Ruffian

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In mid-April, after seven months off, Ruffian came back to the races at Aqueduct. She had grown and was even more beautiful than she had been as a two-year-old. Whiteley put her in an easy spot, an allowance race, his only riding orders to Vasquez being that he didn’t want any records broken. The jockey obeyed, holding her to a relatively slow win. Five days later Foolish Pleasure took the Wood Memorial, the East’s last major prep for the Kentucky Derby, Vasquez getting him up to win in the final strides. Reporters were asking if Ruffian would go into the Derby and attempt to become the second filly in a century to win it, the only precedent being Regret in 1915, but her connections announced she would shoot for the female equivalent of the Triple Crown’s Derby, Preakness, and Belmont—the Acorn, Mother Goose, and Coaching Club American Oaks. Fewer runners had won the filly triple crown than the male one.

Six weeks after her 1975 debut she got off sideways in the Comely—her head was turned sideways when the gate opened—but went from last to first with a couple of bounds to coast home by almost eight lengths and set a new stakes record, as was now routine. She went off at odds of one to twenty, meaning a bettor had to put up $2.00 to get a ticket that would be worth $2.10 when she won. You can make more by leaving your money in the bank for a year, but Ruffian was safer, it was said. Each time she ran now, the track had to reach into its pocket, for the legal payoff had to be at least one to twenty, and there was simply not enough money bet on the other entries to make good.

“Any woman who wears a Foolish Pleasure button at a time like this should be ashamed of herself!” one Ruffian backer told a reporter.
 
 

On the traditional first Saturday of May at Churchill Downs, Foolish Pleasure gave his backers anxious moments as he broke slowly and went along in eleventh position before moving up to take the lead and win going away. Vasquez sat him to see the blanket of roses put on and then returned to New York for Ruffian’s Acorn Stakes and an eight-length win and new stakes record. She was never in a drive, it was just a workout for her, said The Bloodhorse , remarking that Whiteley a year earlier had remarked that she had never been really asked to run in her life. “That is still true. Thus, it is not known how fast this astounding filly can run.” It was in itself astounding that The Bloodhorse said “astounding.” In an earlier article William H. Rudy had pointed out that it was difficult to utilize the usual “understatement of the sport” when discussing Ruffian, but now the magazine was calling her “phenomenal” and a “wonder” while The Form termed her “invincible.” Even Secretariat was not that, nor Citation, Man o’ War, or Tom Fool. At one time or another they all had tasted defeat.

A week after the Acorn, Foolish Pleasure altered course in the Preakness and came in second by a length. His bid for the Triple Crown was over. In the Mother Goose, the filly equivalent, Ruffian left her opponents hopelessly behind, winning by nearly fourteen lengths and setting a new stakes record with what The Bloodhorse called “surpassing equine beauty and style.”

Belmont Day came. Foolish Pleasure handled the mile and a half, closing fast under Vasquez but ending short a diminishing neck to Avatar, who had run second to him in the Derby. Later in June Ruffian went the same distance in the Coaching Club American Oaks and eliminated any possible questions about whether she could stay a route. Prior to the race, when her longest effort had been at a mile and an eighth, she could be seen as a sprinter. Sprinters sometimes fold when asked to go a distance. But after making the lead under a tight hold, she exploded at the end. She really ran only the final sixteenth of a mile, Whiteley remarked, but she did the Coaching Club American Oaks faster than Avatar did the Belmont and equaled the stakes record.

Dancer of every dance, winner of the filly triple crown, her every race spectacular not in terms of competition but as a show of brilliance, said The Bloodhorse , exciting not as contests but as “magnificent exhibitions,” Ruffian had no more fields to conquer. Save one. She had never run against a colt. Foolish Pleasure was the best colt in the country. Belmont Park put up a purse for which the winner’s share would be more than Foolish Pleasure got for winning the Derby, and the loser’s more than Avatar got for the Belmont. It was to be $225,000 to the winner, $125,000 to the loser. The Great Match Race. One mile and a quarter. Boy versus Girl. July 6, 1975.