Maybe, because it’s Derby week, but I’ve found I’ve been thinking about horses a lot these past few days. I find myself standing in my living room, staring up at framed, limited edition of perhaps one of the greatest race horses of all time, and no, I’m not talking about Secretariat. Make no mistake, “Big Red” was impressive and gorgeous and put together in a manner that most of us will never live to see again, but if you’re old enough to remember that huge red colt thundering down the homestretch to a 31 length romp (for perspective, that’s over a quarter of a mile) in the Belmont Stakes in 1973, you’re old enough to remember a black, winged Pegasus who so briefly blazed across the skies of the Thoroughbred world two years later.
I love to watch Thoroughbred racing. I have for as long as I can remember. The strength and agility and beauty of the horse are what drew me in, as these things do to most little girls who become “horse-crazy.” The fragility of such a beautiful animal that we ask to run all out for a mile or more makes me feel guilty, because somehow I feel I’m contributing to a sport that seems to condone broken legs, green curtains drawn around the fallen in the dust of the track, and huge syringes of pink euthanasia solution.
It was my granddad’s fault I fell so deeply in love with Thoroughbred racing. He took me to the track on weekends, only we didn’t go into the stands. He had friends who could get us into the stable areas. It was there I learned to love the smells of a horse barn: the tannic bite of fresh sawdust, the richness of leather polish, the sweet scent of newly harvested hay, and the earthy aroma of warm horses. In the barns, I discovered a horse’s breath smells sweet, like freshly cut grass on a hot summer morning, that a horse’s nose is the softest velvet imaginable, and within the depths of their dark eyes are secrets horses willingly share with quiet, awkward, and shy thirteen year-old girls. Standing on the rail in the back stretch in the very early morning hours of any given Saturday, I learned to listen to the sound of hoof beats in the predawn gloom, the “chuffing” of the horse’s breath, the rhythmic scrubbing of leather reins against a sweaty neck, those sounds mingling into a well-orchestrated symphony that rose in volume and then faded. I didn’t mind the cold mornings, shivering on the rail, so long as I could watch those perfectly crafted animals.
One of my favorite memories of those early mornings at the track was that symphony conducted by two exercise boys in late fall, the music muted more than usual by a thick, heavy fog. Several seconds after I first heard the dueling hoof beats, I saw the two horses roiling out of the gloom, like the ghosts of the chargers of knights of old, snorting steam with each breath. The fog coiled around both animals, wrapping with sinuous eroticism around legs and necks, caressing bunching and uncoiling muscles, dancing across broad backs. And, then they were gone into the fog, only the pounding of their hooves remaining, haunting, ethereal.
I’ve always been a sucker for the fillies, maybe because just like in the sport and art of breeding show dogs, one dam can only contribute so much to a gene pool, whereas the “stud de jour” can wreak havoc that takes generations to repair. So when a friend asked if I was taking Eight Belles for the 2008 Kentucky Derby, I hesitated for a moment. “I just hope she can come off the track sound,” I remember saying, because she reminded me of another black filly, a heartbreaker from my childhood.
Eight Belles was a huge grey filly—so dark she was nearly black, with a white star on her forehead. Belle had the genes to run because both sides of her pedigree incorporated Mr. Prospector, one of the top producing stallions of all time, and Mr. Prospector was the grandson of “The Grey Ghost,” Native Dancer. I knew what lurked in Belle’s family tree because I memorize pedigrees. I have memorized family lines ever since I was thirteen. Even though Belle’s breeding screamed she came from a line of animals known to suffer catastrophic breakdowns, she had heart. I’d watched her run several races, and the filly was incredible.
For most of the 2008 Derby, Belle stalked the pack of nineteen other horses, staying comfortably in the back, running in fifth place. At a mile and a furlong, Belle made her move, slipping through traffic, gliding into third, slightly off the rail. As expected, though, Big Brown exploded at the mile pole, coming along the outside from the far back, and soon overtook Belle. Belle changed leads, bobbing slightly to come further off the rail, and made a valiant effort to overtake Brownie when he blew by her. Denis of Cork made a late move, but couldn’t take either Eight Belles or Big Brown. Brownie coasted across the finish first, Eight Belles in second, and Denis of Cork a distant third.
