The story of Ruffian is possibly one of the saddest you will ever hear when it comes to famous racehorses. Born at Claiborne Farms in Kentucky in 1972, Ruffian was a pretty little dark bay filly with plenty of spirit. Her sire was Reviewer and her dam was Shenanigans out of Native Dancer, so she had plenty of good breeding to go with her plucky little attitude. She grew fast, and before long she was on her way to becoming Queen of the Racetrack.
When she was ready for training, Ruffian was shipped to Belmont Park in New York for schooling and training. Frank Whiteley Jr was to be her trainer and he succeeded in bringing out her best. By this stage she was tall, almost black, long-legged and sleek. Simply put, she was born to race – a point she proved on her maiden race when she not only broke the track record but won by fifteen lengths. It was a great start to a great season. Ruffian won every race she was entered in for her 2-year-old season. However, those delightfully slender legs started to cause problems near the end of the year and she suffered a fracture late in the year. Though she was retired to recuperate, she was crowned 2-year-old filly of the year.
By now Ruffian already had a strong following and people were eager to see if she would return in good form the following year. Now that the races were longer, would she still have what it took to cross the line in first place? It would seem that Ruffian truly was Queen of the Track. As her races increased in distance, so did her winning margins. Before long she was back to he usual 7 length winning distance. By the time she ran the 1 1/8 mile Mother Goose Stakes, she had a winning margin of 14 lengths! She won the Filly Triple Crown that year and she was due to receive the 3 Year Old Filly of the Year award – even if she never raced again. So instead of more races or early retirement, a match race was proposed. Ruffian would race against Foolish Pleasure – the colt who’d won that year’s Kentucky Derby. Ruffian was up for the challenge and after a little extra training for her opponent; they were ready run the most exciting race of her career.
That morning on 6 July 1975, more than 50,000 people turned up to watch the match race. Foolish Pleasure leapt from the gate and for the first time ever, Ruffian was headed at the start. However Ruffian refused to give up. She fought to get to the front but the two stayed neck in neck for most of the race and the crowd went wild. On the final turn, Ruffian managed to increase her margin to about half a length. She was stretching, struggling to cover as much ground as she could. Then, just as they reached the mile marker and only half a mile of the race was left, there was a loud, sickening breaking sound and Ruffian stumbled. Though she had snapped her sesamoid bones of her right foreleg, she still struggled with her jockey in a valiant attempt to finish the race.
Action was taken immediately and before long, Ruffian was under anaesthetic while her leg was being operated on. Twelve hours later, the four veterinarians and the orthopaedic surgeon who had been working on her sealed the injury in a cast. It seemed that Ruffian had a good chance of recovery until she woke up. Disorientated from the anaesthetic, she lashed out at her surroundings, as if still running the race. In doing so, all the work of the surgery was undone, along with additional damage to her elbow. Knowing that nothing could now be done to save her, her owner decided to put her down. She is buried today near the flagpole at Belmont Park with her nose pointed towards the finish line. She died on July 7, 1975. She had set or equalled a new stakes record in each of the eight stakes races she’d won. She’d run everything from 5 ½ furlongs to 1 ½ miles and she had an average winning margin of 8 1/3 lengths. It is unlikely that the world will ever see another filly that can match her.