about 12 years old then, not aware of or into thoroughbred racing yet at all then.  She mesmerizes me now and is the "black beauty" of my childhood I only read about. But then I had no idea that had happened and in a way I am glad I did not witness the race or know about it.  I would have been devastated.  

I like the picture that is painted in the book "Ruffian, Burning From The Start" about the night before the match race back in the Belmont barn.  The security guard was pacing, security was so tight even the owners probably couldn't get in to see her.  The black beauty was in her stall waiting, you could sense her power and beauty even from the book.  She was a mystery, a dark beauty, a thoroughbred true and true.

If only the advances in medicine there are today existed then.  I can't help but wonder if she had had the opportunity to wake up from the surgery in the device that Barbaro did submersed in water, would she have stood a chance after the initial surgery?  We don't know and won't ever know if the dreaded laminitis would have reared its ugly head or not later on.  The anesthesia now is probably so much more refined with less side effects than it was in the 70's.  It all seems so crude back then with equine medicine, thank God they have made the advances they have.

I like the idea of a statue of Ruffian at Belmont Park.  Why on earth has NYRA never done that?  I certainly don't agree with unearthing her remains though.  I believe she was buried facing the direction of the finish line and that is how the remains should stay.

Ruffian, arguably the greatest, or one of the greatest fillies of all time.  I wish she had had the chance to become a broodmare like Zenyatta.  The black beauty who's short life was interrupted by such tragedy.  Only on this earth but 3 short years yet her legacy lives on in us today.

Ruffian, Black Caviar, Zenyatta.......filly greatness that doesn't get much better than that.

07 Jul 2014 10:04 PM

I remember the day well.  I was supposed to go to the races at Green Mountain Park in Vermont that day, but I stayed home to watch that match race on television.  It was very sad. It is really too bad that the Young "experts" of today never had a chance to see her.

07 Jul 2014 10:16 PM

frank whiteley obviously thought something was wrong, with her that day but couldn't pin point it completely, that as it may, what happened with her was one of those freak things that comes straight from left field, unsuspected. even though most of who she faced in her races are all but gone from history and memory, she won't be left behind, for as long as her grave site continues to be well attended at belmont park.

07 Jul 2014 10:34 PM

Ruffian might be the best-named race horse of all time.  When I read the last line of your Allez France article (with the word Ruffian in it), the tears started.  Just the thought of her brings tears to my eyes.  I HATE match races. The only one I know of that ever "worked" was the Seabiscuit/War Admiral race.  Swaps was injured.  Ruffian had to be destroyed.  There is nothing good about a match race. I was very happy that both Zenyatta's and Rachel's connections did not allow any type of match race to happen.  It is sometimes better to let us all wonder who would have won, rather than to let one be defeated or hurt by the process.  Ruffian was one of a kind.  

07 Jul 2014 10:36 PM
Paula Higgins

Oh wow, this was hard to read because like everyone, I knew how it ended. But Steve, it was truly a great article and she was simply the best. I hope people listen to Dr. Bramlage. These horses deserve every chance to grow into their bodies. I know Mr. Whitely and all the people who took care of her would have done anything to have had a different outcome but equine medicine just wasn't there yet. I do not like match races and never will.

07 Jul 2014 10:40 PM

Steve; thank you for the wonderful article on a great filly.  And for giving credit to little Hot N Nasty whose heart and spirit were broken a little on the day she was defeated by Ruffian.

I was in my early 20's, watching the great "match race" on TV, and my heart broke when I saw Ruffian pulled up.  But, as she did not fall and the decision was made to operate, I went to bed thinking the injury was not so serious and that she would survive. Waking up to the news she had been euthanized, my heart well and truly broke for the loss of such an extraordinary filly.  To this day, when I truly "fall" for a race horse, I cannot watch he or she race "live".  I record the race and when I know all is well, I watch it over and over.

07 Jul 2014 10:42 PM
Amy Hurley

Thank you so much for this article, Steve.  Hot n Nasty was my first favorite horse, and although I was unable to get to Monmouth for the Sorority that day, I was rooting hard for the underdog.  Seems like I was just about the only one who preferred Hot n Nasty to Ruffian.  So thanks for giving tribute to a valiant filly, and correcting my flawed memory - I thought her trainer was David Vance, but after reading this, I do remember it was Gordon Potter.  It's too bad "Nasty" was never the same after that race.

07 Jul 2014 11:10 PM
Steel Dragon

Minor correction, Steve. It was July 6th, not 7th, a Sunday. One of the darkest days of my life.

A year earlier, my friend and I drove out to see the Fashion because some guy on the block told us Copernica's one eye was actually smack in the middle of her head and we had to see it to believe it. Us two teenage morons fell for that one, but we did get to see Ruffian. I remember Equal Change taking a run at her in the CCA Oaks but it was never in doubt.  

07 Jul 2014 11:13 PM
food fight

I still have a signed print of this extraordinary champion, she was the best of her generation and 40 years later can be debated as the filly that set the bar for those who can be called special. As you eloquently point out what a magnificent thoroughbred this filly was, she should go down as one of the greats of all time and a true [ freak ] of nature. She was the quintessential rock star of her time.    

07 Jul 2014 11:26 PM

As always, another beautiful tribute to a truly magnificent horse!  I was a little too young for Ruffian (Seattle Slew was the first horse I followed), but when I learned of her I was both amazed and heartbroken.  So cool that you were present for her maiden race - wow!  She was definitely one of the all time greats and I wish I could have seen her!

