Stars of Yesterday: Looking Back at Best Arkansas Derby Winners
Bill Nack will never forget the phone call he received from fellow sportswriter John Pricci in June 1974, urging him to come to Belmont Park to see a 2-year-old filly make her second career start after she dominated by 15 lengths in her debut.
“I just saw something you’ve got to see. You’ve got to get out here,” Pricci told Nack. “She’s as fast as you could imagine a 2-year-old being. Her name is Ruffian.
Ruffian did not disappoint Nack. She never disappointed anyone. Nack immediately saw something special the minute he laid eyes on her in the paddock at New York’s Belmont Park.
“She had this imperial look to her,” he remembered. “She walked very elegantly. She was very aware of her surroundings. She was bright, very alive.”
Once the starting gate snapped open for the Grade 3 Fashion Stakes, Nack appreciated the precocious daughter of Reviewer all the more.
“She ran as fast as any 2-year-old I had ever seen,” he said, “and I thought I had seen the fastest 2-year-old two years before when Secretariat won the Hopeful [Stakes].”
Ruffian went on to sweep three more stakes races – the Grade 3 Astoria, Grade 1 Spinaway and Grade 1 Sorority – en route to the Eclipse Award as the leading 2-year-old filly in North America.
Every start was eye-opening, but never was her immense will to win more on display than it was in the Sorority. She withstood repeated bids by Hot n Nasty even though trainer Frank Whiteley discovered she suffered a season-ending splint injury during the race.
There was nothing lady-like about Ruffian.
“She was very head-strong. Everyone said she acted like a colt around the barn,” said Nack, who became so enamored with her that he wrote “Ruffian: A Racetrack Romance” for ESPN Books in 2007.
She was a still more impressive physical specimen at 3, measuring 16 hands, 2 inches at the withers and weighing 1,125 pounds. She swept the filly Triple Crown, now known as the Triple Tiara, when she controlled the 1 ½-mile Coaching Club American Oaks throughout. She became only the fourth to accomplish the sweep, following Dark Mirage (1968), Shuvee (1969) and Chris Evert (1974).
Ruffian won her first 10 races overall. She owned the lead at every call in every contest she ran for regular rider Jacinto Vasquez; she set a stakes record in each of the eight stakes races in which she competed. She captured the public’s imagination the way few horses have, leading to a highly anticipated match race against 3-year-old sensation Foolish Pleasure at Belmont Park on July 6, 1975.
Ruffian powered to an early lead but was under heavy pressure from her rival when she fractured the sesamoid bones in her right foreleg. She did increasing damage as Vasquez struggled to pull her up. Surgery to save her life ultimately proved to be unsuccessful when she thrashed about after the operation, undoing all of the good the surgeons had done. There was no choice but to euthanize her.
Her passing led to the development of what is known as a “recovery pool,” which allows horses to awaken from surgery while they float in a pool of water.
Ruffian received many accolades in her death, none more powerful than that which came from Lucien Laurin, trainer of mighty 1973 Triple Crown champion Secretariat.
“As God is my judge, she might be better than Secretariat,” he said.
Ruffian is buried in the infield at Belmont Park, her nose pointed toward the finish line.
- Sports Illustrated ranked her 53rd on its list of the top 100 female athletes of the 20th century. She was the only non-human so honored.
- BloodHorse magazine placed her 35th on its list of the top 100 Thoroughbreds of the 20th century. She was the highest-rated filly or mare on the list.
- Folk singer Joan Baez dedicated a version of the song “Stewball” to Ruffian in 1975.
- The Ruffian Equine Medical Center opened in New York in 2009.
- Her career was detailed in a 2007 movie entitled “Ruffian” and in several books.