Ruffian

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Sometimes a horse can prove a morning glory who fades in the afternoon, just as a boxer can leave his fight in the gym, but after two such blistering workouts the contestants cooled out nicely, ate well, and were at perfect ease. From then on until Sunday they would be restricted to slow, loosening-up gallops each morning. The Belmont-track odds maker released his guess at where the betting money would go. Ruffian was listed as the probable favorite. That agreed with the general view of the experts. Each day for almost a week The Form ran a feature asking people whom they favored, and most picked the filly. The New York Post columnist Larry Merchant wondered if this fight wouldn’t turn out to be Woody Alien versus Wonder Woman.

Sunday dawned peculiarly dark—people remembered that—and there was lightning and heavy, dank July warmth. That kept the crowd down to fifty thousand. But as the afternoon wore on, the skies cleared and the mood at Belmont was excited and merry. Many women wore T-shirts with the female circleand-cross insignia surmounted by Ruffian’s name, and there were buttons on everybody: THE GREAT MATCH RUFFIAN; THE GREAT MATCH FOOLISH PLEASURE; HIM; HER . The New Orleans Preservation Hall Jazz Band and the Duke Ellington Orchestra had been brought in to play in the park area behind the paddock, and many splen did picnic baskets were opened. When the two horses came onto the track at around 6:00 P.M. , Tom Gilcoyne, then a businessman who traveled a great deal, now a library volunteer for the National Museum of Racing in Saratoga, thought that in his decades of racegoing to more than sixty tracks here and abroad he had never heard such a pitch of cheering. Ruffian halted for a moment in front of the stands and looked around. She had that habit of surveying what met her gaze, appearing, it seemed to her owner Barbara Janney, to know how she held the eye of the crowd. Those would be Janney’s best and strongest memories of her, the way she did that.

The Columbia Broadcasting System was on the air with a one-hour television special, its theme song a man-versus-woman rendition of “Anything You Can Do, I Can Do Better.” An audience of around twenty million was estimated to be watching. Up in the stands a sixteen-year-old girl clutched her two-dollar ticket on Ruffian. (That was not the way most horseplayers would advise her to act; she could easily lose the ticket, fling it into the air if she got excited.) Her grandfather had gotten her into racing. She would grow up, finish her education, get married, have a child, and become the librarian Linda Souyack of The Daily Racing Form and write its “This Day in Racing” column. Professionally she would be involved with racehorses and from that involvement receive moneys far beyond the two dollars bet at Belmont that day. But it would be Ruffian who forever remained her heart’s dearest horse.

The runners approached the starting gate at the mile-and-a-quarter chute on the track’s far side across from the grandstand, where they would go five-eighths of a mile before coming into the far turn and the stretch to the finish line. In the winner’s circle awaited the checks, names not filled in, and a two-hundred-year-old silver trophy former Secretary of State William Rogers would present to the victor’s people.

It seemed to the veteran racegoer Tom Gilcoyne that there was an in- creasing degree of voiced excitement, even greater than before, fifty thousand people aroused in the same manner, all yelling together. They got into the gate, Ruffian, as according to the draw, inside, Foolish Pleasure outside. “It is now post time,” said the public address system, impossible to hear. The gate opened.

Just past the seven sixteenths marker she began to bump colt. She was leaning on him as they ran.
 

Foolish Pleasure came away first, very alertly broken by Baeza and flying on the outside. It was at once obvious he wasn’t going to lie back and let the filly set, and so dictate, the pace. But in a few strides Ruffian caught him and stuck her nose slightly in front of his, a matter of inches. They ran as a team side by side, flashing the first quarter in 221/5, on their way, Vasquez thought, to the fastest half-mile any two horses ever ran. The colt was virtually invisible to the screaming people in the stands, his body completely cut off from view by Ruffian’s.

Then slowly his tail and rear end could be seen, for she was inching ahead. They roared down the backstretch, both jockeys high on the horses’ necks, seats off the tiny two-pound saddles, elbows in, heads down, knees together, both “scrubbing” with their hands, and she increased her lead so that while they were still lapped on each other, her nose was perhaps three feet in front of his. One important question had been answered: Would a runner who had never had anyone look her in the eye, as horse people put it, wilt when someone did? The answer was that she would not, for passing the three-eighths pole, she was half a length in front, with Foolish Pleasure grimly hanging on.