Ruffian

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The sport of racing beI I gan with one man saying to another: “My horse is better than yours, and I got the money to prove it.” Then they had a match race. In modern times match races are very rare. The last one in New York previous to Ruffian-Foolish Pleasure was in 1947, twenty-eight years earlier. Even rarer are match races between a colt and a filly. It has nothing to do with male chauvinism to point out that male horses are stronger, even as male baseball players are stronger, as evidenced by no woman’s ever having played for the New York Mets or Los Angeles Dodgers or any major-league team in any city between the two. It is certainly incontrovertible that the woman never lived who could stand up for a round against any heavyweight champ.

The male horse Foolish Pleasure shaped up as a Derby winner who didn’t miss but a length in the Preakness and a head in the Belmont, who had won eleven of his fourteen races, his only other loss being a third in the Florida Derby attributable to injured feet, for which he was later outfitted with special shoes that prevented the recurrence of the problem. Foolish Pleasure was an extremely reliable horse who had always been in against good company, had never run a bad race, was always right there. Normally it would be ridiculous to throw a filly in against him.

But Ruffian. Here was a filly who broke stakes records seven straight times before merely equaling one in her most recent effort, who had won ten out of ten races by an average of eight lengths and in so doing had never been extended at any time for more than two or three giant bounds. Here was a woman, women’s liberationists immediately declared, who was one of their own. She would carry the flag! The New York Daily News ran a cartoon showing Gloria Steinern, Jane Fonda, Bella Abzug, Billie Jean King, Betty Friedan, Shirley Chisholm, and other leading feminists gathered to yell, “C’mon, Ruffian!” The Battle of the Sexes. People who had never visited a track in their lives or ridden a horse got involved in the Great Match Race. When Jacinto Vasquez took himself off Foolish Pleasure in favor of Ruffian after riding the colt in his last nine races, it was a major story.

Foolish Pleasure’s connections, his trainer, LeRoy Jolley, and his owner, John L. Greer, a Tennessee industrialist and banker, then announced the colt would be ridden by Braulio Baeza, who had been on board for the Hopeful during Vasquez’s Saratoga suspension. Although both jockeys were Panamanian and lived on the same suburban street, the differences between them were extreme. Vasquez was seen as aggressive, rambunctious, driving, fiery, dynamic. Baeza was silent, methodical, brooding, remote, icelike, immensely dignified. His features were reminiscent of the heads and statues found in Inca or Aztec ruins depicting ancient kings and emperors. There was little to choose between them in either ability or recent form, and they were fighting for the lead in the summer jockey standings, a lead they would share on race day with twenty-nine wins apiece for the meeting so far.

On the Tuesday before the Sunday race a big rally was held on the Fifth Avenue steps of the New York Public Library. Baeza and Vasquez were presented with specially engraved silver coins commemorating the coming event, and off-duty airline stewardesses gave out handsome buttons bearing a picture of either Ruffian or Foolish Pleasure with THE GREAT MATCH above and the horse’s name below. Additional buttons would be offered at the track. The city’s Off-Track Betting outlets began distributing two hundred thousand buttons with no picture or definition beyond a direct HIM or HER . So it became a common sight in Manhattan to see people in the streets showing their endorsement. “Any woman who wears a Foolish Pleasure button at a time like this should be ashamed of herself!” one Ruffian backer told a New York Times reporter, and her sentiments were echoed in a 180-degree reversal by a man interviewed for a New York Racing Association television feature: “I’m for Foolish Pleasure because I’m a male chauvinist pig.”

In a move no one had ever seen before, the NYRA announced the two contestants would weigh in for the battle. She topped the scale, as is said in fight circles, at 1,125 pounds. He was 1,061. She was a good three inches taller, two and a half inches larger around the girth, larger in other measurements, and, said Dr. Manuel Gilman, the attending veterinarian, the most perfectly conformed horse he had ever beheld.

Final pre-race workouts were held. She drilled three-quarters of a mile in time good enough to win most races at the track at that distance while Vasquez kept her under extreme restraint. The Form ’s chief clocker, Gene ("Frenchy") Schwartz, said: “I think if he turned her loose my watch would explode. I’ve been around about half a century and I’ve never seen a thoroughbred work so fast so easily.”

The next day Foolish Pleasure blasted off three furlongs in thirty-three seconds flat. “Almost unbelievable,” said The New York Times . Baeza took him another two furlongs to finish in .562/5, and Herb Goldstein in The Form wrote that he had been sensational and that he simply sizzled, while the jockey agent Freddie Stevens said, “I never saw a horse work that fast before in all my time in racing. I have seen them all, including Man o’ War.”