07 Jul 2014 11:33 PM
Hail No

I saw the race with Hot n Nasty, epic race. I still, to this day, can't get over the "loss" I feel from that unnecessary "match" race. I love Queen Z, Queen Rachel,Personal Ensign, Winning Colors, Wand, and so many others, but there will never be another Ruffian, the real, "Black Beauty" Nice story that evoked so many memories, thanks :)

07 Jul 2014 11:57 PM

Bill Nack has said the same thing....he said the romance will racing was never the same after Ruffian broke down.

Thanks, again, for a wonderful story.

08 Jul 2014 12:22 AM

I too recall very well this day of complete silence - I, along with Uncle John (trainer, re: Runaway Groom, etc) quietly and quickly were at the back of the track when Ruffian was hoisted up in an effort to keep her off the ground -    That moment has never left me as I recall this black-beauty that seem to be as tall as the trees - and the overwhelming sadness  of all those that were present  trying to hear the whispers of her fate. It seemed an endless night of hope and prayer only to get the call that she was at rest - a decision that  was unavoidable at the time and pulled the shade of darkness across a country and the world of racing.  The "Match Race" remained a horror to me and still I quiver at the thought of it and the request of it in the new and fragile racing world.  It seems enough that our horses must meet the requirements to contend and then give every inch of themselves at distances and fractions that never cease to amaze as does this article of a fantastic filly that only comes around once in awhile in a lifetime and lingers in your heart upon your tongue.

As I read this today "39 years" has passed quickly yet we can find a moment to reflect through this memoir on a filly that ignited racing and the emotions of so many of us.

It is with praise and gratitude Steve - for writing this and as Ruffian did - touched our hearts.

Thank you

08 Jul 2014 1:17 AM

Steve, thank you so very much for writing this about Ruffian.  I was 11 that day when she faced Foolish Pleasure and I had never seen her race prior to that.  But I watched knowing that she was related to Secretariat, who is my greatest love.  I was totally in awe of her and that day she started my love for the fillies.  I cried when she broke down and cried even harder the next day when I heard the terrible news.  But she cemented my love for the fillies that remains true to this day.  Five years later Genuine Risk stole m heart and while I love Zenyatta, Genny and Ruffian remain my favorites.

Alex, I think part of the success with Barbaro was in part because of Ruffian and with the horses since her.  Every time something would happen the vets would learn just a little more about what to try and what not to do.   I loved Barbaro so very much.  If only there was a cure for laminitis.  I agree with you about not moving Ruffian's remains.  She is facing the finish line and that is how she should stay.

08 Jul 2014 4:52 AM

Ruffian's untimely death will, in my mind, always be a terrible tragedy. I was watching the race when she was injured. It was beyond horrifying. After that, I swore off horse racing for quite a while. Mr. Haskin you wrote a brilliant, compelling, evocative article. It's a comfort knowing after all these years that Ruffian is still so revered.

08 Jul 2014 6:14 AM

Ruffian was the fastest horse I ever saw, but I was happy to see Hot'n Nasty remembered. Hot'n Nasty was a little over 15 1" and pretty as a picture. As the broodmare manager at Lasater Farm in 1981, I took care of her on the Ocala farm. She deserves a lot of credit for being the only filly to make the great Ruffian run!

08 Jul 2014 6:24 AM

The summer of 1974 was my first as a racetracker, hotwalking at Monmouth Park. Hot n Nasty had blown me away, and I had to see this invader who thought she could beat her.Sneaked a peak on the backside, and there she was - the horse of my "Black Stallion" childhood dreams. So glad I have that memory. Fell in love twice that summer - Ruffian and the man I married!

08 Jul 2014 7:12 AM

Great article and Ruffian has always been one of my favorites. Too bad they don't remember that at the end of the year when they compile the list of greatest race horses of all time. She is always way too far down that list.

08 Jul 2014 7:58 AM

I thought a match race was never a good idea.  It's hard to think about....what happened to her. Couldn't bear to watch.  I was a always a bit nervous because her legs just looked so very fragile under her massive frame.  Her courage and will to win was tremendous.  Great great filly.  Another brilliant one, Landaluce, struck the same chords and then was gone in a flash too.  Watching her run six furlongs in 1:08 and winning off by 21 lengths in the Hollywood Lassie was bone chilling.  

08 Jul 2014 8:23 AM
Daniel Jividen

Steve:  I've been wondering when you would get around to writing an in-depth piece on Ruffian.  As usual you've written a beautiful column.  But most of I compliment you on having the guts to write it.  I saw most of Ruffian's races back in 1974-75,  including the devastating final one, and I still haven't recovered.  Unlike you,  I haven't the courage to reflect deeply on what we lost when we lost Ruffian.  Of all the "living flames" embodied by the heroic thoroughbreds of our times Ruffian was the flame that burned the brightest.

08 Jul 2014 8:29 AM

With misty eyes and a lump in my throat, this is still, after all these years, very difficult to read.

08 Jul 2014 8:33 AM

Truly one of the saddest days for me only equaled maybe when Barbaro broke down.  I felt like you, Steve, that innocence in racing was gone.  I even turned away from the sport for awhile.  As always, many thanks for your wonderful story.

