Remembering Ruffian

This photograph pictures Ruffian and Jacinto Vasquez parading to the post in the Acorn Stakes. Track Photo.
This photograph pictures Ruffian and Jacinto Vasquez parading to the post in the Acorn Stakes. Track Photo.

RAGS TO RICHES became the third filly in history and the first since Belmont Park opened in 1905 to win the longest and oldest leg of the Triple Crown when she got a head in front of favored Preakness winner Curlin on Saturday afternoon and won the 139th running of the Grade 1, $1 million Belmont Stakes – the 1 1/2 mile race called “Test of the Champion.”

Her victory was particularly poignant for Ruffian fans.

Ruffian (April 17, 1972 – July 7, 1975) was an American champion thoroughbred racehorse, considered by many horseracing enthusiasts to be the greatest female racehorse of all time.

She was undefeated in her first ten races, covering distances from 5 1/2 furlongs to 1 1/2 miles (1106 to 2414 m) with an average winning margin of 8 1/3 lengths. Her eleventh and final race, run at Belmont Park on July 6, 1975, was a match race between Ruffian and that year’s Kentucky Derby winner, Foolish Pleasure. The “equine battle of the sexes” was heavily anticipated and attended by more than 50,000 spectators, with an estimated 18 million watching on television.

The first quarter-mile (402 m) was run in a fast 22 1/5 seconds, Ruffian ahead by a nose. Little more than a furlong (201 m) later, Ruffian was in front by half a length when both sesamoid bones in her right foreleg snapped. Her jockey, Jacinto Vasquez, tried to pull her up, but she ran on for another 50 yards (46 m), apparently unwilling to give up the race.

She was immediately attended to by a team of four veterinarians and an orthopedic surgeon, and underwent an emergency operation lasting 12 hours. Tragically, when the anesthesia wore off after the surgery, she thrashed about wildly on the floor of a padded recovery stall despite the efforts of numerous attendants, breaking the cast and her other leg.

The medical team, knowing that she would probably not survive more extensive surgery for the repair of both legs euthanized her shortly afterwards.

Her performance in the 1975 season earned her the Eclipse Award for Outstanding Three-Year-Old Filly. In 1976, she was inducted into the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame.

Her breakdown and tragic death led to a public outcry for more humane treatment of racehorses. One result was that medications, such as Lasix for bleeding and corticosteroids for inflammation and pain management, came into common use in racehorses. While helping the horses in the short term, the increased use of medications at the track has a downside, as many horses are raced while injured.

Hal Habib, Staff Writer for the Palm Beach Post penned an excellent article, Remembering Ruffian. pdf, 5 pp