Following Ruffian’s breakdown, match races are mostly gone
SHEPHERDSTOWN — Thoroughbred racing was once a sport that held the public’s attention like Santa Claus, summer vacations and chocolate milkshakes.
No longer do the chestnuts, dark bays and grays get much attention from the sporting world.
Once the crowds of tie-wearing gentlemen and scruffy school boys alike scrambled to find racing news by listening intently to radio broadcasts, beseeching telegraph operators for the latest or getting hold of bulldog editions of daily newspapers.
Horse racing jostled for position in the public’s heart, with boxing and major league baseball.
Thoroughbreds such as Man o’ War, Seabiscuit, Whirlaway and Ruffian were equine national heroes.
The racing industry kept that once-intense interest alive, by periodically staging match races between two nationally-known runners.
A much-publicized match race took place in 1920 in Ontario Province in Canada between the chestnut giant Man o’ War and Triple Crown champion Sir Barton, who had swept the three cherished stakes races in 1919.
Man o’ War was made a 5-to-100 favorite over his smaller but older rival. The nine-furlong duel was easily won by Man o’ War by seven lengths.
Years later, in 1938, the people’s favorite was the eager and ever-trying Seabiscuit. He would race 25 times a year. Hailing from California, Seabiscuit did not face East Coast favorite, War Admiral. War Admiral was the son of Man o’ War and had the valued bloodlines produced by years of careful breeding.
The match race was given the name “Pimlico Special” and billed as East versus West. Held in Baltimore at Pimlico Race Course, the sporting world paid strict attention to the outcome.
George “The Iceman” Woolf rode Seabiscuit, a smallish colt with only his indomitable heart as a distinguishing characteristic, against the aristocratic manner of War Admiral and his handlers.
“The People’s Horse” (Seabiscuit) held off War Admiral’s mid-race challenge and prevailed by a popular four lengths.
In 1942, Alsab was purchased for only $700, but rose to the top of the list of thoroughbred money earners, and was matched against the more famed Triple Crown champion, Whirlaway. The race was held at now-defunct Narragansett Park in Rhode Island. Whirlaway had a nasty temper, but his long flowing tail gave his nickname, “Mr. Longtail.” Famous Trainer Ben Jones, Jr., schooled Whirlaway, but it was Alsab that prevailed by a nose in a long stretch drive that held off the closing-in Mr. Longtail.
In 1955, Swaps from California took first place in the Kentucky Derby over East Coast champion, Nashua. Nashua later returned to win in the Triple Crown series and in the late summer a match race was arranged to be held at long-gone Washington Park in Illinois.
The race was televised in black and white to the nation, riveting millions to their 12-inch sets.
It was Nashua winning convincingly and sending Mesh Tenney and his corps of workers back to California with an acrid taste in their mouths.
Not for 20 years was a match race of any magnitude held. Thoroughbred racing had waned as a spectator sport, but it had a three-year-old filly come into prominence in 1975. The undefeated Amazon, Ruffian, stood 16.1 hands high, had the silky black coat of a four-legged movie star and had won all 10 of her career races.
Ruffian would race against the 1975 Kentucky Derby champion, Foolish Pleasure.
The race would take place at Belmont Park in Long Island, New York. The day was menacingly hot and humid and thickening clouds hovered over the scene. National television brewed its pot of attention-getting advertising.
It was boy versus girl, but Ruffian was so powerful and smooth that she drew the quote “As God is my judge, Ruffian might be better than Secretariat,” from Secretariat’s trainer Lucien Laurin.
Ruffian had led at every call in all 10 of her races. Leaving the starting gate, Ruffian bounced off one wall, but she still whisked out to a small lead.
As pigeons fed on the track just in front of the hard-charging runners, the heart of the sports world skipped more than one beat and grizzled race track veterans openly wept.
Ruffian went down after breaking a leg bone. She was too severely damaged to be saved — even after a three-hour operation, during which she woke, began wildly thrashing and ruined the cast on her injured leg. She was too taxed to undergo another operation and was put down.
Thoroughbred racing’s nightmarish production dulled its appetite for more match races. Many states outlawed the practice.
It’s been 44 years since any significant match race (the Ruffian versus Foolish Pleasure event) has been tried.
And it might be another 44 years before another one takes place — if ever!