08 Jul 2014 9:01 AM

As is commonplace in today's world there is always someone or something to blame when bad things happen. In 1975 that was not the case.

I must say that I saw this tragedy coming in the weeks leading up to the match, not clairvoyance, but "something has to give", because Foolish Pleasure's trainer LeRoy Jolley was breezing the champ in unbelievably fast times (would make Baffert breezes look like  paint drying) in preparation for the match. All of his breezes in preparing for the match race were much faster than was normal at the time. If memory serves me correctly he worked 5 furlongs in :55&change in preparation, something in that range anyway. This was a laudable method for having a horse best prepared to win a match race at a distance of ground, as the prevailing wisdom of the time bore credence to: go to the front and you will win. Final times were not even considered, the match races of that era were won by the horse that first put the other horse away. This obviously was the tactic Mr Jolley chose, "hell bent for leather" to get the lead and beat the opponent into submission.

This is where the deadly fate of the "great" Ruffian was exposed, albeit in a ironically terrible twist. As she had demonstrated in her race in the Sorority she had courage and had used it that day to win. In this meeting of titans something had to give and we all know what gave, not her courage, not her willingness to win, not her magnificent spirit, but her body. Simply, but in a monumentally cataclysmic second, her will, courage, and spirit carried her faster than her feeble (not in a negative sense) legs could carry her. A rather remarkable trait that could only be manifested in the singularly most tragic event, to the greatest filly, in all of Thoroughbred racing history.

My heart breaks every time I hear her name, such a sad fate for such a absolutely splendid horse.

Rest in peace great lady.

08 Jul 2014 9:12 AM
Steve Haskin

Steel Dragon, I meant to write July 6. That has been corrected. Thanks for pointing it out.

08 Jul 2014 9:29 AM

Your last three posts were of fillies I had seen during my backstretch infancy, particularly Ruffian. I recall sitting in a barber chair at Belmont next to Woody Stephens and you know how he loved to talk. Said he heard this filly of Whiteley's was a freak as we were about to see them break. Even had Woody speechless, albeit briefly. As you know, Dr. Keefer & I had become friends, and I was at Dr. Reed's clinic that night. It had been drizzling and various media types had been going back and forth to Esposito's waiting for the results. Ironically, the next day I ran a horse that was ridden by Jacinto and he asked how long I had stayed. Told him right til the end. Filly won. I still have the picture, and the two of us looked like we had pulled an all-nighter partying. Nothing further from the truth.

She chased The Ghost.

08 Jul 2014 10:04 AM

She was the Best Filly...EVER !! It took me 10 years after her death, before I would return to horse racing. I will always wonder, what could have been, if she hadn't raced that day. Yes, we will ALWAYS Love her & Admire her courage. She will live forever in our hearts. Thank you Steve for the Beautiful Tribute to Ruffian!  

08 Jul 2014 10:10 AM

If tears could build a stairway, and memories a lane.

I would walk right up to Heaven and bring you back again.

No farewell words were spoken, No time to say “Goodbye”.

You were gone before I knew it, and only God knows why.

My heart still aches with sadness, and secret tears still flow.

What it means to love you ~ No one can ever know.

But now I know you want me to mourn for you no more;

To remember all the happy times life still has much in store.

Since you’ll never be forgotten, I pledge to you today ~

A hollowed place within my heart is where you’ll always stay.

08 Jul 2014 10:20 AM
Ta Wee

I always look forward to your historical perspectives and this one is right up there. Ruffian was superior, dominating brilliance. I had never thought of the potential match up with the mighty Forego. What an exclamation point to her flawless resume that would've been.

There's something to marvel at the pure dominating greats who go to the front regardless of distance and flaunt their greatness. This is best exemplified by Dr.Fager, Seattle Slew, and of course the filly of the ages- Ruffian.

Thanks Steve for once again letting us remember.

08 Jul 2014 10:24 AM

Very well written as always she will always remain in my heart forever never a dry eye when I think of her.

08 Jul 2014 10:32 AM
steve from st louis

They say time heals all wounds. Not the case here. The only solice was she died doing what she loved, outrunning the wind.

08 Jul 2014 10:41 AM

Wow. I remember looking at my TV in total denial that afternoon that anything bad could have happened to that wonderful filly. Hopefully, the good that came from the tragedy was that more owners listened to the horsemen who trained. She was magnificent!

08 Jul 2014 10:48 AM

Apologies, Steve.  I think I submitted a comment on the Ruffian blog which should have gone to Dahlia.  

08 Jul 2014 12:27 PM

Thank you Steve for the lovely piece on Ruffian and reminding us of some classy fillies that had the misfortune of being in the same foal crop. Like others here, I too have the old faded newspaper clippings of my youth to go along with the memories. The large picture of her prancing on the track remains the first thing I see each morning and the last I see each night. The articles and books of her are closely guarded treasures, especially the 1975 Edward Claflin book Ruffian Queen of the Fillies. She was and continues to be The Queen. Never replaced or usurped by others that came before or after. The fact that her records have and continue to stand the test of time puts her on uniquely hallowed ground. While it broke my heart when she left this place, I have resolved that her place in history was not intended in the broodmare ranks and left that job for her 3/4 older sister Laughter, from who Orb descends. Instead, I focus my thoughts of her sacrifice on what has occurred in research, knowledge and techniques for all those that have had tragedy strike them down after her. She exposed the huge holes equine medicine at the time and as a direct result of her death, huge strides in care for catastrophic injuries have allowed countless others to survive what she did not. It does make her death easier to bare when giving her ‘purpose’ for her leaving us too soon.  She is overdue for a statue at Belmont and there is ongoing support to remedy this. I believe however, that her remains should stay where they are, away from everyone except for a few caretakers, easily viewed by all who attend with pole and flags waving, untouched, close to the rail, her nose pointed to the finish line, an honor bestowed to her alone, as a continued tribute to her life.

