In the big-bucks and often bloody business of thoroughbred racing, Ruffian's life and death provided a near-perfect allegory to all in horse racing that is both majestic and barbaric
Her body lies on an undistinguished plot, barely 70 yards past Long Island's Belmont Park finish line. During a match race with a male Kentucky Derby winner, in front of more than 50,000 fans and a television audience of millions, she shattered her ankle on a spot less than a mile from her grave.
As the sixth anniversary of her death approaches, it is worthwhile to retrace her short, brilliant career. In more than two centuries of selective breeding, perhaps no race horse was better than she.
She won 10 of 10 races. She won her first start by 15 lengths, equaling the track record. She won eight important stakes races in which the best of previous decades had competed, setting seven records and trying another.
In a career in which she always had the lead, save one or two strides out of the starting gate, she won the filly Triple Crown by a total of 25 lengths without once feeling the sting of the whip. After being selected both 2- and 3-year-old filly of the year, she was the youngest horse elected to racing's Hall of Fame. She cost the tracks where she raced more than $167,000 in minus mutuel pools paid to her supporters.
And on July 7, 1975, in the race that resulted in her fatal injury, she was in front.
The hype artists called her match race with Foolish Pleasure "the Race of the Century" and "the Battle of the Sexes." No longer a pearl cast before swine, Ruffian was to meet one-on-one the colt whose mettle had been case-hardened by losing the Triple Crown by less than the length of the chestnut body.
The New York Racing Association put up $350,000 for the 1 1/4-mile race and CBS quickly bought the television rights. Jacinto Vasquez, the regular rider of both horses, chose Ruffian, but said, "She's never been in a fight." She had never, as horsemen say, "been looked in the eye."
Ruffian was unbeaten, she was bigger than her male rival, yet still received a filly weight allowance. Hard-core gamblers never bet on sentiment, but when Ruffian and Foolish Pleasure walked in the Belmont starting gate on the warm Sunday afternoon, she was the 2-to-5 favorite.
They broke almost evenly, with Ruffian on the inside. To avoid the slight hump where the chute met the main track, Vasquez guided her outside and the two bumped slightly several times. Almost a half-mile from the gate, after a suicide quarter-mile in 22 3/5 seconds, with Ruffian one-half length in front, she snapped her ankle so loudly that Braulio Baeza, atop Foolish Pleasure, heard the pop.
Vasquez later described it "like a branch snapping." It took him more than an eighth of a mile to get her head up and stop her running on a bloody stump.
Even before Foolish Pleasure crossed the finish line, Ruffian's 60-year-old trainer, Frank Whiteley Jr., threw off his sport coat and in a faded pink shirt ran to her over a half-mile away.
At her barn, Dr. Alex Hardhill, a renowned Kentucky veterinarian, placed Ruffian's leg in ice to stop the bleeding and swelling. Tranquilizers were given for the intense pain and the break immobilized with a temporary cast. A hasty conference convened involving Dr. Manuel Gilman, the New York Racing Association veterinarian, Dr. Jim Pendergast, the stable veterinarian, Dr. William O. Reed, one of the most respected veterinarian surgeons in the country and the head of the nearby William O. Reed Hospital and Dr. Edward Keefer, an orthopedic surgeon who has saved the life of Spanish Riddle by attaching an artificial limb in Dr. Reed's hospital.
They decided to operate immediately. More tranquilizers were given and she went into deep shock. Because of dehydration her blood thickened and her heart raced to circulate it. Still she was anesthetized, the wound cleaned, and the myriad of bone chips removed from an ankle shattered, as Gilman described, "like hitting an ice cube with a hammer." Dr. Keefer fitted her with an experimental brace and a blacksmith then anchored it by nailing a built-in shoe to Ruffian's foot.
As 12:30 a.m. she slid down the slanted table and into the padded recovery stall. After a few minutes she started struggling slightly, normal behavior for horses coming out of anesthesia. She then became violent. n
"She thought she was still galloping in the race. She kept trying to run, said Keefer.
"She fought like a tiger," remembered Hardhill.
Several more men tried to hold her, but are thrown around like rag dolls, in Hardhill's words. The cast began to jerk down her leg and the shoe to loosen. Finally, it came off in a messy tangle.
Her shocked system would not tolerate the anesthesia required for another operation. Stuart Janney, her owner, who had left only after the operation, was called. Realizing that even before the operation she had only a 10 percent chance of survival and that such a bold attempt would not even have been made on a horse of lesser worth, he said, "Don't let her suffer anymore."
Hardhill injected a massive dose of phenobarbital and five seconds later, at 2:20 a.m., Ruffian was dead.
The next evening, in a ceremony kept as private as possible at Whiteley's request, she was buried beneath Belmont's infield flag, the only horse on record buried at any New York race track. Wrapped mummy-like in white cloth, she slid from the rear door of the van into the huge grave. Whiteley handed her two red blankets to his assistant, Mike Bell, who climbed into the hole and carefully drapped them over her body.
A bouquet of roses was dropped in and the group left to the accompaniment of the sound of the bulldozers sent to bury her.
The story of Ruffian is more than the tale of a queenly bred Amazon who disposed of her rivals in every race before being fatally injured in front of millions. Horse racing annually produces an army of blue-blooded battlers and pits them in a test of talent and determination until some burst blood vessels and break bones. The weak and the slow are culled and the strong and the fast beget faster and stronger until a Ruffian appears. a
Ruffian's doom, like that of many of her peers, was not only sealed by her native instincts, but an inherited unsoundness and robust personality.
The Janneys, who kept a small but select band of brood mares on their Glyndon, Md., Locust Hill Farm, sent Ruffian's mother Shenanigans to a Kentucky mating with Reviewer, a son of Bold Ruler, standing his first year at stud. Shenanigans, who raced but 22 times before retiring as a 3-year-old, was bred to Reviewer, who broke down three times during his two-year career. As a 2-year-old, Ruffian ended the year in September because of a hairline fracture in a hind ankle.
In an article written nearly three months before her death, Whitely said, "She's getting rougher. Not in the stall, but when you work her, she is rougher. It's not good, because she could hurt herself." He admitted after her funeral, "I was scared every time I sent her to the track. She used herself too hard."
The old rich, the Mellons, the Galbreaths, and the Whitneys, who each year gather at Saratoga to discuss "the breed," saw Ruffian as the holy grail of bloodstock. To the two-dollar bettor, she was an unbeatable wonder horse who never made them a loser except when she died trying.
Kids from Lexington, Ky., where she was born and broken, sold lemonade and gave the dimes to help build a granite memorial that reads in part: "We were young when she died, too young to remember her with the greats of other eras. Yet to lose grace and perfection sorrows us because we are human."
Grace and perfection are always short-lived. But knowing they exist makes the everyday existence of little more exciting. And that's what Ruffian did. She was regal and she was rare. She was rowdy and always ready.
She was Ruffian. And if racing killed her, it also created her.