Sunday, June 10, 2007

A Salute to Ruffian - Thoroughbred Racing's Greatest Filly

After the Belmont Stakes yesterday with the amazing win by the filly, Rags to Riches, I couldn't resist posting on my blog about the race that people will be talking about for generations. Rags to Riches Wins the Belmont Stakes
Hurray for Girl Power Finally a Filly!

Then last evening, as if destiny had pre-ordained, ABC aired the made for TV movie, Ruffian. Based on the life of what has been said to be the most amazing thoroughbred filly of all time. Well, there's no way I can not give Ruffian her due. Granted someday Rags to Riches may stand in the same company with this great filly but the fateful story of Ruffian must not be denied.

I'll leave the details and statistics of her racing career to others. Here's a brief biography on Ruffian and information about the match race.Foolish Pleasure and Ruffian
Here I'm going to address what I believe is the fateful part of this amazing filly's story.

The only reason that Ruffian didn't run against the boys was that her trainer, Frank Whiteley, wanted her career to last as long as possible. He wanted to bring her on slow and build her up so she didn't break down. His plan was for her to run against the boys when he thought that she was ready and not before.

Not that Whitely didn't think the filly could beat the boys. He not only thought she could, he was convinced. But Frank wanted to mold and shape her racing experience psychologically so that when she did race the colts, she could take them on with the same grit and confidence she had against the fillies. He wanted her to be able to run those races on her terms not intimidated or forced but proud and free and with the ease he knew she had. He wanted her to run those races smart!

It was the thoroughbred racing industry that pushed for Ruffian to take on the big boys sooner. Attendance at the tracks was lagging and the industry was in trouble. The filly had sparked an enthusiasm the industry hadn't seen in a long time and the leaders intended to capitalize on the momentum.

Whiteley never believed in match races. He felt they were hard on the horses. That the intensity of a two horse race might be good for the spectators but it could only be detrimental to the horses. He believed match racing exploited the horses' determination to run past the point of sanity and put them a jeopardy. He was violently opposed to Ruffian running in any such race.

However, the racing commission convinced the owners that Ruffian could save the industry and that the only way was through the match race against Foolish Pleasure, winner of the Kentucky Derby. They agreed to allow the filly to run in that race.

Whiteley agreed to continue to train the filly but put his foot down firmly and threatened to quit when the television crews wanted to start the race on a curve instead of out of the chute. While he couldn't keep his filly out of the race he did manage to affect the final decision on the start. The race was begun out of the chute in the best interest of the horses despite the bad angle for the tv cameras

The fateful day of the match race arrived and it was a media spectacle of the most obscene kind. When all was said and done, what the crowd experienced was the start of a race of the century but a day that ended in tragedy.

After record setting time in the first quarter and with Ruffian in the lead by half a length, the filly broke down. The jockey heard a loud cracking sound but was unable to pull up the injured filly. Ruffian was determined to race. The bold filly couldn't stand Foolish Pleasure passing her. Her attempt to catch the colt pulverized her broken front leg. When the jockey finally did manage to get the filly pulled up her front limb was a dangling, useless, bloody mess.

And even then the filly didn't want to stop. It took all they had to stabilize the leg and get the injured filly into the ambulance and to the vet hospital. All the while Ruffian was fighting to run.

Several hours of surgery and a press conference later, Ruffian's leg had been repaired but a prognosis wouldn't come until the filly was out of anesthesia. And the rest is history, Ruffian fighting the anesthesia and still trying to run injured herself beyond comprehension. There was nothing left to do but euthanized thoroughbred racing's greatest filly.

Why did this senseless tragedy happen? In tomorrow post's, I'm going to try answer the some of those questions.


  1. Yep, I remember it well. I got to watch the race live on TV and was broken hearted with the rest of the country. It was all that Girl Power era that caused so much pressure. Some of us remember the Billie Jean King battle of the sexes. Oh those 70's...

  2. Just to hear her name always makes me sad...just a true champion.

  3. molly, the 70s were definitely a trip but Ruffian didn't have a clue about the battle of the sexed, all she knew was that she had to be in front. She will always have a place in my heart.

    and I'm with you photogchic, there will always be a twinge of sadness there with her memory. What a great mare.