Thursday, 7 July marked the 41st anniversary of the death of arguably one of the greatest fillies of the modern racing era, Ruffian, writes LISA BARRETT. Her efforts at the track were so brilliant that she was ranked by Bloodhorse, the “bible” of American racing, as among the greatest horses of the 20th century – for a three year old filly that is an incredible achievement.
Ruffian was born at Claiborne Farm, Kentucky in 1972, and immediately stood out from the pack of foals, being one of the biggest of her crop. Sent into training as a yearling with Frank Whiteley, it was then that she began to shine. Taking to training like a duck to water, Ruffian had to be constantly held back by her riders as she brimmed with fiery energy and furious determination.
Her first race came on 22 May 1974, when she was one of the least fancied in the field, many punters feeling she was too “fat”. While it’s true that her early pictures did show a slightly rotund filly, it certainly didn’t hamper her racing ability. Silencing her critics in spectacular fashion, Ruffian won her maiden race by an impressive 15 lengths and set a new course record for 5.5 furlongs – she was here with a bang!
Ruffian’s subsequent races showed that the filly had a will to win like no other, and she refused to back down from any challenge that was thrown at her. In her ten career runs, including eight stakes races, she won every single one and set course records in every single one of them.
She won the Grade One Spinaway Stakes in a record time of 1:08.03. The morning after the race, Ruffian refused to eat and a subsequent scan showed a hairline fracture in her right hind leg. It boggles the mind to think that this brave filly refused to give in, and managed a Grade One win with a dodgy leg!
After a rest, Ruffian came back with a bang in her three year old season, winning all her starts and sweeping all before her. She won the New York Filly Triple Crown, which consisted of the Acorn, the Mother Goose, and the Coaching Club American Oaks, becoming only the 4th filly to do so, while simultaneously setting a stakes record in the first two legs and tying the existing one in the third.
It’s a measure of just how good Ruffian was that to date, only one of her records has been broken. This happened in the 2009 Grade One Mother Goose Stakes courtesy of the great filly Rachel Alexandra, who bettered Ruffian’s time of 1:47.80, and a 131⁄2 lengths victory, by her victory in an incredible 1:46.33 with a winning margin of 191⁄2 lengths!
The question was, could Ruffian beat the boys at their own game? Matches between men and women were becoming the rage as the seventies wore on, with women determined to prove that they could compete and, win on the same level as the men. Sadly Ruffian became a pawn in a needless game of one “upmanship” as various movements vied to claim her as their “cultural icon” of the female cause. A match against 1975 Kentucky Derby winner Foolish Pleasure was arranged for Ruffian. It no longer was about which horse was better, it was about a battle of the sexes and “bragging rights” for the winning side.
Ironically, Ruffian was no delicate flower, being a tall, well built filly with good bone and definition, often mistaken for a colt by many. One has to find some humour in the madness of it all, and it came in the form of Robin Smith, one of America’s first female jockeys. Ruffian liked to have a nibble of the grass at the track after her runs, and Robin passing by one day asked Charlsie Cantey who was leading her who the lovely “colt” was, Cantey’s reply was “her name is Ruffian”.
The day of the “Battle of the Sexes” dawned and when it came time to weigh in, Ruffian was by far the bigger and stronger horse than Foolish Pleasure, weighing in at 1,125 pounds, in comparison to Foolish Pleasure who tipped the scales at 1,061 pounds. She was also a lot taller than him, standing 16 hands, two inches at the withers, as opposed to Foolish Pleasure, who stood at 15 hands, 3 1/4 inches. In spite of her obvious physical advantage, Ruffian was still given a five pound weight allowance, a sure indication to the female camp that the authorities still couldn’t accept that a filly could compete on equal terms with a colt.
Ruffian hit the starting gate as she jumped, but straightened herself up before setting off in the race. The race was fast paced with the first quarter-mile (402 m) was run in 221⁄5 seconds, with Ruffian ahead by a nose, she pulled ahead and was leading by half a length when disaster struck, video showed that a bird had startled her, the result was she took a misstep, causing both her sesamoid bones her in right foreleg to snap. Desperately trying to pull her up, her jockey Jacinto Vasquez battled as Ruffian refused to back down in spite of her life threatening injury, and kept on running, grinding her sesamoid and tearing her ligaments until her hoof was flopping around uselessly. Her will to win was so great that even when she was pulled up, all she wanted to do was keep on running!
She was immediately attended to by a team of veterinarians who operated on her throughout the night trying to repair her shattered leg. Unfortunately, when the filly came around, she began doing what she knew how to, run, and began to thrash around further damaging her shattered leg. Realising that there was nothing more they could do for her, the heartbreaking decision to put her down was made, and at 2am that morning Ruffian was humanely euthanized. She was buried the following evening at 9pm at Belmont with her nose pointed towards the finish line, something she always strived so hard to reach.
Her fatal breakdown led to a massive public outcry at the treatment of racehorses, and their recovery from surgery. These days recovery pools are used to help when racehorses come round from procedures, something which would have ensured that she might have survived her ordeal.
There has been plenty of controversy over the years as to whether her fatal injury was a legacy from her sire Reviewer. A descendant from the Native Dancer line which was well known for producing horses with leg “issues”, Reviewer himself fractured a leg three times in his racing career, before a fourth fatal fracture cut short his stallion career at Claiborne Farm.
It certainly seems as if Ruffian was handed an ill-starred card in the legs department, as her dam Shenanigans also suffered a similar problem with her legs, and the manner of her death was eerily similar to that of her daughter. Awaking after intestinal surgery, she began to thrash around wildly and broke two legs, resulting in her subsequent euthanasia in 1977.
One could speculate until the cows come home as to the genetic influence in her pedigree and its contribution towards Ruffian’s leg issues. The fact remains is that thanks to human stupidity and ego, the world was deprived of seeing one of the greatest fillies of her age grace the racetracks, and later the breeding sheds of the day. One can only wonder if she would have become a blue hen mare like the great Urban Sea, Miesque, Almahoud, Natalma and La Troienne. Sadly we shall never know just how much of a role Ruffian might have played in our breeding and racing history.