- Historic Sites
September 1993 | Volume 44, Issue 5
There was a miraculous and all-conquering horse, a filly, not a colt, who in nine out of ten races broke or equaled speed records that had stood for years and decades, who in fire and presence and appearance was Black Beauty personified, and was, the author of The Black Stallion said, the mental picture he had of his creation. In her greatest moment she was struck down. She struck herself down. What had made her great de stroyed her. Tens of thousands watched in person, and millions on television. No small number wept. She had done what no horse had ever done and was buried where no horse was ever buried. The great wings were folded about her, and Pegasus flew no more.
The heartbreaking career of the greatest filly—and perhaps the greatest horse—that ever lived
Ruffian was foaled at Kentucky’s Claiborne Farm in April of 1972. Her name had been reserved for a baby colt owned by Mr. and Mrs. Stuart S. Janney, Jr., but then they sold that colt and gave the name to their filly. “Girls can be ruffians too,” Barbara Janney explained. She had spent her life around horses. Her brother, Ogden Phipps, was on his way to becoming chairman of the New York Racing Association. Their mother, Mrs. Henry Carnegie Phipps, had owned Bold Ruler, a capable enough runner on the track but in the breeding shed the most influential stallion in the history of this or any other country, the sire of countless important horses, including Secretariat.
The baby filly was a granddaughter of Bold Ruler, the father being Ogden’s Reviewer, one of Bold Ruler’s many speedy sons. Ruffian’s other grandfather was Native Dancer, television’s first notable horse because of his gray color, which stood out on the black-and-white screens of the 1950s, and his brilliant come-from-behind style, which failed him only once, in the Kentucky Derby, where he came in second.
The filly was big—very big. The farm help called her Sophie, as in sofa . She had great balance and conformation, meaning every part of her body was perfectly proportioned. In the spring of 1974 she came up to Belmont Park outside New York City from a South Carolina training farm where she had learned to accept a bridle and been taught how to react to a rider muscling her and showing her how to get around a racetrack. Her trainer had seen something there.
The trainer was Frank Y. Whiteley, Jr., a highly experienced horseman. He had followed his trade from the age of eighteen, beginning in the leaky-roof circuit of minor tracks with cheap and broken-down horses, running used-to-be against never-was for peanuts, eating out of a frying pan, and acting as his own groom and muckerout of dirty stables; eventually he had worked up to conditioning two divisional champions. Like a good many horse professionals, Whiteley seemed more at ease with animals than with people. Appearing harsh and entirely unsentimental, he spoke in short sentences, usually commands to his stable help. The first time he talked to a Belmont exercise boy about Ruffian, Whiteley said something very strange, for it is an ageless tradition of racing that an owner or trainer should never speak too highly of a horse. Such a display of hubris can bring down the wrath of the gods who control the draw for post positions, determine whether your jockey maes his move too early or too late, and rule who wins by a nose and who doesn’t. Even the Kentucky Derby and Belmont Stakes winners are generally described by their connections as just nice horses who can run a little. So it came as a great surprise to the exercise boy Yates Kennedy when Whiteley said to him, “I got a big black filly I’m gonna put you on. It’s the fastest horse you’ve ever been on.”
Kennedy was the first of even jockey who got on Ruffian to discover that while it seemed she was just cruising, she was flying.
The “boy,” Kennedy, was Whiteley’s own age, fifty-nine. In younger days he’d been a jockey. Whiteley told him to get a little run out of Ruffian for three furlongs, three-eighths of a mile. Kennedy let her roll the prescribed distance. She showed a gigantic, fluid stride. She seemed, Kennedy later told her biographer Jane Schwartz, almost to hang in the air after pushing off with a rear hoof, almost as if, he said, she’d put up a sail between strides. She’d done the three furlongs in around thirty-seven seconds, Kennedy figured when he slowed and stopped her. Like all jockeys and exercise boys, he had a precisely accurate clock in his head. So when Whiteley told him she’d gone in thirty-five and one-fifth seconds, maybe thirty-five and two-fifths, Kennedy told the trainer his stopwatch was off.
But the watch wasn’t off. Kennedy became the first of every exercise rider and jockey who got on Ruffian to discover that while it seemed that she was just cruising along, she was actually flying. A two-second misjudgment may not seem like much, but racehorses go one length in a fifth of a second, and two seconds can be the difference between winning money and being way up the track.
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.
The next month, August, she went up to Saratoga for the Spinaway Stakes. The main opposition would be Laughing Bridge, who had won the track’s Schuylerville and Adirondack, victories indicating that Saratoga very well suited Laughing Bridge. There is a saying that there are horses for courses, for all tracks have variants in soil and turns and length of the stretch, and there was no certainty that Ruffian would feel at home at what horse people cal the Spa. The horses got off with Ruffian showing the way and Laughing Bridge lying back in third. Vasquez, suspended again, was on the ground, anc Vince Bracciale was on board.