Within a few seconds, the jubilation of seeing all twenty horses come across the wire apparently healthy and sound ended for some. Television coverage was taken from Brownie’s team celebrating to Eight Belles, struggling to stand in the backstretch. An outrider kept Belle’s head pulled toward her shoulder to keep her prone on the track, and two track employees were assisting in keeping her calm. Her jockey’s body language said it all. He’d already pulled the postage stamp saddle from her back, and stood, shoulders slumped.
My stomach fell. I can’t say that memories of Barbaro’s breakdown two years before in the Preakness flashed across my mind, even though at that time, I was devastated. Barbaro though had a chance of surviving, because it was a rear leg he injured, he never broke the skin, allowing infection in, and his connections not only had the money but the willingness to do whatever they could to save his life. However, memories of that other filly, that black heartbreaker of my childhood, did sear my soul with Eight Belle’s breakdown. I barely registered my friend’s tears, or Dr. Larry Bramlage telling the television viewing audience that Eight Belle’s injuries were catastrophic—I still cringe with the polite, euphemistic manner to state Belle had shattered both front ankles and couldn’t even stand—and she was humanely euthanized on the track. Instead, I heard CBS sports’ commentator Chick Anderson’s voice echoing in my head. “. . .like watching a masterpiece being destroyed.”
And, suddenly, I was thirteen again. Granddad first pointed me in Ruffian’s direction, after she had been named champion two-year old filly. I fell in love as only a thirteen year old girl can when I watched Ruffian run, even if I could only watch her on closed circuit television. She ran so fast, so effortlessly, that distance and time were redefined. She was speed on speed. Unearthly speed.
|My favorite picture of Ruffian, airborne, as Pegasus should always be.
She was foaled April 17th, 1972 at Clairborne Farms, Kentucky. Ruffian’s pedigree was a recipe for stellar achievement. Her dam was Shenanigans, a daughter of Native Dancer. Mr. Prospector, Eight Belles’s sire, came down from the Native Dancer line. Ruffian’s sire was Reviewer, a son of Bold Ruler. Reviewer retired to stud after only thirteen starts, his racing career cut short by two separate leg injuries, one of which was a hairline crack in a rear leg. Unfortunately, combining Reviewer with Native Dancer was also a formula for racing disaster, as Reviewer consistently produced Thoroughbreds who broke down before they were three as often as he produced champions, and the Native Dancer line is just plain brittle. Breeding Shenanigans to Reviewer was like throwing a lit match on gasoline.
Ruffian was huge for a filly, looking more like a colt, so she was registered with a masculine name, hoping she would run like the boys. She was taller and longer than the outsized Secretariat. Born to run and built for speed, Ruffian was the result of generations of selective breeding. Her conformation was textbook perfect, the proportions so correct she was as flawless as any living creature can be. She was black, black as a nightmare—which she was to her “utterly dominated opposition”——black as the crack of doom. She had to be black because there are many who believe that black excludes all other colors, and perfection itself is exclusive. Walter Farley, author of the beloved Black Stallion series of young adult books, said if there was any horse that would have been the model for his fictional black Arabian stallion, it would be her. She had a massive, deep chest—horsemen say to hold a champion’s heart. She had long, delicate legs, with tiny, teacup hooves. A white star centered Ruffian’s wide forehead, a reminder that she was, would be, and always will be a star.
She was born three days late, the only time in her life she didn’t lead, the only time in her life she wasn’t out in front, challenging all those behind her to catch her. As if they could. She seemed to run as if she was trying to make up the seventy-two hours she had fallen behind. Her average margin of victory was eight and a half lengths. In the barn, she was an absolute angel, tractable, sweet, highly intelligent, and self-assured. On the track, she was savage in her need to run, a demon who knew only one speed—faster. She had a stride that was unbelievable in its length. Ruffian so dominated the sport that she was called a “freak.”
The legs of any horse are a wonder of creation—or evolution, whichever flavor you chose to believe. A horse’s lower leg is merely an elongated finger bone. Try running a mile as fast as possible on the middle digits of your hands and feet. From their knees down, there is no muscling on a horse’s leg. It’s just bone, long tendons, and skin. In a full-out gallop, on each stride, every ounce of a horse’s weight is balanced on one leg, that limb pounding into the ground with more than twelve thousand pounds of force. However, when Ruffian ran, she didn’t pound. She appeared to hang suspended in mid-air and the ground zipped along under her. She literally floated in a gallop and the smooth motion was deceptive, for hidden within that easy stride was pure black wildfire, black lightning screaming across the skies. She made many of us believe she truly could fly. Frank Whiteley, her trainer, said Ruffian was unlike any other horse, before or after, like “nothing you ever seen” and “faster than any horse alive.”
