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.

The Amazing but Sad Life of the Famous Filly Ruffian

A sad horse racing story, the tale of Ruffian will, indeed, leave a lump in your throat. The famous racehorse was born in 1972 at Claiborne Farms in Kentucky. Ruffian was a sweet dark bay filly that was as spirited as she was pretty. Reviewer was Ruffian’s sire and Shenanigans, was her dam, out of Native Dancer. Therefore, Ruffian had plenty of excellent breeding to support her plucky demeanor and attitude. In turn, Ruffian was often called Queen of the Racetrack.

When she was ready to training, Ruffian was shipped to Belmont Park in New York. Frank Whiteley, who was Ruffian’s trainer, succeeded at bringing out the best in the filly. By this time, Ruffian was tall, almost black, long-legged, and sleek. She was born to race – something she proved at her first racing event. Not only did she break a track record, but won the event by 15 lengths. It was a great start to an amazing racing season.

Only 2 years old, Ruffian won every race she entered. However, because of her slender legs, she became prone to fracture. As a result, she suffered a break at year’s end. While she was recuperating, she was crowned 2-year-old Filly of the Year.

By this time, Ruffian had a strong following and people were eager to see her return to the racetrack. However, the races were longer, which caused some people to wonder if Ruffian still had what it took to finish in first place. After she recovered, Ruffian showed she still had what it took to win races and re-assumed her role as Queen of the Track. As her races increased in distance, so did her winning margins.

Before long, Ruffian was back to her usual 7-length winning distance. In fact, by the time she ran the 1 1/8 Mother Goose Stakes, her winning margin was 14 lengths. She won the Filly Triple Crown during her third year and was due to receive the 3-Year-Old Filly of the Year award, even if she never raced again. Instead of more races or early retirement, a match race was proposed instead.

A Match with Foolish Pleasure

It was proposed that Ruffian would race against Foolish Pleasure – a colt who had recently won the Kentucky Derby. It seemed Ruffian was up for the challenge, so everyone focused on getting Ruffian ready to run the most exciting race of her career.

On the morning of July 6, 1975, over 50,000 people showed up to watch the match race between Ruffian and Foolish Pleasure. When Foolish Pleasure and Ruffian left the starting gate, Ruffian, for the first time, was not in the lead. However, she refused to give up. The two horses ran neck to neck for most of the race and the crowd went wild. By the time she reached the final turn, Ruffian managed to increase her margin by about half a length.

Then, just as the two horses reached the mile marker—and only a half mile from the finish line, everyone heard the sound of a loud crack – Ruffian stumbled. She had snapped the sesamoid bones on her right foreleg. However, she still remained in the race – struggling with her jockey in a valiant attempt to reach the finish line.

Doctors went to work right away to operate on the leg. Ruffian was given an anesthetic during the operation. An orthopedic surgeon and four veterinarians worked on Ruffian, and sealed the injury in a cast. The prognosis looked hopeful until Ruffian woke up. Disoriented from the anesthetic, Ruffian lashed out, causing more damage to her elbow and undoing all the efforts made during the operation. Knowing that nothing could be done to save Ruffian now, the decision was made, by her owner, to put her down.

Ruffian’s Last Resting Place

Ruffian was buried near the flagpole in Belmont Park, with her nose directed toward the finish line. She died on July 7, 1975. She had set or equaled a new stakes record in each of the 8 states races she had won. She had run each race from 5 1/2 furlongs to 1 1/2 miles, and she had an average winning margin of 8 1/3 lengths. The world will probably never see a filly who can match the records set by the ebony horse known as Ruffian.

Running the Distance

This story makes you think about why some horses, like Ruffian, can be trained to run longer distances while other horses are sprinters. A filly’s or colt’s ability to run longer is based on their genetics, and, as they say, good breeding.

What is it about a horse, like Ruffian, that makes her a winner on the race track? It takes a combination of good form, speed, and strength, and the “heart and will” to want to run. It all sums up in sheer determination – a strong desire to move ahead of the pack and reach the finish line.

Some horses, like Ruffian, can excel in athletic activities because their muscles depend on a sustained supply of oxygen. Others excel at fast bursts of speed, using the oxygen stored in the muscles’ cells. The sprinter is anaerobic while the distance runner is aerobic. The racehorse that goes the distance must put forth a sustained effort and a relentless need to be a winner on the track.

When owners evaluate racehorses, they may ultrasound the heart or scope them. Scoping determines if a horse has a smaller throat, and therefore tells them about the air intake. However, checking the nature of the heart and respiration are insignificant when it comes to the horse’s “racing” personality. While some horses look athletically suitable, they may not go the distance like a less impressive looking animal.

A horse usually takes a breath during every stride—in and out—as a natural response because of the mechanics of the lungs. While some horses can experience an oxygen debt and catch their breath later, other horses use oxygen in a more sustainable pattern.

What Do You Think?

What do you think makes a good racehorse? Does it just have to do with genetics and breathing, or is it more than that? Do you think Ruffian should have been retired instead of entered into that final match? Ruffian had already sustained a break early in her career. Do you think that should have been considered when scheduling the match race event?