This one is for the ladies of the house…
Gals, let’s face it. When it comes to competing against men in sports, your track record isn’t all that good. Sure, every once in awhile you’ll have your Billie Jean King stomp the crap out of an aging Bobby Riggs but for the most part it's been about second place.
But, way back in 1975, at the apex of the so-called feminist movement, there came along a shining light. A beacon for all to behold about a woman’s strength and conditioning and how she could go head to head with the big boys and not blink an eye. Even more amazing, she managed to accomplish this despite the fact that she was all of three years old.
Who cares if she was a racehorse…
Against her fellow fillies she had never been defeated. As a matter fact, nobody had ever even put a head in front of her and her average margin of victory was a little over eight lengths. That’s astounding since she raced in sprints as short as five furlongs and in distances as long as a mile and a half.
As a yearling, many railbirds had laughed her off as being too fat to race. She was considered a waste of money and time and would be a sure loser if there ever was one. Her owners decided that a change of scenery was in order and shipped her from Kentucky to Belmont Park on Long Island and racing history was about to be made.
Under the tutelage of renowned trainer Frank Whitely Jr. she debuted as a two year old, To say it was spectacular would be an understatement. In her first race against other seasoned horses she won by thirteen lengths. Along the way, she also broke the track record for the distance. She won every race she was entered in for the rest of the year.
Along the way, doctors discovered that she had broken a bone in her foot and she was left to recuperate for awhile.
Bettors of horses are a wary breed. They look for any advantage they can get and exploit any weaknesses. They wondered that if, as a three year old fresh off on injury, Ruffian could regain her form. They didn’t have to wait long. Upon her return, Ruffian bested the field by 4 ¾ lengths. As she was entered in races of longer distances, her margin of victory got larger and larger. Was this the “super horse” that everybody was looking for?
Ruffian had no trouble winning all three legs of the Filly Triple Crown and it seemed as if there was nothing left for her to accomplish. Her resume was complete but there was one more task at hand that needed to addressed. Could she compete on an even field with the boys?
The winner of the 1975 Kentucky Derby was a horse by the name of Foolish Pleasure. It was set that the two of them would go head to head in a match race with no other horses around to slow their progress or impede their way as they made their way around the track. On July 7, 1975 an estimated 50,000 people jammed into Belmont Park and another estimated eighteen million watched what was to be the “Race of the Century” on television.
They broke from the gate and after a bit of bumping and jostling for position, Foolish Pleasure stuck a head in front. This marked the first time in her eleven race career that she was off the lead. Not to be denied, Ruffian pulled even and then stuck a nose, then a head in front of Foolish Pleasure. As they entered the clubhouse turn, she had increased her lead to half a length and the fans in the stands were screaming their approval. With about a quarter of a mile to go it looked as if the race had indeed lived up to the hype.
”It was like the breaking of a board”.
Those were the words her jockey, Jacinto Vasquez used in describing the sound he heard as Ruffian headed for home. Her leg had snapped…
He tried to pull her up as soon as he heard the sound but Ruffian plowed on for another fifty yards. Her heart was still in the race even though her leg wasn’t.
An ambulance was driven out to the track and Ruffian was carted away before a silent and teary eyed crowd. A pneumatic cast was applied and she was sedated. A team of four veterinarians and orthopedic surgeons worked on her for the next twelve hours in an effort to save her leg. While she was under, her breathing stopped twice and she had to be revived.
All the doctors could do now was to play wait and see.
When she awoke she was confused and disoriented. She started kicking in the padded stall and despite the best efforts of her handlers, nothing was able to calm her down. Along the way, she shattered the cast that was on her broken leg and in the process broke yet another one.
The doctors euthanized her at about 2:00 AM Sunday July 8, 1975.
Ruffian is buried at Belmont Park, the track she called home during her all too short life. Her final resting place is in the infield right near the finish line with her nose pointed towards the finish pole.
In horse racing terms, it’s safe to say she “died on the lead”.