There is often a price paid for greatness, and those who were in racing filly Ruffian’s camp might understand that better than most. There are so many accounts throughout history of horses overcoming great odds to emerge victorious, but Ruffian’s tale is a little different. No other horse so perfectly encapsulates the triumph and tragedy that so often comes with equestrian sports.
She was known as ‘the freak’ in the yard, the fat yearling, nicknamed Sofie the Sofa, the filly that didn’t want to run. Yet in just one year Ruffian would establish herself as one of the greatest racehorses ever to set foot on the track. As Lucien Laurin, trainer of the legendary Secretariat, once remarked, ‘as God is my judge, she might be better than Secretariat.’
Once she grew into her body, Ruffian was as close to the perfect racehorse as they come. With the legs of a supermodel, the muscles of a gladiator, and a coat such a dark shade of brown it was almost black, she certainly had the X-factor. Ruffian’s prowess became evident in her racing debut in 1974 at Belmont Park. Now keep in mind, Globetrotters, this was the very same place where just 12 months before, Secretariat had performed one of the greatest races of his life. Many racing fans assumed they would never see anything like him again. But when Ruffian shot out of the starting gate, she zipped effortlessly to the front and maintained her lead, winning by 15 lengths and tying the track record in the process. It was a breathtaking performance for any racehorse, let alone a filly at her maiden event! But it soon became apparent that this was no big deal for Ruffian. Not only did she win her next nine races, she set or tied the track record each and every time. On top of that, the average margin of victory in her ten career wins was 8 lengths! It seemed that the only thing that could stop Ruffian was Ruffian herself. And this was ultimately what happened.
When she returned to the track in April 1975 (after recovering from a minor leg injury), the filly looked as unstoppable as ever. She trounced all her rivals in the Triple Tiara (the slightly less grand, filly-only version of the Triple Crown) and the public became eager to see her race against the colts. In response, the New York Racing Associaton decided to pit Ruffian against that year’s Kentucky Derby winner, a stallion called Foolish Pleasure. It was a publicity stunt, and neither Ruffian’s trainer, Frank Whiteley, nor her owners, the Janneys, were particularly keen on the match race. However, all parties eventually agreed that the nationally televised showdown would be a huge boost to the sport. There have been a few famous match races held over the years – Seabiscuit versus War Admiral, Man O’War versus Sir Barton, et cetera – but this was different. This was the first time a filly would be pitted against a colt, and it would be broadcast live on national television.
And so on the 6th of July, 1975, in front of a 50,000 strong crowd and tens of millions more keen eyes glued to the television, Ruffian and Foolish Pleasure met a Belmont Park to race for a $125,000 cheque. Even reading the accounts of the race now, 42 years after it happened, my heart still yearns for the fairytale ending – the one where Ruffian jumps out of the starting gates into the lead and never looks back. Alas, the horse who couldn’t lose finally lost on that fateful day.
As usual, as soon as the gates opened Ruffian took the lead. But just before the half-mile mark, something went terribly wrong. The proximal sesamoids in her right foreleg shattered as she switched leads, and her jockey struggled to stop the valiant filly, who had never before allowed a horse to overtake her. She ran on, determined, each step compounding the trauma. As Foolish Pleasure galloped down the home stretch and over the finish line, vets hurried to Ruffian’s side. They immobilised her leg, loaded her into an equine ambulance and took her to a clinic, where she underwent surgery to repair her foreleg. They worked through the night and managed to repair her shattered foreleg. But when Ruffian woke from the anaesthetic on the floor of the recovery stall, confused and traumatised, she thrashed and kicked violently. She repeatedly kicked her elbow with the cast until it fell off, re-breaking her foreleg and shattering her elbow in the process. Her medical team was left with no choice but to humanely euthanise her. The following day, she was returned to Belmont Park and laid to rest under the flagpole, her nose pointed towards the finish line.
Ruffian is considered by most to be the greatest filly the racing industry has ever seen. Some even believe that had she lived, she would have gone on to be the greatest of all time, surpassing the likes of Man o’ War and Secretariat. But one thing’s for sure: her legacy still haunts and inspires the racing world. Her death spurred countless advances in equine medicine, so much so that when racehorse Barbaro underwent surgery for a shattered leg in 2006, he was woken up in a pool of warm water where he could thrash around without injuring his other legs.
What do you think of Ruffian’s story? Is she the greatest filly ever to grace the racetrack?