I was going to apologize for writing another horse racing tome here, but I've decided not to. The story I am telling today is so great that even if you are a smelly, unshaven Frenchman who eats horse meat, you will be moved. If you're not moved, well, check your pulse, you may not have a beating heart.
I mentioned Ruffian in passing in my post on the Kentucky Derby, and in light of the Belmont Stakes this weekend and the hopes that our hero Big Brown will be winning a Triple Crown title, we'll talk about another champion who never felt the dirt on her face.
Foaled in 1972, Ruffian was a spectacular, leggy, almost coal black racing machine, thought to be an even better horse than great-of-all-greats Secretariat. She won all ten races in which she competed, always in the lead, breaking or equaling every track record she ever raced on. As a two-year old she aced her maiden race in record time by 15 lengths. In 1975, Ruffian captured the Filly Triple Crown (now called the Triple Tiara) and was dubbed “Queen of the Fillies (that's a young girl horse for all you non-equine folks out there!).
Her eleventh race was run at Belmont Park on July 6, 1975, before a crowd of 50,000 and a television audience of over 18 million. It was a match race against that year's Kentucky Derby winner, a colt called Foolish Pleasure. This “equine battle of the sexes” was eagerly anticipated, and interest was compounded by the fact that the regular jockey for both horses was Jacinto Vasquez. He chose to ride Ruffian in the match race considering her to be the better horse.
As the starting bell sounded, Ruffian slammed her shoulder into the starting gate. Faltering for only a moment, she blazed ahead, completing the first quarter mile in a blistering 22 seconds, ahead of Foolish Pleasure by a nose. Never having a race so close, our big-hearted gal hammered ahead, pulling in front by half a length when suddenly her right foreleg snapped. Vasquez heroically kept her upright, but was unable to force Ruffian to a complete stop. So unaccustomed to seeing another horse in front of her, she continued running on three legs, pulverizing her sesamoid bones and grinding the gritty sand of Belmont into her open wound. In the age of the Internet, one can find film of her tragedy online, but the tape was deemed so gruesome that Ruffian's demise was censored by media outlets and never aired on public airwaves again.
She was attended to by a team of veterinarians and surgeons who labored for three hours to try to repair the damage. As she came out of the anesthesia, Ruffian attempted to win her match race, flailing around on the ground and thrashing wildly as if running. The intense movement smashed the cast against her elbow crushing the joint to bits, breaking off the cast and reopening the surgical site. Knowing that she would not survive a more extensive operation, her team decided to euthanize her.
Her spectacular performances in 1975, earned her the Eclipse Award for Outstanding Three-Year-Old Filly and in 1976, she was inducted into the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame. Since Ruffian's death, no match race has taken place at Belmont Park, where she is the only horse buried in the infield, near a flag pole, facing the finish line. Ironically, her trainer Frank Whiteley, Jr. died the day after Eight Belles went down at the derby. He was 93. To his dying day, he believed that Ruffian was the greatest horse he had ever trained and never allowed her stall to be occupied saying, ''There'll never be a horse worthy of entering it.''
Why do I love horse racing? Because tales of heart and heroism are not limited to the human race. So, again, fingers crossed for a safe race this weekend and go Big Brown!