It is hard to do full justice to a legend, and in thoroughbred horse racing there are not many legends as great as that of Ruffian. In an amazing racing career that lasted little more than a calendar year, she thrilled the imagination and empowered the female gender. Her speed was unstoppable, and her courage was undeniable. She was too fast for her competition. Ruffian was too fast to live and too young to die.
Foaled at Claiborne Farm in April of 1972, Ruffian was a near black daughter of Reviewer out of Shenanigans by Native Dancer. Before she would turn two, she was sent by her breeder and owner Mr & Mrs. Stuart Janney to South Carolina and trainer, Frank Whiteley, who saw something in the big filly early on. When Whiteley brought his stable to Belmont Park in the Spring of 1974, he was sure of it. He reportedly told the exercise rider for her first workout at Belmont Park, that he was about to get on the fastest horse he has ever ridden. Ruffian would run a few seconds faster than the rider was told to do, but that would become commonplace for her riders. They had no idea how fast the filly was going with her effortless stride, until they were told of their time. She was indeed going fast, real fast.
When she made it to the races for the first time, on May 22, 1974, not many people outside the Whiteley barn knew about her. That would not last for long. Sent off at 4-1 in her debut, all Ruffian did was win by 15 widening lengths in 1:03 flat for the 5 ½ furlongs. The time tied the track record, and a legend was born. Under Jacinto Vasquez, the man that would become her regular rider, Ruffian had gone right to the lead, and was long gone. This started a trend in the career of the great filly, in which we she would never be headed at any call in any of her races.
Next came a start in the Fashion Stakes and a meeting with Copernica, a highly regarded filly of trainer Mack Miller. Copernica would test Ruffian a little more than she had been tested in the debut, but in the end she easily dispatched the daughter of Nijinsky II, and won off by 6 ¾ lengths. Copernica finished 13 lengths of the 3rd horse, Jan Verzal, who had entered the race an unbeaten stakes winner. Despite the tougher competition, Ruffian had been made a 2-5 favorite by the New York crowd, and she did not disappoint, once again equaling a track record of 1:03.
Her third race would also come in New York, but this time at Aqueduct. With Vasquez serving a suspension, Vince Bracciale would ride the new star to a nine length runaway in the Astoria Stakes, this time at 1-10. It's hard to imagine a two-year-old filly going off at those odds in a graded stakes in only her third career start, but that is how special Ruffian was from day one. Next it was on the road to Monmouth Park for the Grade 1 Sorority Stakes, where she would be truly tested for the first time.
The 1973 Sorority Stakes was a bit of a legend in the Zipse household. My father would retell to his sons on countless occasions the afternoon that two of the speediest horses he had ever seen hooked up at Monmouth Park. The two being Ruffian and a ultra talented filly from California named Hot n Nasty. Also undefeated and untested in three starts, the Californian took it to Ruffian as the two would blister a quarter in :21 3/5 and a half in :44 1/5 as they left the rest of the field farther and farther behind on the Jersey shore oval. Something had to give, and it would not be the Whiteley charge. Ruffian would slowly rebuke the challenge of her dogged challenger and hit the wire 2 ¼ lengths clear of Hot n Nasty. Final time was a new stakes record of 1:09 and the runner-up was some 22 lengths clear of the 3rd place finisher. It's a race my father has never forgotten, and from his account of the amazing speed the two fillies threw at each other, I can certainly understand why.
Ruffian would finish her juvenile season on August 23 with a romp in Saratoga's Spinaway Stakes. The 12 ¾ length win was another awesome performance of raw speed and talent. Final time for the six panels was 1:08 3/5. In her first five races she had not only won by an average of more than nine lengths, but her running times were faster than juvenile fillies were supposed to run. Anticipated dates in the big fall races, the Frizette Stakes, and the Champagne Stakes, in which she would face the colts, had to be scrapped when on the morning of the Frizette, Ruffian spiked a fever. Soon after, a hairline fracture was discovered in her right hind pastern, ending her remarkable two-year old season.
During the winter Ruffian was awarded with the Eclipse Award as the Champion Juvenile Filly. Her popularity soared as fans wondered what she might do at three. Even her veteran trainer added fuel to her growing legend, saying that she was the best horse he had ever seen. As in '74, Ruffian would make the trip to Belmont Park in April to begin her second season.
