Written by Presley White
“Foolish Pleasure loaded
in the gait, here comes the undefeated filly, Ruffian. She’s
in.” Spoke the announcer calmly, “ And They’re
off and running. Ruffian takes the lead.” Little did her owners
and trainer know that in only a quarter of a mile their amazing
filly would be erased from the race and ultimately from the world.
“And Ruffian… Ruffian has broken down.” The announcer
was on April 17, 1972 that Ruffian was born at the Claiborne Farms,
but Claiborne was not her owner. She was owned by Mr. & Mrs.
Stuart, who had some of their mares at the farm. Her sire, Reviewer
by the great Bold Ruler, was prone to injury much like his sire,
but in his short career he was able to win nine of his thirteen
starts. Ruffian was a foal in Reviewer’s first crop. Her dam,
Shenanigans who was by Native Dancer, had already produced stakes
winner Icecapade. Ruffian's pedigree stated that she would be good,
but her short career would prove that she was great. Maybe even
the greatest filly to sink her feet into the deep sand of a racetrack.
As a yearling, Ruffian was not
considered one of the higher hopes of the horses kept at Claiborne
Farms. As a matter of fact, she was considered “fat”
even though the reason for that nickname was her deep 75 ½
inch girth. She lived the average life as a yearling staying out
in a field and being halter broken, until she was sent to Frank
Whitley to be trained for racing.
She was not the horse that most
of the exercise riders wanted to ride, as Whitley was strict and
wanted his instructions followed. He would tell the day’s
rider to “keep her with the pack”, this was easier said
than done. Ruffian, also known as "Sofia" around the barn,
was a calm horse until she stepped on the track. It was as if, even
as a yearling and young two year old, she knew her job and did not
need any one to tell her how to do it.
Her first race was on May 22,
1974. People laughed at her saying that she was too fat and they
were not going to pay their good money on her. Imagine their faces
when she crossed the wire unchallenged by fifteen lengths. She also
tied the track record for five and one half furlongs in that race
she is the only two year old to do this while breaking their maiden.
She walked off the track with barely even a drop of sweat on her
In her next four starts Ruffian
was able to defeat the fillies with no effort, breaking track records,
winning by unheard-of lengths, and more or less demolishing her
competition. Her two year old career came to a close after only
five brilliant starts, due to a hairline fracture in her canon bone.
Her efforts in those five starts were not to her dismay, as she
still received the Two Year Old Filly Eclipse Award. She was sent
back to the farm to grow into a three year old.
She came back to the track as
a three year old, looking like a queen. She had filled out and came
back into training wonderfully. Frank Whitley had high hopes for
her three year old season, but he was going to keep her with the
fillies. Many people urged him to put Ruffian against the colts
because she was too good to compete against the fillies. They said
that they would love to see her compete in the Triple Crown if she
was doing well by that time, so that she could compete against Foolish
Pleasure, an undefeated colt.
Her three year old debut was in
the Caltha Purse at Aqueduct Race Track in New York. She blew away
from the field in her usual front running style and won by four
and one-half lengths. In prepping her for the filly triple crown
Whitley entered her in longer races. She did what was expected and
became better with the additional distance. She won the seven furlong
Comley Stakes, and was wheeled back in only ten days to win the
mile long Acorn Stakes, the first leg of the filly triple crown,
by an amazing eight and one-quarter lengths.
In the second leg of the filly
triple crown, The Mother Goose Stakes which was nine furlongs or
one mile and one eighth of a mile, she won by fourteen lengths without
even being asked to run. Then came the grueling one and one half
mile Coaching Club American Oaks, the last leg of the Triple Tiara.
Thirty-one thousand fans filled the stands, and Ruffian did not
disappoint. She went straight to the lead and held of challengers
as they tried to wear down the great filly. Only one filly was able
to stick around and at the wire Ruffian had won by almost three
lengths, after the top two finishers was a nine length gap to the
third place filly. Ruffian had won the Triple Tiara, something that
few fillies have ever done.
