Ruffian

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Soon the trainer had the leading jockey Jacinto Vasquez come to the barn at six o’clock in the morning. Years earlier, when the jockey was on the way up, his agent recommended him to Whiteley. “I don’t ride no Porta Ricans,” Whiteley informed the agent. That Vasquez was not from Puerto Rico but Panama was beside the point. The agent persisted, and finally Whiteley started riding Vasquez. He always addressed him as Porta Rican. He told the jockey to go work this big filly half a mile. They’d come out of the starting gate with some other horses.

Vasquez warmed her up with some jogging and took her to the gate. He’d been riding since he was a kid down at Panama City’s track. In 1960 he’d moved his tack, as the saying goes, up to the United States. He was sixteen, very young, very aggressive. In his first year the stewards suspended him 140 days for rough riding. He calmed down, somewhat, rode all over the country, and in 1970 came to the big New York circuit, where he became one of the two or three most winning members of the jockey colony. He was thirty years old. The gates slammed open, and the other horses poured out. Ruffian had been left. But she got rolling and came roaring up behind the others in a startlingly short time. There was no place to go through. Vasquez pulled her off to the middle of the track. She floated past everyone else, just cruised by. Yet she wasn’t at all being asked to run, for Vasquez had a tight hold on her. Still, through the reins and his feet and legs and by her running action, the jockey was able to know that she wasn’t at all extended, that she hadn’t begun to tap into her power. She wasn’t in anything like high gear, but it took all his strength to slow and then stop her after she did half a mile. His fingers and arms turned numb. “I never run a horse like that,” Vasquez told the Ruffian biographer Edward Clafin.

On May 22, 1974, Ruffian was entered in a five-and-a-half-furlong event for two-year-old filly maidens—horses that have never won a race. She drew the ninth post position in a field of ten. She got into the gate with the others. She was larger than they, glitteringly dark and now “Ol’ Soul Sister” back at the barn, the name conferred on her by her black groom. The bell rang, and the jockeys screamed to jump-start their horses. She got off a beat late, coming out third from last, but in an instant caught up and passed the leaders and veered left in front of them to get to the rail, the shortest path home. The first call after the start had her three lengths in front. The next, five. The next, eight. She opened up fifteen lengths on the horse behind her. Vasquez was holding her back all the way. Under wraps, under restraint, prevented by her jockey from really putting out, and with no pressure or challenge from the other horses far behind her, she crossed over the finish line in one minute and three seconds flat—the track record.

Three weeks later she was entered for the Fashion at Belmont, the first stakes race of the year for two-year-old fillies. It shaped up as a good one. Of the six young horses in the starting gate, four were unbeaten. Particularly of note was Copernica, the first United States winning get, or offspring, of the European flash Nijinsky II. Copernica had run twice, completely dominating her opposition. Showing no sign of effort, Ruffian won by nearly seven lengths. Copernica was second. It was thirteen lengths back to the third V OS horse. That was the seventy-sixth running of the Fashion Stakes, and Ruffian did it in faster time than any previous winner. The jockey had applied no pressure, had not “scrubbed” her with his hands or knees, never showed her the whip. That week The Bloodhorse appeared almost to apologize for presenting an article on a juvenile filly whose entire career consisted of two races. Usually, the magazine explained, no one talks much about youngsters until August or the fall, but an individual who in two races ties a track record and sets a stakes one seemed to merit some attention.

A month later, July 10, Ruffian went in Aqueduct’s Astoria Stakes, the sixtyeighth renewal of the race. Vince Bracciale, Jr., rode, for Vasquez was on the ground for ten days—a stewards’ penalty for careless riding in a race in which his horse bumped another around. When the gate opened, Bracciale broke her nicely, and she took the lead and won by nine lengths, never really asked to run, let alone urged to do so. She came home in a new stakes record for the Astoria. “Speed to spare,” reported The Daily Racing Form .

Seventeen days later she went down to Monmouth Park on the Jersey shore for the Sorority Stakes, six furlongs. Vasquez was back, his suspension over. Taking the lead a couple of jumps out of the gate, Ruffian appeared to have trouble shaking the undefeated and well-regarded Hot N Nasty, who had won stakes in Pennsylvania and California, and the people saw what they had never seen and would never see again, a jockey lifting his whip and bringing it down on Ruffian’s flank—four quick shots. After she had won by better than two lengths, with the third horse stumbling in twenty-two lengths behind Hot N Nasty, Vasquez told the reporters that she was like a gold-plated Cadillac. How had she reacted to the whip? “Like a Caddy when you first ask for more gas.” She had done what was now starting to seem usual: set a new stakes record.