On April 13, 1975, Ruffian displayed her readiness for her sophomore debut with a three furlong blowout in :33 4/5. Later that day Whiteley called an audible and entered his star in an allowance race the following afternoon. Back on her for the first time since the previous summer, rider Jacinto Vasquez must have liked what he felt as he kept her under wraps to win handily in the slow for Ruffian time of 1:09 2/5. It would prove to be the only instance where her final time did not set or equal a record. Two weeks later saw the big, dark filly sent to post at 1-20 odds in the Comely Staks. Despite breaking a beat slow, she rolled to the lead as usual and coasted home by nearly eight lengths in 1:21 1/5 for the seven furlongs.
Three days later, Vasquez would win his first Kentucky Derby aboard the juvenile champion Foolish Pleasure. Resisting temptation to run his superstar in the Triple Crown, Whiteley kept her in New York for the filly triple crown. It was in those series of races that Ruffian would have her first opportunity to stretch her speed, and I would have my only two opportunities to see Ruffian run in person. I remember those days, at my young age, for only one reason. Her name was Ruffian and she was something special.
First came the one mile Acorn, and I had stars in my eyes as Ruffian was allowed to relax a bit more than usual in the first quarter before turning on the afterburners through splits of :45 3/5 and 1:09 3/5 to effectively dash the hopes of her overmatched opponents. At the wire, she was more than eight lengths clear despite the hand ride. I was just one of many admiring fans that left the Acorn in awe of a true champion. The Mother Goose also at Aqueduct was leg two, and I remember watching this one on TV. After the Acorn, I was now a huge fan and could not wait to see her run again on Channel 9. Proving that distance was not going to stop her, Ruffian ran easily her slowest early fractions to date. It did not matter as she still led at every pole, and when the real running began, Ruffian dusted her grade 1 competition as if they were standing still. She won the second leg of the filly triple crown by 13 ½ lengths in an excellent final time of 1:47 4/5, and again in hand. Nine up, nine down easily, there could be no doubt that she was as great as any filly that America had ever seen.
The final leg, the Coaching Club American Oaks back at Belmont, would offer a new challenge in the testing distance of 12 furlongs. Whitely told Vasquez to rate Ruffian, and he did, letting her lope along in moderate fractions, and even letting another filly, named Equal Change get rather close to the mighty Ruffian. Vasquez never looked to come close to the bottom of the tank as Ruffian cruised 2 ¾ lengths clear. In so doing, she tied the stakes record of 2:27 4/5. I saw her that day for the last time, and could not have been more happy for the experience. She was now an undefeated filly triple crown winner and a perfect ten for ten. New challenges were pondered for Ruffian.
The New York Racing Association looked to create something special for the special filly and came up with a "Race of Champions" that would pit her against the winners of the Derby, Preakness, and Belmont. Foolish Pleasure had been narrowly upset in both the Preakness, by Master Derby, and the Belmont by Avatar. When the Californian, Avatar passed on the opportunity, it was decided to drop Master Derby, and make it a match race between the two champions.
There was no doubt that these were the two best three-year-olds in the country. The contest created mass appeal to the public. It was man against woman in a time women were making big strides for equal rights. Ruffian was their champion and the great match race was set. I watched with my family on our black and white Zenith television set. It seemed like the entire nation was watching that day. Both champions broke cleanly, and it was immediately clear that Foolish Pleasure was geared to go with the filly early no matter how fast. The two horses ran in near tandem through a blazing first quarter of :22 1/5. Ruffian was just starting to open up a bit of an advantage when the too tragic to be believed happened. Ruffian had broken down. Foolish Pleasure finished the 1 ¼ mile match race alone, but all eyes were on the backstretch. The unthinkable had happened. I was only six, but I grasped the horror of the situation.
Ruffian was fit with a cast, anesthetized, and operated on that night. After awakening from the surgery, the filly who was so fast, and so talented, and so brave, simply would not be restrained. Ruffian thrashed, and injured herself again. There was nothing left to do but to put the great filly out of pain. Her death was the headline of all newscasts and papers. Ruffian was gone; America was in mourning. She was buried the evening after the match race at Belmont Park, the place where her magnificent career had both begun and ended. Today is the eve of the 36-year anniversary of the match race. Thinking of it still makes me sad. She was too fast to live, but far too young to die. I remember you Ruffian.