There was a miraculous and all-conquering horse, a filly, not a colt, who in nine out of ten races broke or equaled speed records that had stood for years and decades, who in fire and presence and appearance was Black Beauty personified, and was, the author of The Black Stallion said, the mental picture he had of his creation. In her greatest moment she was struck down. She struck herself down. What had made her great de stroyed her. Tens of thousands watched in person, and millions on television. No small number wept. She had done what no horse had ever done and was buried where no horse was ever buried. The great wings were folded about her, and Pegasus flew no more.

The heartbreaking career of the greatest filly—and perhaps the greatest horse—that ever lived

Ruffian was foaled at Kentucky’s Claiborne Farm in April of 1972. Her name had been reserved for a baby colt owned by Mr. and Mrs. Stuart S. Janney, Jr., but then they sold that colt and gave the name to their filly. “Girls can be ruffians too,” Barbara Janney explained. She had spent her life around horses. Her brother, Ogden Phipps, was on his way to becoming chairman of the New York Racing Association. Their mother, Mrs. Henry Carnegie Phipps, had owned Bold Ruler, a capable enough runner on the track but in the breeding shed the most influential stallion in the history of this or any other country, the sire of countless important horses, including Secretariat.

The baby filly was a granddaughter of Bold Ruler, the father being Ogden’s Reviewer, one of Bold Ruler’s many speedy sons. Ruffian’s other grandfather was Native Dancer, television’s first notable horse because of his gray color, which stood out on the black-and-white screens of the 1950s, and his brilliant come-from-behind style, which failed him only once, in the Kentucky Derby, where he came in second.

The filly was big—very big. The farm help called her Sophie, as in sofa . She had great balance and conformation, meaning every part of her body was perfectly proportioned. In the spring of 1974 she came up to Belmont Park outside New York City from a South Carolina training farm where she had learned to accept a bridle and been taught how to react to a rider muscling her and showing her how to get around a racetrack. Her trainer had seen something there.

The trainer was Frank Y. Whiteley, Jr., a highly experienced horseman. He had followed his trade from the age of eighteen, beginning in the leaky-roof circuit of minor tracks with cheap and broken-down horses, running used-to-be against never-was for peanuts, eating out of a frying pan, and acting as his own groom and muckerout of dirty stables; eventually he had worked up to conditioning two divisional champions. Like a good many horse professionals, Whiteley seemed more at ease with animals than with people. Appearing harsh and entirely unsentimental, he spoke in short sentences, usually commands to his stable help. The first time he talked to a Belmont exercise boy about Ruffian, Whiteley said something very strange, for it is an ageless tradition of racing that an owner or trainer should never speak too highly of a horse. Such a display of hubris can bring down the wrath of the gods who control the draw for post positions, determine whether your jockey maes his move too early or too late, and rule who wins by a nose and who doesn’t. Even the Kentucky Derby and Belmont Stakes winners are generally described by their connections as just nice horses who can run a little. So it came as a great surprise to the exercise boy Yates Kennedy when Whiteley said to him, “I got a big black filly I’m gonna put you on. It’s the fastest horse you’ve ever been on.”

Kennedy was the first of even jockey who got on Ruffian to discover that while it seemed she was just cruising, she was flying.

The “boy,” Kennedy, was Whiteley’s own age, fifty-nine. In younger days he’d been a jockey. Whiteley told him to get a little run out of Ruffian for three furlongs, three-eighths of a mile. Kennedy let her roll the prescribed distance. She showed a gigantic, fluid stride. She seemed, Kennedy later told her biographer Jane Schwartz, almost to hang in the air after pushing off with a rear hoof, almost as if, he said, she’d put up a sail between strides. She’d done the three furlongs in around thirty-seven seconds, Kennedy figured when he slowed and stopped her. Like all jockeys and exercise boys, he had a precisely accurate clock in his head. So when Whiteley told him she’d gone in thirty-five and one-fifth seconds, maybe thirty-five and two-fifths, Kennedy told the trainer his stopwatch was off.

But the watch wasn’t off. Kennedy became the first of every exercise rider and jockey who got on Ruffian to discover that while it seemed that she was just cruising along, she was actually flying. A two-second misjudgment may not seem like much, but racehorses go one length in a fifth of a second, and two seconds can be the difference between winning money and being way up the track.