For you to understand the remainder
of this story you must understand the results of the regular Triple
Crown. Foolish Pleasure was undefeated going into the Kentucky Derby
and stayed that way. In the Preakness Stakes though, Foolish Pleasure
could not come up with the victory, and the winner of the race was
Master Derby. In the Belmont neither Foolish Pleasure nor Master
Derby could win the race and it fell to Avatar. Now back to the
A race had been proposed to “help
the sport”. The race was to be run with the three Triple Crown
Race winners Foolish Pleasure, Master Derby, and Avatar. Avatar
was already on his way back to California, though, to get ready
for the Swaps Stakes so he was out of the race, they decided to
make up for him being gone they entered Ruffian into the race. Foolish
Pleasure’s trainer, LeRoy Jolly, did not like this idea because
he thought that his jockey would be so concentrated on Ruffian that
Master Derby would surly win the race. So the racing association
paid the stable of Master Derby $50,000 to not enter the race. This
was the first time that a horse was paid NOT to enter into a race.
And so the race became the match that the world had wanted to see.
A crowd of fifty thousand people
filled the stands at Belmont Park to witness the “great match
race”. Jacinto Vasquez, who was the regular rider of both
of these exceptional racers was placed in the difficult position
of selecting between the two, and opted to ride the filly. Braulio
Baeza was aboard the Derby winner.
In the early stages of the race,
Ruffian held the lead. As the horses approached the turn, the two
jockeys were side by side. Suddenly, they heard what the described
as the breaking of a board. And as they heard the sound the race
was over. Ruffian was pulled up but she fought her jockey for fifty
yards before he could get her stopped. The cheers from the crowd
changed to shocked cries as the filly was pulled up. Baeza pulled
up Foolish Pleasure to a canter after he found out what had happened.
The equine ambulance was rushed
to Ruffians side; she was given a ten percent chance to live. Her
right front sesamoid bones were shattered. A temporary cast was
put onto the filly until they could get her into the operating room.
Four vets and a surgeon worked on the great filly for twelve long
hours. Ruffian actually died twice in surgery but was revived both
times. But things went from hopeful to horrible in only a few minutes.
The anesthesia wore off and the filly awoke, disoriented, confused,
and in pain. She thrashed about wildly despite the attempts of several
attendants to hold her down. She fractured the new cast and caused
even greater damage to the fetlock. Knowing that she could not endure
further surgery, the veterinarians put her mercifully to sleep.
It is ironic, and perhaps even
more than mere coincidence, that Ruffian's parents would suffer
her same fate and would both be dead within two years of the death
of their great daughter. Shenanigans was undergoing emergency intestinal
surgery, and upon waking from the anesthesia thrashed about, breaking
two legs. She was humanely destroyed on May 21, 1977. Only a few
days after her death, Reviewer suffered a fractured hind leg in
a paddock accident at Claiborne Farm where he stood stud duty. He
survived the initial surgery, but 15 days later when the cast was
changed, he emerged from the anesthetic and became unmanageable,
doing irreparable damage to the injured leg. Reviewer was euthanized
on June 21, 1977.
Thus Ruffian and the pair which
produced her were taken from us by an eerie and tragic set of circumstances.
Although her career spanned only a shade over 13 months, and until
that match she had only raced against her own gender, Ruffian is
usually included in anyone's list of all-time great runners. She
was not only unbeaten until her injury, she was also never headed
in any race. She set a new stakes record in each of the eight stakes
races which she won. She raced successfully from 5 1/2 furlongs
to 1 1/2 miles with an average winning margin of 8 1/3 lengths.
Ruffian was buried near the flag pole at Belmont Park. The same
track that she had brilliantly run her first race, and also the
same track where fifty thousand people saw her take her last step.
Her nose is facing the finish line. She is the only thoroughbred
champion buried at Belmont Park. Since the race, no match races
have been arranged between thoroughbred champions, and in my opinion
it should be left that way. Ruffian changed the racing world. It
is now apparent that only death could truly defeat the amazing filly.
Owner: Mr. and Mrs. Stewart
Trainer: Frank Whitley
Race Record: 11: 10-1-0
• won - Fashion Stakes ................. (Equalled Track Record)
• won - Astoria Stakes ................. (Equalled Track Record)
• won - Sorority Stakes ................ (New Stakes Record)
• won - Spinaway Stakes ................ (New Stakes Record)
• Champion 2yo Filly
• won - Comely Stakes .................. (New Stakes Record)
• won - Acorn Stakes ................... (New Stakes Record)
• won - Mother Goose Stakes ............ (New Stakes Record)
• won - Coaching Club American Oaks .... (Equalled Stakes
• Champion 3yo Filly