Ruffian, owned and bred by Stuart and Barbara Janney, was foaled on April 17, 1972, at Claiborne Farm in Paris, Kentucky. The Janney's were truly horsepeople. An amateur steeplechase rider, Stuart Janney had won the famed Maryland Hunt Cup four times, and Mrs. Janney was a daughter of Gladys Phipps, one of the top thoroughbred breeders in America until her death in October of 1970, at the age of 87.
In 1971 the Janney's elected to breed their stakes placed Native Dancer mare Shenanigans to Ogden Phipps' stallion Reviewer, a son of Bold Ruler who had won nine of his thirteen starts, including the Sapling Stakes, the Saratoga Special, the Swift Stakes, the Bay Shore Stakes, the Roseben Handicap, and the Nassau County Stakes. Reviewer had also run second in the Hopeful Stakes, earning a total of $247,223 in a career interrupted twice by injury. In 1971 he was standing his first season at stud, while Bold Ruler was standing his last.
In the fall of her yearling year, the dark bay Shenanigans filly was introduced to a saddle and bridle by Nick Lotz, assisted by groom Donnie Bussell, in her stall at Raceland, Claiborne's weanling facility, before being sent to Xalapa Farms, which Claiborne had leased as a training facility. Here Nick Lotz, who had also broke her half-brother Icecapade, taught her the basics of living life as a racehorse. On November 16, 1973, Ruffian left Claiborne to begin her racing career. Only three days before, Secretariat had arrived on the farm, amidst much fanfare, to begin his stud career.
When Ruffian arrived at the Marion duPont Scott Training Center in Camden, South Carolina, where trainer Frank Whiteley wintered his horses each year, she instantly stood out among the other yearlings arriving from Claiborne, being exceptionally big for her age. The filly was put under the care of groom Minnor Massey, and her exercise riders included Squeaky Truesdale, Jackie Peacock, and Ric Martin. No one at the training facility knew the filly's name, for it was policy in Frank Whiteley's barn to not reveal the names of two-year-olds until they had made their first start, and she was nicknamed Sofie by her riders, who found the big filly as comfortable to sit on as a sofa.
That April, Whiteley's stable arrived at Belmont Park to begin the 1974 racing season. For her first work at Belmont Park, Ruffian was ridden by Yates Kennedy, who doubted Whiteley when the trainer offered to put him on "the fastest horse you've ever been on." Told to breeze three furlongs in :38, Yates went :35 4/5, fooled by his mount's smooth stride and lack of effort. When jockey Jacinto Vasquez rode the filly for the first time, breaking her from the gate and going a half in :47, he was also surprised by the fast time.
Ruffian made her first start on May 22, 1974, in a five and a half furlong Maiden Special at Belmont Park. Thanks to the efforts of Frank Whiteley, her talent had been successfully kept a secret, and Ruffian went off at odds of 9 to 2, allowing Whiteley's stable hands to make a profit on the race. Under the guidance of Jacinto Vasquez, she quickly went to the front, easily extended her lead to fifteen lengths, and tied the track record of 1:03. Ruffian's impressive debut was later called the "greatest race ever run by a first-time starter" (Claflin 51).
Copernica, a bay daughter of Nijinsky II trained by Mack Miller, had wired a field of maidens on May 15, and had then proved her ability to win from off the lead, despite being blind in the left eye, in a five length victory on June 3. Her pedigree and past performances should have combined to make Copernica the favorite for the Fashion Stakes on June 12, but the crowd sent Ruffian off as first choice. Also in the field was the unbeaten Jan Verzal, who unlike Ruffian and Copernica was already a stakes winner, and three other fillies. As in her maiden race, Ruffian gained the lead in the first few strides, and easily held off Copernica's game challenge. Winning by six and three quarter lengths, Ruffian once again tied the track record. Copernica, finishing second, was thirteen lengths ahead of the rest of the field, and gave everything she had to the race. Sadly, the brave little filly wasn't the same horse after the Fashion Stakes. Ruffian had broken her heart.