08 Jul 2014 12:37 PM

Thank you.

08 Jul 2014 1:58 PM
John Tres

Walter Farley captured the thrill of horse racing and the love of  horses as only you can do. I hope some day you reprise the story of Walter Farley in the winner's circle after Seattle Slew won the Triple Crown!

08 Jul 2014 2:00 PM

Paula Higgins 07 Jul 2014 10:40 PM

"I do not like match races and never will."

I echo your sentiments.

If indeed there is silver lining to the dark cloud of Ruffian's fate, we can credit her untimely demise with stopping the practice of matching horses one on one; I consciously leave out the word "race" because matches are not really racing in the strictest sense of the word. I hope the harsh lesson we all learned will forever bear its weight on the Thoroughbred world and all concerned will refrain from matching.

08 Jul 2014 2:08 PM
Glorious Goodwood

She would have gave Forego all he could handle too!. Another great piece Mr.Haskin. We are being completely spoiled reading about three great fillies/Mares.  If you keep the trend going may I suggest a piece on any of Personal Ensign, Dance Smartly, or Genuine Risk.  Cheers.

08 Jul 2014 3:12 PM

Steve, another magnificent piece. She remains my all time favorite ahead of Rachel and Queen Z. And I personally witnessed Rachel's breathtaking Mother Goose win in 2009. In my own mind, I think she would have won any race at any distance on any surface against those magnificent fillies.

I don't ever use the word 'freak' when I describe a horse. Beauty, power, grace and supreme intelligence doesn't even scratch the surface about Ruffian.

I can go on and on about her. I have looked at all her races many many times with joy but the last.

Her CCAA in 2.27 4/5ths is faster than most Belmont Stakes these days. And NEVER EVER one touch with the whip. I will love her forever!

08 Jul 2014 3:13 PM
Ta Wee

To Timber rt,

I totally agree with you on Ruffian being underrated on the lists of all-time greats. Who would you bet on against her from 6 furlongs to a mile and 1/8?? Other than maybe Dr. Fager, I can't really think of anyone else.

08 Jul 2014 3:32 PM
dance with fate

Mr. Haskin, I must post here again to ask - isn't there a way that a statue of Ruffian (like Zen's at Santa Anita) could be made to happen by all who love her still?  She should have one, not just a gravesite. Belmont will not let people visit her gravesite (I foolishly asked recently) but someone posted it's very visible from the rail. There needs to be an artistic piece that brings her to life again.  Ruffian is my greatest memory of 20th century racing - all else fades into the background. She was my intro to racing although never saw her ' in person' nor even her races at the time.  Have had "Burning from the Start" & "A Racetrack Romance" for years but unable to read - feel I can now.  Thank you so much for adding to our knowledge of Ruffian's life & some of the other courageous fillies who raced her. She is beyond legendary, almost mythic to me.  "She's like the wind."  And, Foolish Pleasure, you were never to blame.

08 Jul 2014 3:42 PM

Interesting article, Steve."...He didn't even put a pair of shoes on her until the morning of her first race." That's quite a statement!, and a bit hard to swallow. In all your years on the backstretch, have you ever heard anything like that? A rather risky move, wouldn't you say? And, she popped a splint in the Sorority, but still ran shortly thereafter in the Spinaway? Whiteley had a great record as a trainer, but if the above is really true he wouldn't be training my horses. And, Whiteley turned his head back, and was looking at her legs. You apparently had a reason for mentioning this. Yes, I recall well the sickening outcome of that race. Had always wondered about the human error factor; now bothers me a bit more.  

08 Jul 2014 7:17 PM

Being 45 I did not get to see her race, however - the made for tv movie with Sheppard as Mr. Whitely is very telling of a time-gone-by... I emphasize the Women's Lib movement in my US History class and had always referenced BJK vs. Riggs- until I got the dvd - it's pretty-much mandatory to view this if you are a student in my class... Much of it was argued by Mr. Whitely, but the film Ruffian made her a statue of lore to me as I entered into a new phase of appreciation for t-breds - less profit-minded, more historical and astute... This piece helps keep the accuracy closer than the hollywood script although I watch it at least twice a month and am always moved... Thanks, Steve - wish I was there but you certainly know how to keep us attached... PS - can't watch Blackhawk Down without thinking Ruffian (and the one with Bill's actor locked in the Best Buy - CRS setting in, so forgot character and movie!)... Have a great summer, Steve - tell Lenny me n Heidi said what's up?!

08 Jul 2014 8:01 PM
Paula Higgins

Quinnbit, you are right Ruffian's match race put the spotlight on the unnecessary risks of this type of race. You could look at it as one of her greatest legacies and perhaps she saved other lives. I think everyone here knows how I feel about Zenyatta and yes, I know Sports Illustrated put Zenyatta above Ruffian on the greatness list for fillys and mares. But the reality is that Ruffian was extraordinary and second to no other filly or mare. They are co-equals in my mind. But I have a very hard time watching her races. Just too painful. As someone stated, Dr, Fager might have been the only one able to beat her at the shorter distances.