They went down the backstretch witr Ruffian holding a three-length advantage as Bracciale almost strangled hei to keep the speed down. Yet she wa; setting blazing fractions. It seemed tc William H. Rudy of The Bloodhorse that she was, as he wrote, “almost loaf ing” but that her ease of motion anc beautiful stride masked her swiftness “One was seeing something very rare.’
Coming off the far turn, Laughing Bridge made her move and took ove: second place. Bracciale let the reins ou a bit, and at once Ruffian effortlessly shot forward. Laughing Bridge was being whipped and driven, but Ruffian in leisured fashion widened her lead with every step. Bracciale knew the race was won and that Frank Whiteley would not want the filly needlessly extended, so he tried to slow her. Through the stretch he steadily tightened up the reins and felt he’d gotten her throttled down. She won by thirteen lengths. “Easily,” said The Daily Racing Form . An outrider, one of the red-coated horsemen patrolling the track, came up as Bracciale halted the horse to turn her for the winner’s circle and asked the jockey how fast he thought he’d gone. Bracciale supposed it was a minute and eleven seconds, maybe ten and change. “I never really let her run, you know.”
Together they cantered back to the front of the grandstand, and Bracciale looked over to the tote board in the infield where the time of the race was up in lights. “That can’t be right,” Bracciale said to the outrider. “You saw me, I was choking her for the last eighth. I was pulling her up all the way home!”
Ruffian set a record for six furlongs for any two year-old in the histoiy of Saratoga, where horses began running at the end of the Civil War.
The time was 1:083A. That was not only a new record for the Spinaway Stakes, whose eighty-third running this had been, but a new record for six furlongs for any two-year old in the history of Saratoga, where horses began running at the end of the Civil War.
A month later, when Whiteley came into his barn, he was told Ruffian had not finished her 4:00 A.M. serving of grain. That was bad. In-work and healthy horses don’t leave oats in their buckets. Whiteley took her temperature. It was slightly above normal. And it seemed to him that he saw a slight, hardly detectable, right rear misstep as she turned around. He had veterinarian Jim Prendergast take one hundred X rays. An almost invisible crack showed up on the lower right pastern. They put on a light cast and sent her back to the farm.
In January of 1975, the Eclipses, racing’s Academy Awards, were announced. There was never any doubt that Ruffian would be named Best Two-Year-Old Filly of the more than twenty-five thousand Thoroughbreds born in her year. The award of Best Colt went to Foolish Pleasure. That also was no surprise. He had raced seven times, winning upon each occasion. On the day following Ruffian’s Spinaway at Saratoga, he had taken a division of the Hopeful Stakes, which, because of the large number of entries, had been split in two sections. (That had been a tough couple of days for Jacinto Vasquez, on the ground watching Ruffian and Foolish Pleasure win, with others getting the 10 percent winning-jockey fees, for he was the regularly assigned rider for both.)
Foolish Pleasure was a grandson of the omnipresent Bold Ruler through his father, What a Pleasure, but in physical appearance he greatly resembled his maternal grandfather, Tom Fool, not overly large but rugged and very powerful. Horsemen don’t use the word great when discussing a racer until he’s won on all kinds of courses—fast tracks, sloppy ones, long, short, carrying weight, shipping in—and even then they don’t say it until the animal goes to stud and produces a slew of good runners. For Tom Fool the word was used. Foolish Pleasure might not be seen as quite in his grandfather’s class—only three or four horses in history have ever been—but he was certainly an outstanding individual. He usually stayed back in the early going and came with a rush at the end.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
They would attempt to save her, not for racing—that was impossible—but for breeding. And because she was Ruffian.
With the greatest difficulty X rays were taken, the pictures rushed back to the stall dripping with the development fluid and horrible to look at. They showed that if there was to be any hope at all of saving her, an immediate operation was needed. It would be better to get her to Dr. William O. Reed’s equine hospital just outside the track and do it there rather than in the stall. She was carried to the ambulance for the brief trip.
Anesthetized and strapped to a vertical table, she breathed very slowly while her pulse was dangerously high. She who had never really broken a sweat in any of her races was showing extreme-stress perspiration to a frightening degree. They could not stabilize her vital signs for more than an hour. They gave her fluid, oxygen, flushed the wound, used artificial respiration and stimulants to get her stabilized. Dr. Edward Keefer, an orthopedic specialist from New York Hospital, was hurriedly sent for and with a blacksmith constructed a complex boot-shoe to put on her leg in such fashion that it would lift the heel and take pressure from the destroyed sesamoid area. The shoe was hinged to a metal strip running up behind the leg with metal supports and was encased in a bulky plaster case, the total weight some forty or fifty pounds. But there were no illusions on anyone’s part. When Stuart Janney asked Dr. Harthill what her chances were, the vet replied, “Something less than ten percent.”
