“As God is my judge, she might be better than Secretariat…”
(Lucien Laurin, Secretariat’s trainer, quoted in the Blood Horse’s Thoroughbred Legends: Ruffian)
She was born April 17, 1972 at Clairborne Farm, Kentucky, owned and bred by the Janney family of Maryland. Born into a royal bloodline her dam, Shenanigans, was the daughter of Native Dancer and sire, Reviewer, the offspring of Bold Ruler. Dark bay, nearly black, she was the biggest yearling born that year.
As a yearling she was introduced to a saddle and bridle in her stall at Raceland, Clairborne’s weanling facility. She was then sent to Xalapa Farms where Nick Lotz broke her and taught her the basics of living life as a racehorse. She left Claiborne on November 16, 1973 to begin her racing career. Only three days earlier, Secretariat had arrived amidst much fanfare to begin his stud career.
As a 2-year -old she went to Frank Whiteley for training. She arrived at the Marion DuPont Scott Training Center in South Carolina where Whiteley wintered his horses. No one at the training facility knew her name, it was Whiteley’s policy not to reveal the names of two-year-olds until they made their first start. She was already 16.1 hands tall measured 75 ½ inches around the girth. Everyone called her “Sofie” a nickname quartered by her riders who found the big filly to be “as comfortable to sit as on a sofa”.
Ruffian made her racing debut at Belmont Park, May 22, 1974. She led from the starting gate and won her maiden race by 15 lengths matching the track record, 1:03 for 5 ½ furlongs. Her jockey, Jacinto Vasquez said she went into the winner’s circle without a drop of sweat, returning to the barn afterward as fresh as when she left.
1974 Maiden Special Weights
Belmont Park, NY
Won by 15 lengths matching the track record for 5 ½ furlongs, 1:00 3/5
Sportswriter, Joe Hirsch called her “the most imposing juvenile filly he’d ever seen”. Whitely suspected she was something special from the get go. His instincts were right there was something exceptional about her.
In her second race Ruffian faced a worthy competitor, Copernica. Sired by Nijinsky II the filly had recently won her maiden by a whopping margin, 14 lengths, despite being blind in one eye. Ruffian took command from the get go winning the Fashion Stakes by over 6 lengths and tying the track record.
After her second win in the Grade 3 Fashion Stakes, Sports writer Bill Nack said of Ruffian, “She had this imperial look to her. She walked very elegantly. She was very aware of her surroundings. She was bright, very alive. She ran as fast as any 2-year-old I had ever seen, and I thought I had seen the fastest 2-year-old two years before when Secretariat won the Hopeful [Stakes].”
The Astoria Stakes at Aqueduct was Ruffians next race, won handily. Vasquez was serving a suspension for reckless riding so Vince Bracciale was given the mount. Whiteley told Vasquez he would lose Ruffian if he didn’t pony her. To everyone’s amusement, Vasquez hopped on Sled Dog, the barn’s pony horse, and escorted the queen to the starting gate.
Up next, the Sorority Stakes at Monmouth. Ruffian faced the undefeated Hot n Nasty and Vasquez returned as her jockey. Unbeknown to anyone, Vasquez had a broken nose and blurry vision. Fearing he would lose Ruffian, he did not reveal his injuries until after the race. Hot n Nasty may best be remembered as the only horse to ever lead Ruffian in a race, it was a brief lead, only one furlong before Ruffian dug in and pulled away. Ruffian set a new stakes record despite popping a split during the race.
Given a month’s rest, Ruffian was shipped to Saratoga for the Spinaway Stakes. As she was unloaded, a reporter asked groom Minnor Massey by how much his filly would win. Without hesitation Massey answered “thirteen lengths”. Vasquez was once again suspended so Bracciale was given the ride. Ruffian lead wire to wire and set a new stakes record 1:08 3/5 faster than Man O’ War and Secretariat. And her margin of victory? You guessed it, thirteen lengths.