08 Jul 2014 8:39 PM

Steve, I once read that Ruffian broke awkwardly and hit the gate in the match race and that was suspected to be the cause of (or start of) her injury.  Have you ever heard anything like that?

08 Jul 2014 9:48 PM

The quote about her kicking old Forego's butt sums up how brilliant she was

08 Jul 2014 9:55 PM

One race which gets forgotten from time to time was her CC Oaks at Belmont. Just 2 years after Secretariat ran his amamzing 2:24.0 for 1 1/2,and was moving like a "tremendous machine" she actually, ears pricked ran a faster last quarter than he did...Think about that...nice articl about "Nasty", I was working for Evan Jackson at Hollywood Park at the time of this race...Ruffian...the sky was the limit for her...

08 Jul 2014 10:15 PM
Mary Jo in Florida

Thank you Steve for your wonderful remembrance of Ruffian. I couldn't bring myself to read "Ruffian, Burning From the Start" until 2007 then reread it 9 more times. I was 25 when I watched the match race on TV and never watched another race until Funny Cide's TC attempt in 2003. Seeing all the comments here is proof that many others feel the same way about her all these years later.

I agree that there should be a statute of her at Belmont. It is always good for racing when our champions are remembered. I agree that besides what she did on a racetrack, she will be remembered for what was learned about equine medicine because of what she went through. If she had been any other horse, she would have been put down on the track. It would have been better for her, certainly, but what came out of her suffering helped so many others, Barbaro included, according to Dr Richardson.

I loved reading about your visit with Frank Whiteley. I do hope someone showed him how to work that VCR so he could have at least one last visit with Ruffian.

08 Jul 2014 10:20 PM
Steel Dragon

Your amazing article brings back so many memories that I've suppressed over the years. Do you recall the fleeting theory that Ruffian's unusual "night-eyes" were a possible reason for her success? It had every trainer checking their own horses hoping for some similarity. I also recall the story (or rumor) that Mr. Janney had taken out a massive insurance policy on Ruffian with Lloyd's of London just a few days before the race, implying that he knew she wasn't sound. And finally, the thought that Forego was transferred to Mr. Whitely when Sherill Ward retired in 1976 to help ease his pain.  

08 Jul 2014 10:26 PM

I remember that day.  I remember the silence that descended on the room of tv watchers.  I remember the SI article called "Could she have been saved?" and getting sicker with every paragraph but completely unable to stop reading it.  I remember the horrible pictures of her on the backstretch, her leg in an inflatable cast already filled with blood, eyes absolutely wild, saddle gone......and I remember the profoundly tasteless comment made by one in the "Pleasure" camp.

But I can also remember her at her peak, running free, ears flipping, wondering where the competition is, knowing, perhaps, that there was none.  That's the Ruffian I prefer to remember, and even given the great horses I've seen since then, there will never, ever be another Ruffian.

08 Jul 2014 10:41 PM

I was 11 years old when Ruffian and Foolish Pleasure raced. It was like a dream, something out of the storybooks, that a filly would race a colt. She was like my own Black Beauty, and I imagined being in the saddle riding her to victory. I could not believe what happened. My heart just broke. I can't think of her even today without tears. Thank you for sharing her wonderful life with your readers.

08 Jul 2014 11:56 PM

monster horse........if sound, wouldve been even better.........some people think it was just a bad step? That horse had something bothering her for a long time......................she wouldnt change leads in the stretch for a reason...............she was a shooting star!

09 Jul 2014 2:14 AM

Had she lived and been bred to Seattle Slew...their offspring would literally have flown around the track, not a doubt in my mind!!  She and he had the same breath-taking speed, racing style, courage and will to win.  

09 Jul 2014 9:02 AM
Smoking Baby

KY VET.  I was JUST thinking about you and was glad to see your post.  When I read the news of Doug Byers' (Central Kentucky Vet)death, I was hoping it wasn't you.  Glad to know you're OK bro.  Just saying.

09 Jul 2014 11:17 AM
Fran Loszynski

Thank you Steve for this fabulous article so we don't forget this amazing feisty girl! When I first went to Belmont Park I went down to see Afleet Alex run and went to the area near the flag where Ruffian is buried. Before Alex and Smartey Jones I loved Ruffian. I know she is running in the wind with no one competing against her spirit. You are wonderful Steve to have given us this article. My feisty girl lives in all fillies. Run my black beauty, run.

09 Jul 2014 12:12 PM
rachel fan

Ruffian and Rachel Alexandra, my two favorites. When I think of RA, I sigh, thinking of how she was snatched away from racing so abruptly without explanation. When I think of Ruffian, I cry. She was the kind of racehorse you dream about and have such bright hopes for, but she was snatched away from us too, but so horribly and violently. Some have said she was an accident waiting to happen because of her breeding (both dam and sire died from leg injuries), but what a thrill it was to have her for those brief three years. Beautiful, enigmatic and as swift as the wind. Every time I watch footage of her effortlessly outrunning all her competitors, I get a lump in my throat. Thanks for sharing her story, still bittersweet after all these years.

