Good stories have a happy ending, this is not a good story. Why should we read a story that will make us feel sad? Because it is a true story of courage and devotion, and our heroine deserves to be remembered.
In the year 1975 the best three-year-old racing horses in the United States were entered into the prestigious races of the Triple Crown. These races are almost exclusively between colts1. This year there was a filly2 that many considered to be one of the best thoroughbreds of all time – Ruffian.
Ruffian's owners, the Jannings of Locust Hill Farm, elected to restrict Ruffian to the races reserved for female horses. Many experts in the racing community questioned this decision at the time, and many still speculate about wisdom of this move.
The Kentucky Derby
On 3 May, 1975, the first race of the US Triple Crown was conducted at Churchill Downs near Lexington, Kentucky. The course has a distance of 10 furlongs3. A horse named Bombay Duck took the early lead and set a course record for the first six furlongs. Although it probably had no influence on the outcome of the race, a young boy in the infield threw a beer can filled with water at the horse, striking him in the flank.
Foolish Pleasure was the first horse to cross the finish line, and became the only hope for a triple crown champion that year. Avatar finished second and Diabole was the show horse in third place.
On 17 May, 1975 the horses were prepared for their next race at Pimlico Race Course in Baltimore, Maryland. The shortest race in the series at 9 1/2 furlongs, the Preakness is intended to give an advantage to the smaller horses who could 'sprint around the course'.
Master Derby won, with Foolish Pleasure as the 'place' horse and Diablo in the 'show' position. There was no longer any possibility for a 'Triple Crown' champion to be declared in 1975.
The Belmont Stakes
The final race is held at Belmont Park on Long Island, about 20 minutes (by car) east of New York City. It is the longest of the races at 12 furlongs, and is considered to test the endurance of the horses.
Avatar had the winning position in this race, with Foolish Pleasure again placing, and Master Derby in the show position.
The Filly Triple Crown
While each of Triple Crown races was won by a different colt, Ruffian easily won all three races for the filly championship. In her career of ten official races, she won every one, most by a large margin. It is doubtful that she ever saw the backside of a competing horse. Today the 'Filly Triple Crown' is known as the 'Triple Tiara'
In the 1970s the Women's Movement was a major topic of interest and debate. The Congress had passed 'The Equal Rights Amendment', it only needed to be ratified by two thirds of the State Legislatures to become a part of the US Constitution – the law of the land. One side of the debate strongly believed that men and woman were equal in ability and women should not be denied any opportunity that was offered to a man. The other side was equally convinced that it was the role of men to protect woman from dangerous and unpleasant situations.
When word began to spread that two horses, one a boy and the other a girl, were almost equal in speed and skill the public demanded they be allowed to race against each other. Both sides were convinced that the outcome would help prove their opinion was correct. Thousands of people who had never even thought about watching a horse race were anxious to see the outcome.
The Match Race
The match race was set for 6 July, 1975 and was to be held at Belmont Park. As Foolish Pleasure was the top scoring colt in the triple crown, he alone, was chosen to compete with the filly. The advance publicity was intense. The Racing Association took full advantage of the interest and the earlier races were shown on nation-wide television, with a little teaser at the commercial breaks with caricatures taunting each other singing the song 'Anything you can do, I can do better.' When the time for the final race arrived at last, the filly was placed in the starting gate nearest to the inside rail and the colt loaded into the gate next to her. The bell sounded and the gates opened!
The two raced almost shoulder to shoulder, with the filly ahead for most of the race, but by no more than the length of her own head. It was clear that the race would be decided by which horse had that extra reserve of speed and stamina when they rounded the final turn and made that last sprint to the finish line in the home stretch.
We would never learn the answer.
Before they reached the final turn Ruffian suddenly lurched to the right, colliding with Foolish Pleasure before her jockey could slow her down. Her jockey dismounted as soon as it was safe to do so, the colt continued around the track – alone. The jockey supported the weight of his mount with his shoulder until the track veterinarian and his crew arrived. Ruffian was sedated and taken to the Equine Hospital. It was immediately obvious that she would never race again, she had shattered both of the bones in her lower leg.
The real value of a champion thoroughbred horse is not the prizes they win at the track, but the fees that come from breeding them and selling their offspring. If she could be saved, at any cost, the money would be recovered.
As the long afternoon came to close the nation waited and prayed for the filly who had tried so hard to win.
After the Veterinarian had had done all that was possible at the time, placing a heavy plaster cast over her shattered leg, the rest was up to Ruffian. As she regained consciousness from the heavy sedation she began to move her legs as if she were still running, even though she was lying on her side in the padded stall. She was still trying to win the race! The heavy cast fractured other bones and became dislodged from its proper position – the Veterinarian had no other choice but to euthanize the brave filly. All who had followed the story were shocked and horrified at the disappointing outcome. It is only fair to offer this glimpse 'Ruffian Rhapsody'. A montage of the happy moments of what might have been, the greatest racehorse of all time.
The immediate result was an outraged cry against the racing industry, stating that forcing horses to compete was cruel exploitation, and the horses were put down for the convenience of their owners. This was not the first tragedy at a horse race, but because of the publicity, and the electronic media, it was probably the most well-known one at the time. Other events caught the attention of the public and the outrage subsided, there was little outside effect on the racing community.
To this day there has not been another match race between two horses at a major track.
The positive result included improvements in the treatment of injured horses, such as suspending them into water supported by a harness before they are allowed to regain consciousness. Breeders also studied her pedigree, trying to find out when she developed the trait of brittle bones. The lines are now carefully checked for any possible defects before deciding which dam and stud to mate.
Ruffian was buried in the infield of Belmont Park. As a last recognition of her determination, her nose is pointed toward the finish line.