Laughing Bridge was the next filly to challenge Ruffian, in the Astoria Stakes at Aqueduct. Jacinto Vasquez was serving a suspension for reckless riding, and Vince Bracciale had the mount on Ruffian. For the first time, Ruffian was accompanied to post by Sled Dog, the pony horse, and to the amazement of Bracciale it was Vasquez who led him to the post. Trainer Frank Whiteley had told Jacinto that he would lose the mount on Ruffian if he didn't ride the stable pony, and the crowd enjoyed the novelty of seeing one of the country's leading riders playing the role of pony boy. The race itself held fewer surprises. Ruffian easily won by nine lengths, under wraps, in 1:02 4/5. Braulio Baeza later commented "I could have cut through the center field, and she still would have beaten me." His mount, Laughing Bridge, beat the rest of the field by twelve lengths, but could not hold a candle to Ruffian.
The Sorority Stakes at Monmouth held Ruffian's toughest challenge yet. Hot n Nasty was a bay filly by Reflected Glory who had a record as impressive as Ruffian's. Racing on the west coast, she had broken her maiden by 13 lengths and scored two stakes wins, in the Schuylkill and the Hollywood Lassie, with good times. Owner Dan Lasater, founder of the Ponderosa franchise, believed the fillies were equal on paper, and expected his entry to come out of the Sorority Stakes as she went into it; undefeated. Jacinto Vasquez rode Ruffian in the Sorority in spite of a broken nose and slightlyblurred vision. Fearing he would lose the mount on the young star, he had kept his optical difficulties to himself, vowing to see a doctor if his sight was not clear after the big race.
Hot n Nasty proved her talent, making her move after the first quarter and becoming the first horse to head Ruffian, even sticking with her for a furlong before Ruffian dug in and pulled away. Vasquez felt something not quite right with his mount, even as she pulled away from Hot n Nasty to set a new stakes record of 1:09. Back at the barn, he discovered his filly had won the race on a freshly popped splint, which, although not a serious injury, was enough to take the edge off a horse. Ruffian had proved she had heart.
After a month of rest, Ruffian was shipped to Saratoga for the Spinaway Stakes. As she was being unloaded, a reporter asked groom Minnor Massey by how much his filly would win the Spinaway. Without thinking, Massey gave an answer of thirteen lengths, then worried that his rash statement would make him appear foolish. By recording a bullet work (best work of the day as reported by the Daily Racing Form) of five furlongs in :59 1/5, the filly prompted rumors that she was sore. Had any other horse turned in a time of :59 1/5, the clockers would have been impressed. But for Ruffian, the work was not spectacular enough. Suspended again, Jacinto Vazquez missed both the mount on Foolish Pleasure in the Hopeful Stakes and the ride on Ruffian in the Spinaway. Vince Bracciale was once again up on the Superfilly, as fans had taken to calling her, and fighting for her head, Ruffian lead wire to wire to set a new stakes record of 1:08 3/5. It was the second fastest six furlongs of the entire Saratoga meet, with the fastest being La Prevoyante's 1:08 2/5, and the margin of victory was exactly thirteen lengths.
The next two races planned for Ruffian were the Frizette Stakes, worth $100,000, and the Champagne Stakes, in which she would face the colts, including the unbeaten Foolish Pleasure. But on the morning of the Frizette, the filly left grain in her tub. Frank Whiteley immediately took her temperature, and scratched the filly with a fever of 101.6, 1.1 degrees above the average equine temperature. Shortly thereafter, a hairline fracture was discovered in her right hind pastern, ending the season. Eight weeks of stall rest were ordered, and after the filly rejected a hard cast, she wore a soft pillow cast to prevent further injury.
Ruffian, along with the rest of Whiteley's barn, returned to South Carolina for the winter. Dan Williams became her new groom when Minnor quit to spend more time with his family, and once she had served out her eight weeks, Ruffian was hand walked for exercise. In November, the editor of The Blood-Horse, not believing that Frank Whiteley had been quoted accurately when it was written that Ruffian was "the best horse he had ever trained," traveled to South Carolina to look into the validity of the statements himself. Whiteley, usually very guarded when evaluating his horses, not only verified the quotes, but added one more. The two-year-old filly, who had only started five times in her career, was the best horse he had ever seen.
At the end of January, Frank Whiteley flew to San Francisco to collect Ruffian's Eclipse Award for Best Two Year Old Filly. Each time Ruffian had ran, she not only won, but led from wire to wire, setting a new stakes record each time and always running well within herself. Had she been able to complete the season, many believed the filly may have beaten out Forego for Horse of the Year honors.