09 Jul 2014 3:04 PM

Thank you for this lovely tribute. I didn't discover Ruffian until years after her death, but I fell in love with this beautiful and amazing animal.

09 Jul 2014 7:12 PM

Rachel fan - while it is technically accurate that "both her sire and dam died from leg injuries", it was not necessarily due to an inherent "unsoundness" as you insinuated.  Reviewer was euthanized after breaking his leg in a paddock accident (not a sign of unsoundness but an accident...) and Shenanigans actually died the same way as Ruffian - broke two of her legs thrashing about when coming out of anesthesia (for intestinal surgery) and was euthanized as they did not feel she could undergo another surgery.  As I mentioned earlier, I read that some believe her injury happened (or actually started) at the break of the match race.... Can anyone confirm that or has anyone heard the same thing?  Steve?

09 Jul 2014 8:34 PM

Our beautiful Ruffian. 39 years, and I still remember that awful feeling the next morning, when the radio newscast told us she was gone. I had the  good fortune to see her at Saratoga for the Spinaway. She floated  around the track, the clock her only competition.  I always  described I her as ethereal.  We were given a gift of perfection with her.  The Blood horse issued a memorial print, I had Jacinto Vasquez sign it. It hangs in my living room and I look at it every day. I'll never forget her.  Ruffian, the measure by all are judged.  

09 Jul 2014 9:51 PM
Scott's Rail

I was 20 when Big Red won his triple and that probably got me started.  Still a more than casual west coast observer, I did see that tragic day on TV.  And, couldn't believe it.  My interest in the thoroughbred grew.  And by the the time Affirmed came along I was "hooked".  I started to crave for old past performances, bloodlines, laying down my $2 wps.  The old performers came to life thru books and other means.  And I loved it. (Still do)  I have been lucky enough to witness live some truly great horses. Affirmed, the Bid, John Henry,Zenatta, the "Dude" and more than I can remember.  But on one wednesday afternoon I saw a filly named Landaluce. And as I saw her move out on the far turn I thought "this is my Ruffian."

09 Jul 2014 10:26 PM
Pedigree Ann

It should perhaps be noted that Hot n Nasty was a Cal-bred; indeed, her sire, damsire and the sire of the second dam stood in the Golden State. Her sire, Reflected Glory, later sired G1 winner A Kiss for Luck (Vanity H) and the champion 3yo Snow Chief. Hot n Nasty gave notice of the type of horse Reflected Glory was capable of getting.

10 Jul 2014 8:48 AM

Brilliant, absolutely brilliant.  She burned much too brightly to just fade away.......

10 Jul 2014 9:21 AM
Pedigree Ann

The thing I remember most about the match race presentation on TV (probably CBS) is how every commercial break featured a snip from "Anything you can do, I can do better," recording from "Annie Get Your Gun." Annoyed me like anything, the light way the match race was being treated by the network, like the King/jerk tennis match. As if female horses hadn't run against and beaten males in recent years. I mean Drumtop's first foal hadn't even started yet. Shuvee had won the JC Gold Cup in 1970 and 1971. Dahlia was still racing. In 1972, Typecast had beaten males 3 times in G1s, including the Man o' War; however, as a dedicated closer, she couldn't quite catch front-runner Convenience in their match race at Hollywood Park (1972). (There have been a lot of match races that many of you haven't heard of: Chris Evert and Musket Miss. Seabiscuit and Ligaroti. Zev and Papyrus. Olympia and a Quarter Horse.)

10 Jul 2014 9:25 AM

Yes, there have been many match races through the years, including the one between Domino and Henry Of Navarre that ended in a dead heat. But, the Ruffian-Foolish Pleasure may have had more intrigue, as Ruffian was undefeated, had essentially been untested, but had arguably raced against relatively weak competition throughout her career.  

10 Jul 2014 12:08 PM
Jean in Chicago

Paula & Quinbit,

I also cringe every time someone mentions a match race.  They never really settle anything and just increase the possibility of disaster. The promoters will keep pushing the idea ('can't disappoint the fans'--i.e., all that money involved) whether or not a horse is truly fit.  Its been bad enough over the years watching horses not really up for the Belmont run anyway (often against their trainers advice).  There are enough races where fans can see their favorites compete against each other.

I, too, stopped following racing for a long time after Ruffian's death and I still have a hard time looking at Richard Stone Reeves' portrait of her.

10 Jul 2014 12:20 PM

The incident involving the break others referred to was the fact the chute was extended to the training track. This was done to accommodate the distance to avoid breaking on the turn. There was a brief incline then descent which some conjectured to be a contributing factor. None of those directly involved bought into that theory.  Too brilliant for her own good.

10 Jul 2014 6:09 PM
rachel fan

racingfan: I wasn't necessarily saying that I agree with the opinion that Ruffian's pedigree eventually caused her breakdown. I've read other theories as well, one writer going as far as to say she spoke to Frank Whiteley, who told her that Ruffian's ankle struck the gate as she jumped and that's what led to the fatal injury. I've watched footage of the race's break over and over, but I only see Ruffian's shoulder hit the gate and not her ankle, so I'm not sure I buy her story, but I am inclined to believe as you do, that it was indeed at the gate where the injury occurred or originated. Whatever the cause, it was certainly one of the great tragedies and losses in horse racing.  