She didn’t run like the boys. She ran better than the boys. Her jockey, Jacinto Vasquez, said holding her back in exercise gallops left his arms numb: “No arms, no muscles. What power she has.” After one exercise session, Whiteley approached Vasquez and casually asked him how fast he thought the filly worked. Vasquez said he thought she did the half mile in about fifty seconds and some change. Whiteley handed him the stop watch. Ruffian had run a half mile in 45 seconds flat. Vasquez said it was impossible, she hadn’t acted as if she was exerting herself.
|Ruffian destroying her competition.
Vasquez never tried to hold her back in a race because that would have been an exercise in futility. Even though Whiteley routinely ordered him to keep her “under wraps,” Ruffian had other ideas on how to run her races. She broke from the gate as if the devil himself goaded her and she set records every time she put a delicate hoof onto the groomed surface of a race track—records not only in the matter of time but in the distance between herself and her nearest competitor. She set records that still stand to this day, more than three decades later. When Secretariat burned the first quarter mile in the 1973 Belmont Stakes in his quest for the Triple Crown in 24 seconds and change, he was hailed as the second coming of Man O’War. Ruffian routinely ran the first quarter of a mile in 23 seconds and fractions, including on her home track at Belmont Park. A review of her racing record glitters with the number “1” for every furlong of every race Ruffian ever ran. She became known as a “heartbreaker.”
She won the Filly Triple Crown, and with every race Ruffian ran, she just got faster and faster, shaving half seconds and then full seconds off her previous times. She was termed “invincible.” Secretariat was never given that label. Neither was Man O’War. They both tasted defeat. She never did.
Those horses who challenged her were never the same after they raced against her. The list is long and impressive, a who’s who of the elite world of Thoroughbred Grade I stakes contenders in the mid 1970s: Cornucopia, Hot N Nasty, Laughing Bridge, Sir Ivor’s Sorrow, Aunt Jin. . . Foolish Pleasure. After she destroyed Laughing Bridge in the Spinaway, Laughing Bridge’s trainer, Al Scotti, was heard to say, “No more. No more.” Lucien Laurin, trainer of the super-horse Secretariat was quoted as saying he was thankful “Big Red” wouldn’t ever have to face Ruffian. Laurin stated, “As God is my witness, I think she’s better than him.”
Eventually, there were no more fillies to challenge her and there came talk of a Match Race between this black Pegasus and the winner of that year’s Kentucky Derby, Foolish Pleasure.
The day of the Match Race between the two great horses, July 6th, began hot, humid, and cloudless, even though thunder-storms were forecast. By post time, black clouds darkened the sky, lightning danced across the heavens, and the thunder was a grumbling voice of discontent, but the rain held off. The racing board deemed the track at post time to be fast and hard. Forged hard like an anvil.
Foolish Pleasure had been schooled on breaking solidly and fast from the gate, thinking if he could get the jump on the filly, it would break her, as she’d never been behind any other horse. The colt’s trainer was not about to let her take the lead and therefore set the pace. Too well, LeRoy Jolley knew Ruffian’s brutal, destructive speed and what it did to the horses trailing her. Foolish Pleasure’s fast start from the gate didn’t break Ruffian, even though he was half a head out of the gate before she was. Instead, her ears laced back and she fought her jockey to take the bit into her teeth.
No horse was going to head her.
No horse ever had.
No horse ever would.
And then, at the three/eighths mile post, thirty-five short seconds into the race, Ruffian stumbled and quickly righted herself. In that strange silence both jockeys said they heard something. Braulio Beaza said it sounded like a board cracking. Vasquez said it was like a gun shot. Another bobble from Ruffian, and this time Vasquez knew there was something terribly wrong. He began sawing the bit in Ruffian’s mouth, trying to stop her, pulling her to the vine-shrouded far rail. She kept running, in a bobbing, lurching manner, running on exposed bone, driving sand and dirt into her leg. Incredibly and horrifically, for two strides, she kept ahead of the bay colt.
