Unbeaten before that sad day
The morning of the match race against Kentucky Derby winner Foolish Pleasure broke with high, scattered clouds and the humidity was too easy to feel.
It was July 6, 1975. Unbeaten filly, Ruffian, was to race at Belmont Park. The girl against the boy. All the advertising – the hyperbole – the love of the media for the event helped bring out 50,000 people to see what was to be a mid-summer elixir for thoroughbred racing.
Ruffian was as black in color as an assassin’s heart.
She wasn’t a demure or dainty filly. Instead, she was much larger than the average filly, and even much larger than the average colt. Standing 16 hands two inches, she weighed 1,125 pounds to Foolish Pleasure’s just over 15 hands and 1,020 pounds.
She had raced 10 times and had never been behind in any of her triumphs.
But at age two, her 5-0 record had to be enough because she was forced out of training by a hairline fracture in a leg.
Assistant trainers, stable hands for trainer Frank Whiteley, and those who were around her regularly knew her as a single-minded filly – she wanted to run and to win. They described her as wanting to be in control. Not mean with bites, she did not want to be restrained in any way and sought her freedom to run her races the way she desired – always ahead and always getting home in front by considerable margins.
A consensus of opinion found “she wanted to do everything her own way.”
To boost the nation’s focus away from sports other than thoroughbred racing, the powers that were came up with a four-horse race pitting the three winners of the 1975 Triple Crown races and Ruffian in a much-publicized race. After much discussion, only the owners of Ruffian and Foolish Pleasure agreed to a two-horse match race at 1 1/4-miles at Belmont Park.
During her 10-race career, Ruffian had been ridden by Charles Town High School graduate Vince “Jimbo” Bracciale. Bracciale rode her when regular jockey Jacinto Vazquez was suspended from riding for infractions.
Whiteley had not entered Ruffian in any of the Triple Crown races, aiming her at the so-called Filly’s Triple Crown of the Acorn Stakes, Mother Goose Stakes and Coaching Club American Oaks – which she won with her customary ease.
Vazquez was back for the match race.
In mid-afternoon, the heat and the humidity at Belmont Park could not be avoided by man or beast.
The large crowd was ready for the race to be run, and then the people could run for some air conditioned haven.
Historically, match races have been won by the horse that makes the early lead, and then is never passed.
Ruffian made the early lead even after swerving slightly when leaving the mechanical starting gate. She was positioned about three-quarters of a length in front when the horses approached the half-mile pole.
Just ahead of the thoroughbreds were about 10 pigeons scavenging for food in the middle of the manicured track.
As the runners moved closer, the birds took flight and both jockeys reported they heard a loud “popping” sound.
Ruffian had broken her sesamoid bones in one leg.
But she didn’t stop running. She fled on – shredding her leg – before jockey Vasquez could dismount and hold her in restraint as help scrambled to arrive.
Surgeons worked through the night in an attempt to clean the wound and make her leg stable enough so that she could live.
However, when she awoke from the anesthesia, Ruffian thrashed about as if believing she was still in the race. She threw off the cast and broke another leg, causing the doctors to conclude she could not be saved.
Buried in the infield at Belmont Park, her head was pointed toward the finish line.
Even with a shortened on-track career, Ruffian had impressed even the most hard-bitten curmudgeons of the sport.
Lucian Lauren, the trainer of the brilliant Secretariat, volunteered: “As great as Secretariat was, she might have proven to be even better.”
There is very little evidence or testimony that makes her less than any filly or mare that ever raced.
Racing doesn’t hear an argument for even Zenyatta or Rachel Alexandra being more than Ruffian.