10 Jul 2014 7:18 PM
Bill Two

Every once in a while I think of Ruffian and the impact she made.  You put it right,she was like a a gust of wind that ran through the sport all too briefly.  I think Landaluce made a similar impact and both of them will be remembered as long as horses race.

10 Jul 2014 9:30 PM
Bill Two

People tend to forget that Jacinto Vasquez was the regular rider of both horses at the time and he chose to ride Ruffian in the match race.  That tells us a lot about which horse he thought as better.  

10 Jul 2014 9:43 PM
Steel Dragon

Another theory was that she spooked from the seagulls vacating the track. We'll never know and we'll never see one like her again.

I was in love with Laughing Bridge especially after hearing that she actually fell asleep in the starting gate once while waiting for the rest of the field to load. Bet her once or twice against Ruffian, before learning my lesson.

After the tragedy I recall some short lived excitement about a filly named Revidere who I think was a half to Ruffian. Nice horse, but it didn't quite pan out.

10 Jul 2014 10:00 PM
Pedigree Ann

SJ- Just to make sure nobody misunderstands, ALL 10f races at Belmont were started in the 10f chute up until sometime in the 1970s or 1980s, was it? am over in northern Ireland without my personal research library. It was not a special construction for the match race or anything. They changed the start position because some complained that it was hard to see the start, way over there behind the trees. Yet it was fairer for the horses, since they had a straight track in front of them at the break.

11 Jul 2014 8:15 AM
Steel Dragon

I'm real sure Pedigree Ann is correct about the Belmont chute.

And to correct myself about Revidere, she and Ruffian had the same sire only (Reviewer). Trained by David Whitely, she debuted as a 3YO in 1976 and began her career 7 for 7 including the CCA Oaks. She went into the Beldame unbeaten but failed to catch the very good mare Proud Delta. Two weeks later she won what I assume was the inaugural Ruffian Handicap by 14 lengths. She concluded her season with a 3rd place finish in the JC Gold Cup and raced only one more time in an allowance race on 7/4/77.  

11 Jul 2014 10:20 AM

Sceptre,  I understand what you mean by Ruffian's having raced against relatively weak competition, but do not want anyone thinking that had anything to do with her victories.  She raced against the clock and broke or equaled stakes records every time.  Yes, she sure was  "essentially...untested."

11 Jul 2014 10:48 AM

I worked for Marion and then Jack Van Berg as a kid and have been around the track for the whole of my life and there was NEVER a more imposing, beautiful or talented horse than Ruffian. Every single time she raced she set a stakes record. Everyone talks about Secretariat, and he was a great horse but he and all others will always be second to the greatest. Ruffian

11 Jul 2014 11:56 AM

One of the saddest moments in horse racing history...  I'll never forget. So many great fillies have been lost; Dark Mirage, Lamb Chop, Go For Wand, Pine Island, Eight Belles...I've witnessed them all. I still remember her Coaching Club American Oaks win...when she ran that mile and a half more than 2 seconds faster than Tonalist ran in the Belmont Stakes.  All the way around Belmont's huge oval..she just kept pouring it on whenever another horse would get to within two lengths of her and she did this throughout the entire race.  She just skipped along like she was running in a sprint race.  That was the amazing part about her...she never got tired.

12 Jul 2014 9:16 AM

I saw, at the break, she jammed her right front hoof into the ground and pivoted slightly bouncing off the gate.  She had a terrible start and i will always believe that she fractured the ankle coming out of the gate.  She never took a bad step in her entire life...that's hogwash. She fractured her sesamoids coming out of the gate when she jammed her ankle into the ground, as she ran on the fractured bones...they shattered.  That's exactly what happened...the bones shattered.  How many horses do you read about shattering their sesamoids...they usually fracture them...not shatter them through the skin.  She kept running because she was going so fast her momentum wouldn't allow her to stop immediately...but as soon as it happened she quickly shortened her stride....she wasn't trying to continue to run....she was trying to stop on three legs...not an easy task when you're running like 40MPH. That's what happened...I can't confirm it,  but ask yourself how many horses shatter their bones like that...there was an underlying problem with the bone because he was already fractured. When you run on a fracture...what else can the bone do but shatter.

12 Jul 2014 9:26 AM

Steel Dragon: Revidere, while not in the class of Ruffian, had a very, very nice career. She won 8 of 11 starts including the CCAO, the Monmouth Oaks, the Gazelle, the Cotillion and appropriately, the Ruffian. She never finished out of the money (11/8-2-1) and won an Eclipse Award as the best 3 year old filly in 1976. Very nice indeed and I remember being a fan. Despite her excellent record, there was always the slight feeling of disappointment about her I guess simply because of being related to the greatest filly of my lifetime. I remember the match race very well as it is probably the blackest day in the sport to me. I lived in NYC then and I distinctly remember all the excitement about this ill-fated race. It became a feminist issue back then about the girl beating the boy with posters all over town. I didn't want the match race as I was also a very big fan of Foolish Pleasure. It's almost blasphemy, but I thought he would beat her. The race itself, a very bad idea, was very, very damaging to the sport. The TV audience was huge as I recall and it brought in viewers who would not normally watch a horse race and what they saw was a horror show that turned many off to the sport forever. I truly think it caused some permanent damage to the sport. The original concept of a race between the 3 TC winners and adding her in was a good and fascinating one, but match races are deadly due to both horses having to run all out from the beginning to the end. The best thing about this terrible race tragedy is that there has not been a major match race run again since then that I am aware of. Oh yes, Hot N Nasty. I remember she scared the hell of me that day!