Ruffian returned to Belmont Park in April. Frank Whiteley made Squeaky Truesdale her regular rider in routine gallops, while the lighter Yates Kennedy was responsible for breezing the filly. Ruffian was more aggressive in her morning gallops than she had been at two, and only Squeaky could keep the filly relaxed at an easy gallop. He allowed her to drop her head, challenging him to take the bit away from her, until her head was almost between her knees. Squeaky was teased for putting his mount to sleep on the track, but had he picked up her head, she would have taken the bit in her teeth and bolted, chancing an injury.
On Sunday, April 13, Yates Kennedy breezed the filly for the first time that spring, working three furlongs in :33 4/5. The sharp move convinced Whiteley that his charge was prepared to make her season debut, and knowing that the work would not make the Daily Racing Form in time for the next edition, he called the Racing Secretary and casually entered Ruffian in the following day's eighth race.
The other trainers with entries in the eighth race at Belmont probably would not have sent them to post, had they been given time to scratch, but Whiteley had done a masterful job of concealing his plans. Jacinto Vasquez was up on the filly for the first time since the Sorority Stakes, and her increased power impressed the jockey. Also impressive was the fact that even under wraps, she cantered effortlessly to an almost five length win in 1:09 2/5, a fast time for any other horse, although it was Ruffian's only race without setting or equaling a record.
Leaving the Kentucky Derby to Foolish Pleasure, Ruffian made her next start in the Comely Stakes on April 30. Running true to form, Ruffian was on top almost immediately, after a slow break. In the backstretch, Angel Cordero, Jr. took his best shot at beating the star, despite his inferior mount. Riding up behind Ruffian, he let out a shriek, hoping the filly would bolt and run out of steam before the wire. Cordero was successful in startling the filly, and Jacinto had to fight to hold her speed down, but Angel's filly, Aunt Jin, was through by the top of the stretch, and Ruffian not only set a stakes record of 1:21 1/5 for the seven furlongs, but galloped out a mile in 1:35 2/5. In the Comely, Ruffian had also achieved something that not even Secretariat, Kelso, or Citation had accomplished. The filly had created a minus win pool, both at the track and at Off Track Betting. Such universal confidence in a favorite was almost unheard of; occasionally, a top horse would create a minus pool to show, but Ruffian's fans had bet enough money on the filly to win that a minus pool resulted. The track was forced to pay out more money than it had received.
After riding Ruffian in the Comely, Jacinto Vasquez headed for Churchill Downs to make his bid for the roses aboard Foolish Pleasure. Even after winning his first Kentucky Derby, Jacinto was thinking about the filly. A reporter questioned how soon Vasquez would be back to New York, he replied he'd be at the barn early on Monday morning. Confused, the reporter asked which barn he meant. "What barn? Mr. Whiteley's barn! I don't never like to stay too far away from Ruffian.!"
The next goal set for Ruffian was the NYRA Filly Triple Crown, which consisted of the Acorn Stakes, the Mother Goose Stakes, and the Coaching Club American Oaks. Chris Evert had taken the series the previous season, as had Dark Mirage in 1968. For the Acorn, Ruffian was more cooperative about being rated in the early stages than she ever had before, even allowing Ron Turcotte and Piece of Luck to stay within a length of her during the first half. Finally, sensing the filly would not tolerate being held back much longer, Vasquez let his mount step up the pace. She bounded away from Turcotte's mount as if the other filly had stopped running and opening up a seven length lead before her rider asked her to ease up again. At the end, she won by eight and a quarter lengths in stakes record time of 1:34 2/5. The real contest in the race had been for second, with the game filly Somethingregal nosing out Gallant Trial, then pulling up lame after the wire with a horseshoe nail in her frog.
The dark filly was a hard horse to rate, and when she ran the slowest early fractions of her life, going in :47 3/5 in the first half of the Mother Goose Stakes, Whiteley and Vasquez were pleased. If the filly learned to relax when on the lead, she would be able to save more speed for the finish. When she challenged colts, like Foolish Pleasure, and later, older horses like Forego, Ruffian would need a strong stretch drive. She set still another stakes record, with a final time of 1:47 4/5, and had she been allowed her head, Riva Ridge would have given up his track record of 1:47.