Dave Johnson, the track announcer shouted, disbelief in his voice, “Ruffian has broken down.” And, then, he repeated, this time his voice breaking in horror, “Ruffian has broken down.”
For another fifty yards she fought the bit, fought to keep running, her fighting worse when Foolish Pleasure surged past her. Finally, Jacinto Vasquez had her stopped.
The silence from the crowd was so great the thudding of Foolish Pleasure’s hooves into the anvil-hard track was the heart-beat of that collective body. Vasquez lifted her right foreleg, hoped to minimize the damage to what was a grotesquely mangled limb, bracing himself to hold her upright. The delicate leg was obviously broken, the hoof hanging on by little more than a tendon and a strip of black hide. Her blood poured onto the track, covered Vasquez’s silks, adding another shade of red to the white and red of the colors of Clairborne Farms.
Ruffian was fitted on the track with a pneumatic cast, treated for shock and pain and hemorrhage and was taken away in a state-of-the-art horse ambulance to the veterinary hospital across the street from Belmont Park. Surgery was performed on her leg, eight hours of intricate, hellishly complicated reconstructive surgery to repair torn tendons, seal pumping arteries and veins, screw bone shattered like glass back together. Four veterinarians and a human orthopedic surgeon attempted the impossible. Were Ruffian any other horse, the racing board at Belmont and the track veterinarian would have drawn a green sheet around her and she would have been euthanized on the track.
Ruffian was not any other horse.
It was nearly two a.m. when Ruffian came up from the anesthesia. Her forelegs began to paddle, slowly at first, then faster and faster, and as always, leading with her right foreleg. Horses have only two instinctive responses to pain, fight or flight. She knew only one response: run. Run as fast as nature and genetics allow her to run. She was running away, even though she was prone on her side. Despite the efforts of the four veterinarians of the surgical team, five attendants, and her trainer, the very instinct which made her run so fast made her fight to get to her feet. She shattered the cast on her right foreleg and broke her left foreleg in her thrashing to regain an upright position. She was quickly resedated, just enough to throw her back into a twilight state of anesthesia to give the veterinarians time to confer with Whiteley and then with Staurt Janney, Ruffian’s owner. Whiteley told Janney, “It’s bad, sir, really bad.” Janney was reported to have told Whiteley, “I don’t want her to suffer any more, Frank.” Whiteley understood. There was nothing else to do for Ruffian, now, except to humanely finish the destruction she started nine hours earlier. Frank Whiteley asked Ruffian’s groom to bring her halter, and Whiteley stayed with Ruffian while she was injected with the overdose of phenobarbital. It was 2:20 in the morning.
The rain, which had been threatening since post time, finally began to fall.
At sunset on July 7th, with the track closed to racing and the public, with the flag flying at half-staff, with jockeys, grooms, and trainers in attendance, and with all the dignity befitting a fallen champion, Ruffian was laid to rest in the infield at Belmont Park. Frank Whiteley’s wife lowered a single, red rose into the open grave with her. In the silence which was Ruffian’s elegy, a mourning dove burst from the nearby bushes, flying into the purpled twilight sky.
For all eternity, this filly will forever be ahead of the horses crossing the finish line at Belmont, where she always was. In the lead.
And, why this tribute to a long dead filly? I don’t know. Maybe, because it is Derby week. Maybe because there was just something so ethereal and other-worldly about the perfection she embodied. Or maybe, because as a horse lover, I have to keep hoping that Ruffian, and IndyAnne, and Eight Belles, and thousands of nameless horses on race tracks large and small, have not died in vain and that the Thoroughbred industry will finally wake up and realize there isn’t going to be another Triple Crown winner until the breed itself cleans house, removes the brittleness and fragility from the bloodlines, returns to breeding animals that could run like Secretariat and Ruffian and Seattle Slew without the use of drugs to prevent lung hemorrhaging, and understands that the general public is not going to continue to tolerate that polite euphemism of “catastrophically broke down” coupled with green curtains and massive syringes filled with bright pink solution.
We owe it to Ruffian, to IndyAnne, to Eight Belles, and all the others that their deaths were not in vain.