Before Zenyatta and before Rachel Alexandra there was another filly that reined supreme – Ruffian. She was truly the “Queen of the Fillies.’ Beyond her epic performances and almost-still-completely-unbroken set of track records, her impact has forever changed the racing industry.
As God as my witness, she may even be better than Secretariat.
– Lucien Laurin
Sired by Reviewer, of the famous Bold Ruler, (the sire of Secretariat), and out of the Native Dancer mare Shenanigans, Ruffian was a beautiful dark bay, almost black, filly that stood 16.2 hands. She was foaled in 1972 at Claiborne Farm, near Paris, Kentucky. Sports Illustrated journalist Bill Nack recalls, “ She looked like a black swan… I’ve seen a lot of fillies over the years, but nobody ever had her charisma, her presence, and the unbelievable gift of speed.”
With that gift of speed she became ad powerhouse in the racing world, winning all of her first 10 starts. And even more impressive, she lead at every point of call in every race she ever ran. I’ve read that her exercise riders were continuously reprimanded to hold her back with the group, but there was no holding Ruffian – she was all business the second she hit the track. In her first race, she crossed the finish line with over 15 lengths between her and second place tying the the track record at Belmont for 5 1/2 furlongs. In her 5th race, the Spinaway Stakes at Saratoga, she shattered the two year old 6 furlong track record at a blazing 1:08:03 – Faster than any of the greats before her, including Secretariat and Man O War. Unfortunately, her two year old season was cut short by a hairline fracture in one of her hind legs. Her trainer Frank Y. Whiteley, Jr said that “It did happen during the race, she was just a couple of strides from the wire.”
Her three year old season in 1975 was just as epic as the first. She won by 8 lengths in her first big race at Aqueduct, the Spinaway Stakes. From there she went to win the ‘Filly Triple Crown’, of the Acorn Stakes, the Mother Goose Stakes, and the Coaching Club American Oaks, becoming only the 4th filly to ever accomplish this at the time, and one of eight current title-holders. With all the wins against other fillies, people started to question how she would do against the colts. It was then decided to hold a ‘battle of the sexes’ where she would square off against the 1975 Kentucky Derby winner, Foolish Pleasure.
Ruffian sets her own pace and gets there on her own.
The race was set for July 6th, 1975, almost 40 years ago today, at Belmot Park. Ruffian and Foolish Pleasure shared the same jockey, Jacinto Vasquez, and he chose to ride her in the match believing she was the better of the two horses. With around 50,000 spectators in the stands, and an estimated 20 million television viewers, the race was off. She kept the lead in the first quarter mile, and was ahead until almost 1/8 of a mile after. That was the point where fate stepped in and decided the end of the race. All of a sudden, both sesamoid bones in Ruffians right foreleg snapped, Vasquez felt what had happened and tried to pull her up but she refused to let go of the race and kept running until it was nearly impossible.
She was immediately sent into emergency recovery surgery that lasted nearly three hours. As she recovered from the anesthesia she began running, still on her side, in her stall and ended up braking her cast and undoing much of the surgery. It was then decided to put her down as she would most likely not make it through another surgery. She was put to rest shortly after 2am on July 7th 1975. She was buried that same day around 9 pm Belmont Park, with her nose pointed towards the finish line.
Ruffian was given the win that day as her margins were much better than Foolish Pleasure’s and that in the past, once she was half a length in front of a competitor, she never succeeded the lead. Her jockey, Jacinto Vasquez, gives her all the credit for the amazing set of victories by saying “Ruffian sets her own pace and gets there on her own.” The racing world forever changed that day the great Ruffian broke down. Greed showed it’s colors, and forced the people of the racing industry to evaluate how they “proved” their horses, and bettered the way we displayed talent. Her failed recovery spawned the new common ‘recovery pool’ where horses recovering from anesthesia are placed in water when ‘waking up’ to reduce stress and impact on injuries. It also ended match racing between champions as none have been held since.
All of Ruffian’s records remain unbroken except for her record at the Mother Goose Stakes which was topped by Rachel Alexandra in 2009. In 1975, she earned the Eclipse Award for Outstanding Three-Year-Old Filly and the next year was entered into the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame. The Blood-Horse magazine ranks her at 35th of the top 100 racehorses of the 20th Century where she resides as the top ranked filly, and Sports Illustrated named her as the only non-human athlete in their top 100 female athletes of the 20th century, at 53rd.
She’ll be forever remembered as one of the greatest horses that the racing world has ever seen.