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.