Unconscious for the more than two-hour operation, very seriously dehydrated, her vital signs rising and falling, she was slipped off the operating table and into the hospital recovery room to lie on the padded floor. But she could not stay there for long. A horse is meant to be on its legs. If it lies on its side for any extended period, paralysis results. The condition is irreversible.
Midnight of July 6 passed. It was hot and humid in the equine hospital. The air conditioning went off. The Janneys left (Mrs. Janney was not at all well). Whiteley sat in a chair chainsmoking and with the look of a dead man about him, those who were there told Ruffian’s biographer Jane Schwartz.
The late-night radio and television broadcasts informed people going to bed at the end of the long Fourth of July weekend that she was in the recovery room. She lay there. Sometime before two in the morning she began to come out of the anesthesia.
She stirred. The legs moved. Lying on her side, she stretched out as her legs sped up.
She was trying to run.
Men threw themselves down and tried to restrain her. “She flung us around like little children,” Dr. Harthill remembered. “Like rag dolls.” Her lying-down paddling motion got faster and faster. They could not know exactly why. Perhaps she was trying to run from terrible pain and danger, as is the horse’s instinct, or perhaps she wanted to fling away the heavy metal-and-plaster cast. Perhaps she had awakened from the anesthesia where she had been eight hours earlier, on a racetrack, flying, staying in front of Foolish Pleasure.
The boot-shoe loosened and began to slide down her thrashing, hideously swollen right front leg, ripping open the wound as it came. Her running action spun her in a horrible futile circle on the blood-drenched floor, centrifugal force dragging the shoe-boot down her leg. Her foot hung by shreds of skin. Lying on her side in agony, she tried to run.
Desperately they injected sedatives, and she lapsed into sleep. Do another operation? More of this? Janney was telephoned. “Please don’t let her suffer any more,” he said.
The initial breaking of the leg might have been dealt with, but then she had fought on, trying to stay with Foolish Pleasure, and so, Dr. Harthill said, made the injury one hundred times worse. When she came out of the anesthesia in the recovery room, she had tried to run once more, negating all that the vets had tried to do. “The same thing that made her win made her die,” Dr. Jim Prendergast said. At 2:20 A.M. a massive dose of ph»nobarbital was injected, and, as was said, she passed on to other races.
The front pages of the tabloid Post and Daily News carried great headlines and no other stories. The Times had a three-column front-page story and picture. But most people learned from their radios or television sets. The sixteen-year-old, later-of- The Form Linda Souyack switched on her radio as soon as she awoke, heard, and burst into tears. She would have her two-dollar ticket laminated to keep through the years along with her track program and her button. Of course, this was not John F. Kennedy in 1963, and of course, this was not Pearl Harbor in 1941, but there are no small number of people who can remember where they were and what they were doing when they heard Ruffian was gone.
That evening, Monday, when the day’s races were finished at Belmont, and the last straggler gone, a group of perhaps three dozen people gathered in the infield by the flagpole. It had been requested that only members of what was called her human family be there—the stable help, grooms, exercise riders, Mr. and Mrs. Jacinto Vasquez, he in a somber suit and tie—and uniformed Pinkertons asked hundreds of backstretch workers who had come to say good-bye to please stay at a distance. A great machine with a clamshell-shaped scoop dug a grave for the first horse ever in history to be buried at one of the New York Race Association’s tracks—Aqueduct, Saratoga, Belmont.
The machine carved out an excavation around twelve feet square and of about the same depth. Then the same horse ambulance that had carried her off the track some twenty-seven hours earlier came slowly driving up. The doors opened, and a hydraulic lift lowered a great white-wrapped bulk bound up like a mummy. She was put into her grave. Whiteley told an assistant trainer to lay on two blankets she had worn. He did so, carefully smoothing them. Some flowers were dropped in. The machine scooped up dirt and put it in, and a great horseshoe wreath was put into place, and the people went away into the twilight.
Foolish Pleasure was never the same horse. He failed B J to win in three 1975 efforts after the Great Match Race, was given time off, and came back in 1976 to run in mediocre fashion, losing four times. Retired to stud at a fee of twenty-five thousand dollars per breeding, he has to date produced more than four hundred foals, none of which has come close to possessing his ability. Now he is twenty-one years old, and his situation is such that anyone with a couple of thousand dollars and a mare can command his services.
Whiteley retired. Baeza retired. Both Janneys died, as did Foolish Pleasure’s owner, John L. Greer. Vasquez continues to ride, very old now by jockey standards. Sometimes people still send flowers to put by a Belmont Park stone marker listing the victories won by the greatest filly who ever lived, perhaps the greatest horse who ever lived, above where she lies with her head pointing toward the finish line.