On the morning of her next race, the Frizette Stakes, Ruffian left grain in her tub and had a slight temperature. The vet identified a hairline fracture in her right hind leg. The plan was to immobilize the leg with a plaster cast while the fracture healed. But Ruffian was not inclined to go along, jumping about her stall trying to smash the heavy cast. Plan B was put into action; a lighter jelly cast was applied which Ruffian accepted. Two months of stall rest and Ruffian was a model patient. By the time she had healed enough for hand walking, Whiteley made an unprecedented decision. He assigned Dan Williams as Ruffian’s groom and she was his only charge.
Ruffian was doted upon by Dan and one of her exercise riders, John “Squeaky” Truesdale. Together the two men nursed her back to health. Ruffian enjoyed the one on one attention and often played with Dan, nibbling on his jacket when she was nervous. Whitely relied on Dan’s connection to Ruffian to help gauge her mental attitude as well as looking after her physical well-being.
Though her two-year old season encompassed only 5 races, Ruffian won the 1974 Eclipse Award. As she began to prepare for the next season, everyone wondered if she would be as good as a three-year-old.
On April 14 Ruffian made clear she was indomitable easily winning her next race at Belmont Park. She wasn’t just as good, she was better. She had grown considerably and become much stronger and aggressive on the track. Only Squeaky could keep her relaxed at a gallop allowing her to drop her head nearly to the ground then waiting for her to come back to him. The other exercise riders teased him about his “sleeping” race horse but Squeaky knew Ruffian was playing with him. Should he try to pick up her head, she would take the bit in her teeth and bolt.
At the end of April Ruffian easily won the Comely Stakes setting a new stakes record. She also set a new betting record creating a minus win pool at the track and Off Track Betting. Ruffian’s fans had bet enough money on the filly to win that the track was forced to pay out more money than it received.
The next three races for Ruffian were for the NYRA Filly Triple Crown – the Acorn Stakes, the Mother Goose Stakes and the Coaching Club American Oaks. Whiteley changed tactics for these races instructing Vasquez to hold the filly back to teach her to relax and save more for the finish. Even held back she set or tied the track records in all three races. She was inexhaustible, bucking as she slowed at the finish line of the last race to win the Filly Triple Crown.
1975 Mother Goose Stakes
Belmont Park, NY
Won by 13 lengths setting a new stakes track record for 8 1/2 furlongs, 1:47.80
In ten starts, Ruffian was undefeated, led the field at every point of every race. Her combined margins of victory totaled 83 lengths. She matched 2 track records, owned 7 stakes records and tied another. The only thing left was to race the colts.
A match race against the colt, Foolish Pleasure was arranged for July 6 at Belmont Park. The distance – a mile and a quarter. The purse – $350,000. The race was hyped as a “Battle of the Sexes” the greatest filly pitted against greatest colt of the 1975 season. 50,000 people attended and more than 20 million would watch the race on TV.
As the match race began, Ruffian on the inside hit her shoulder hard leaving the starting gate, but she pulled herself together and was on the lead by a nose at the quarter pole, running the first two furlongs in 22.5 seconds. A furlong later, Ruffian was in front by half a length when tragedy struck. Both sesamoid bones in her right foreleg snapped. Courageously, she attempted to continue, disregarding the jockey’s attempts to pull her up, further injuring her sesamoids and tearing the skin and ligaments of her fetlock.
Ruffian was taken by ambulance back to her stall where her prognosis for survival was given a dim 10%. As long as there was a chance, her owner’s decided to try and save the her. Ruffian underwent surgery where vets stabilized her leg. But waking, Ruffian destroyed the cast and added to her injuries. The difficult decision was made and Ruffian was euthanized.
Ruffian was buried in the infield at Belmont close to the rail where she had broken down her nose pointing at the finish line. Before the grave was closed, Frank Whiteley had one of the grooms return to the pit where her body lay, covered in a white sheet, to place two of Ruffian’s red blankets snuggly around her.
Two days after her death Whiteley glanced at her old stall at Belmont and said, “That stall will never be occupied as long as I have this barn. There’ll never be another horse worthy of entering it.”
April 17, 1972 – July 7, 1975