12 Jul 2014 1:10 PM

I usually run like the dickens from any article dealing with Ruffian, because, at least for me, the ending is so inevitable and casts a giant shadow over every other aspect of her career.  As a result, I know that I have deprived myself of some great reading.  Because of it is you, I could not simply turn the page on this blog, and am grateful that I did not.  I learned some things about Ruffian's early training that I never knew, and was given a fresh appreciation of the courageous effort of the mitey Hot n Nasty in the Sorority Stakes.  I was so caught up in the story that I even allowed myself to believe, just a little bit, that the ending would be different this time. But not even the magic of your words could change the outcome of Ruffian's tragic match race.  Would that they could, Steve, would that they could.  

12 Jul 2014 3:00 PM

In 1974 the Astoria was run at Aqueduct.Ruffian never broke a track record

12 Jul 2014 3:06 PM

Great article Steve. Great comments "Everybody"!

My top 5 fillies/mares:






There would have been a lot of pomp and circumstance if Secretariat "married" Ruffian....but we'll never know!

12 Jul 2014 7:13 PM

The match race was the ultimate "tragedy". In terms of tragedies,Ruffian would have made Shakespere look like a pussy!...I know I"ll get deleted for that one,but that's how I feel!!!!!!!!!

12 Jul 2014 7:16 PM
Pedigree Ann

Steel Dragon - Revidere wasn't a half-sister to Ruffian, but she did have the same sire. Revidere was champion 3yo filly of 1976, after she breezed through the CCA Oaks, Monmouth Oaks, Cotillon, and Gazelle - most of those run at different times of the year than they are now. She lost her first try against the older mares in the Beldame, but won against them in the new G1 Ruffian H at 10f, beating Bastonera and Optimistic Gal. She then took on older males in the Jockey Club Gold Cup and finished 3rd.

13 Jul 2014 7:10 AM
Susan from VA

Beautiful writing.  In my early women's lib days, I thought that they euthanized Ruffian because she was a mare - they would have worked harder to save a stallion, which would have been more valuable in the breeding shed.  Now I know it was due to the limitations of veterinary medicine.

13 Jul 2014 12:13 PM

I gave it a few days to see if others might respond to your comments about Mr. Janney. None were offered, but it should be addressed. By all accounts, and from my few conversations with him, it's rather clear that Mr. Janney was a fine man, a horseman as well, and a very wealthy man at that. It's inconceivable (to me) that he would have agreed to run Ruffian in that race had he believed she wasn't "right". I also doubt that he had an insurance policy on her, and if he had, it was unrelated to that upcoming race. Yes, it's likely that Ruffian had some preexisting issues which contributed to her breakdown, but I strongly doubt that Mr. Janney was aware of them and, perhaps, they were unknown to all.  

14 Jul 2014 2:58 PM

My last comments were meant for Steel Dragon.

14 Jul 2014 8:00 PM
Terri Drennen

Ruffian was unlike any other horse I have ever seen, male or female. I have always said about her: a sprinter and distance horse wrapped up in a show horse's body. How often do we see that? We don't. I have a photo of her as she was launching out of the starting gate of that horrible race and she was almost spinning herself sideways. Had that not happened..we all know what WOULD have happened. Foolish Pleasure may have kept up with her for awhile until she hit her second gear. Does anyone remember reading in one of the books about her that after one of her long races, her trainer had Jacinto take her out an extra distance before letting up on her and they secretly timed that? It was better than anyone else's time. (sorry, I don't have the book in front of me to post the time) but I do remember reading about that. What else is there to say about the greatest filly we have experienced? Sure, I enjoyed Zenyatta, Rachel, Personal Ensign, Genny, but I truly believe that Ruffian, the Black Beauty of our time, would not have even let them think about catching her. The biggest shame in the sports history was losing the greatest ever. As far as her and Slew, don't know about how close the breeding would have been there, but I always thought Swale would have been a nice mate for her. And of course, let us not forget what happened to him as well. Long Live the true Queen of Racing.

15 Jul 2014 11:52 AM
Steel Dragon


Just hope you understand that I was just repeating something that was widely circulated and debated at the time, and wasn't accusing Mr. Janney of any negligence. Here's an article I found on it that no doubt raised speculation:


15 Jul 2014 5:30 PM
sonny hudson

As with Serena's comment against my better judgement I read the article. Extremely well written, but even 40 years later very painful.  What a great horse.

18 Jul 2014 2:34 PM

Cried my eyes out when I read this....could hardly finish it....

Racing caught my interest as a horse crazy child and my first memories were watching Tim Tam win the Derby....by the time Ruffian had come along I could recite generations of pedigrees and histories - and I was convinced that this filly was one of the Greatest who ever set hoof on a track....

That dark day, that horrible moment, when on the television screen, I saw the misstep ~ I have never stopped crying when I have seen or heard her name...

Being involved in equine vet medicine on and off for the last 30 years, it is really hard to say if she could have even been saved given the advances...if she got through recovery, would the specter of laminatis have been as fatal for her as for Barbaro?  

The memory of Ruffian, and the tragedy, burns bright in every true horse lovers heart.  

10 Sep 2014 9:20 AM

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