Frank Whiteley once again gave Jacinto Vasquez instructions to rate the big filly in the Coaching Club American Oaks, and the jockey did as he was told, holding the filly back until Equal Change came up to challenge. She could only get within a length and a half of Ruffian, but gamely gave all she had to her stretch drive, opening up the gap between herself and the rest of the field to nearly nine lengths. Ruffian's margin of victory was three lengths, and her time of 2:27 4/5 tied the race record. Yet except for a final furlong in :11 3/5, Ruffian had not been allowed to run, and even in the last eighth had not run all out. Had she been pushed, many thought she could have broken Secretariat's track record, and there was no doubt of her ability to break the stakes record. Yet record or no record, the Filly Triple Crown belonged to Ruffian, and she had yet to break a sweat. Even after running a mile and a half, the filly was inexhaustible, bucking as she was slowed down after the wire, and playing on the walk back to the barn.
In her ten career starts, Ruffian was not only undefeated, but had led the field at every point in every race. Her combined margins of victory totaled eighty-three lengths. She had also equaled two track records, was the owner of seven stakes records, and had tied an eighth stakes record. It was time to step out of her division and meet the colts.
The New York Racing Association had tentatively planned a "Race of Champions" at the end of June, bringing together the winners of each of the American classics. Yet bringing Foolish Pleasure, Master Derby, and Avatar together for a fourth time seemed pointless. Wrote The Blood-Horse:
"Until these colts are measured against Ruffian, none of them has much of a claim on the title of 3-year-old champion. Right now we do not believe that -even to escape a swarm of Brazil's hybrid African honeybees- any of these could catch up with the Stuart Janneys' big filly."
In response to the pressure, the idea of adding Ruffian to the field was considered, but when Avatar returned to California, and therefore was lost from the field, the four-horse race lost its appeal. Monmouth Park offered a $400,000 purse for a Match Race between Ruffian and Foolish Pleasure. The "Boy-Girl" angle was sure to create a stir. NYRA offered a three-horse race, but LeRoy Jolley objected. Master Derby would have had the definite advantage in such an event. Both Ruffian and Foolish Pleasure were front runners. If they got into a speed dual early, which was all but guaranteed, they would burn each other out, leaving the race to the Preakness winner. In the end, NYRA announced that a mile and a quarter long Match Race, worth $350,000, was to be held on July 6 at Belmont Park.
Jacinto Vasquez was now faced with a dilemma. He had to decide on his mount for the Match. Turning down either trainer would be difficult, and Foolish Pleasure had given him his Kentucky Derby victory. It was Ruffian, however, that Jacinto chose to ride.
Ruffian broke sharply to the left, knocking her shoulder hard against the gate, then leapt after the Derby winner. Within a few strides she was even with the colt, and they flew as a team down the backstretch. Ruffian pushed her nose ahead of the colt's, claiming the time of :22 1/5 at the quarter. They thundered down the backstretch, Ruffian slowly opening her lead to a half length. It was then that the much promoted dream race became a national nightmare.
Jacinto Vasquez heard a pop, and Ruffian stumbled as the colt rushed past. The great filly has broken down. The jockey fought to stop his mount, knowing that if she kept running she would go down. It was a desperate battle to pull up the filly, as she ran on the exposed bone, ripping ligaments. By the time her rider was successful in stopping her, Ruffian's right foot hung uselessly by a flap of skin.
People raced from all directions to offer what help they could. Ruffian was loaded into the horse ambulance and returned to her stall, where the fight for her life would begin, while Foolish Pleasure became the center of a hollow ceremony in the winner's circle. A team of vets fought the effects of shock and hemorrhaging while decisions were made about the injury itself. Ruffian's chance of survival was less than ten percent, but as long as there was a chance, the Janney's felt it had to be tried.
Desperate efforts on the surgical table were ultimately a failure. Although the veterinarians were able to stabilize the filly and repair the leg, the post-operational shock caused her to wake up fighting. Ruffian's struggling destroyed the heavy cast and added to her injuries. A second surgery was briefly considered, but it was doubtful that the brave filly could have survived. Even if she had, it was probable that she would not tolerate the cast a second time, either. Ruffian was put down. The entire nation mourned the death of perhaps the greatest distaffer in racing history. The game filly is now buried in the infield at Belmont Park, with her head pointed towards the finish line for all eternity.
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Video by Carly Kaiser
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