Ruffian

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Then something strange happened. Just past the seven-sixteenths marker, she began bumping the colt. She was leaning on him as they ran. “That was the only thing that kept her up,” Frank Whiteley said, later, when he viewed the head-on stewards’ films. Vasquez was feverishly hauling on the reins, but she would not stop. Ruffian ran on, ran on to pulverize the right front leg, whose initial fracturing both jockeys remembered as sounding like the snap! of a breaking tree branch. She had taken what horse people call a bad step.

The shattering of both sesamoids left her with no support from her hoof, but she kept running with the leg below the ankle turned up like a ski tip, flapping like a glove held in the fingertips, running on raw bone and pounding down on the broken sesamoids so that they reacted as would an ice cube if you hit it with a hammer, said the veterinarian Alex Harthill later, bone splinters as sharp as glass slivers ripping through the skin. She wanted to run, kept running. She did so for some fifty yards. It was impossible that she keep it up. To the people in the stands it appeared that Foolish Pleasure had put on a burst of speed, for he shot ahead, leaving her behind.

She wavered off to the right, unevenly staggering. Then all knew what had happened. But there was a time lag before complete realization took hold. The Daily Racing Form ’s Steve Haskin found his brain not registering, out of function. He did not seem able to comprehend what he was seeing, he remembered. What a spurt Foolish Pleasure had unleashed, he thought confusedly. Then he understood. Chic Anderson, calling the race for CBSTV, found entering his mind a conviction that what he had seen could not have happened. “Then I realized it had happened and I had an obligation to carry on with my call.” He cried into his microphone, “Ruffian has broken down ! ”

Vasquez fought her to a plunging, bouncing halt. He jumped off and planted himself to hold her up on her right side. Blood and fragments of bone poured from her lower leg. Her determination to keep running after sustaining injury had ripped and torn and shredded arteries, ligaments, and tendons. In the stands the intense and wild cheering had of an instant been replaced by a complete silence. Vast and crowded Belmont Park was entirely hushed. In later days Tom Gilcoyne likened the situation to what could be done with the hand-held television remote controls that came into use a few years later: You pushed the mute button, and immediately all noise ceased.

Foolish Pleasure kept going. Baeza had looked to his left when he heard the snap! and then backward and to his right when Ruffian careened away. Then he saw to the handling of his horse. Almost no one in the stands looked at the colt. When the Bloodhorse ’s Rudy glanced over at him, he appeared to be running in one spot; and to the trainer LeRoy Jolley it seemed as if his horse was taking an hour to get to the finish line. (Actually the automatic timers caught him in just a couple of seconds more than two minutes.)

In the stands Frank Whiteley for a moment looked like a man hit by lightning, a New York Times reporter was told. Then he bolted from his seat and tried to run across the track. A Pinkerton held him back, for in a moment Foolish Pleasure would be coming through. A car took Whiteley to the backstretch. The track ambulance had arrived. Dr. Manuel Gilman found a rolling-eyed and lathered horse with dirt pounded far up into a wound whose fearfulness was immediately apparent. She was in desperate pain. Almost any other horse would have been put down right there.

But this was the best filly who ever lived. Gilman put on a compressed-air balloonlike temporary cast in an attempt to keep the leg rigid and together. Ruffian’s people came running and driving up, Whiteley, the grooms, the assistant trainer, and people from the starting gate. They physically picked her up and put her into the horse ambulance and headed for her stable. There would be an attempt to save her, not for racing, for that was manifestly impossible, but for breeding. And because she was Ruffian.

But in the stands, in some indefinable way, the people knew what was coming. They were for the most part not horse experts, still less veterinarians, not even regular racing fans, most of them, the women with the cross-and-circle T-shirts and buttons. They cried. Not only women. On the racetrack special back to the city, where she would catch a train for upstate New York, the small-farm horse breeder Jayne Barry Smith sat surrounded by weeping people. At the station, as she walked to her train, she heard people talking about what they had seen on television, and some of them were crying also.

Ruffian was carried from the ambulance to her stall, men linking hands under her to do so. Dr. Jim Prendergast, Whiteley’s stable vet, gave her shots of coagulants, antibiotics, antihistamines, and pain-killing narcotics. Despite the medications, she was in terrible pain, thrashing about, lashing out, trying to fling herself on the floor, and hitting the stable walls as men screamed orders and tried to control her. The compressed-air temporary cast burst open, ruptured by the blood pouring out of the wound and flooding over the people on the floor.