Although the three Triple Crown races have existed since the 1800s, and hundreds of individual horses have added their names to the lists of winners, only 12 fillies in history have won a Triple Crown race.
Those victories, though more frequent in the early years, have been few and far between; in fact, just five fillies have won a Triple Crown race during the last 97 years.
With this in mind, it seems impossible to believe that the first Triple Crown race ever contested was won by a filly, but that memorable feat was achieved in 1867 when Ruthless prevailed in the inaugural running of the Belmont Stakes, the highlight of a career that would land her a spot in the Racing Hall of Fame.
Bred in New York by Francis Morris, Ruthless was a New York-bred in terms of birthplace, but not in ancestry. Her sire (father) was the imported British stallion Eclipse (though not the legendary and undefeated Eclipse that the name more commonly refers to), and her dam (mother), Barbarity, likewise hailed from across the Atlantic Ocean.
Trained by A. Jack Minor, Ruthless showed talent right from the start. During an abbreviated four-race campaign as a 2-year-old in 1866, she broke her maiden at Saratoga on July 28 and later won the one-mile Nursery Handicap at Jerome Park in decisive fashion. She finished second in her other two starts that season.
The following year, Ruthless made a habit of defeating colts in major races. After winning a six-furlong sprint race on May 23 at Jerome Park, Ruthless caused eyes to widen in amazement when she came back the next day and beat older males going 1 ¼ miles.
A little more than a week later, Ruthless finished second to stablemate Monday in the Jersey Derby, a race that served as her prep for the June 19 Belmont Stakes. At the time, the race was conducted at Jerome Park and held at a distance of 1 5/8 miles, an eighth of a mile longer than the race’s current distance.
Facing three opponents, including Monday, Ruthless was expected to concede victory to her preferred stablemate, but when Monday failed to threaten (and eventually finished last), Ruthless dug in gamely and engaged in a three-way battle with De Courcey and Rivoli. As the finish line loomed, the outcome was uncertain, but Ruthless battled on and crossed the finish line in front by a head over De Courcey, with Rivoli just a half-length back in third.
If winning the Belmont Stakes wasn’t enough to secure her legacy, Ruthless defeated males again later that summer when she won the fourth renewal of the historic Travers Stakes at Saratoga. The distance was a challenging 1 ¾ miles, but Ruthless easily defeated De Courcey to win by two lengths.
Toward the end of the year, Ruthless suffered a surprising defeat in the St. Leger, a 2 ¼-mile race that unfolded in an unusual way. Facing four opponents, Ruthless got caught up in an intense duel for the lead with a colt named Clement, and just a half-mile into the race they were 20 lengths in front of their rivals. Ruthless eventually left Clement behind — he would finish last — but had nothing left for the challenge of De Courcey, who came running from far behind to win by three lengths.
Ruthless retired with a record of seven wins and four seconds from 11 starts, with earnings of $11,000. She lived for another nine years, but as described by William H. P. Robertson in his book “The History of Thoroughbred Racing in America,” Ruthless “died probably the strangest death of any prominent Thoroughbred on record. A hunter wandering by Morris’ farm in Westchester shot her by mistake.”
Despite her untimely death, Ruthless lives on in history as the first racehorse — filly or otherwise — to win a Triple Crown race. Thanks in large part to that accomplishment, Ruthless was inducted into the Racing Hall of Fame in 1975. Now that’s what you call a legend!
Editor's Note: This story originally was published in 2017 and has been updated.
- Ruthless had four full sisters named Regardless, Relentless, Remorseless, and Merciless. Since all achieved racing success and became stakes winners, they were known as the “Barbarous Battalion” in honor of their dam, Barbarity.
- Ruthless’ regular rider was Gilbert W. Patrick, a Hall of Fame jockey who rode with success for decades and was often called “Gilpatrick.” He was 55 years old when he guided Ruthless to victory in the Belmont Stakes.
- Only two other fillies in history have won the Belmont Stakes: Tanya in 1905 and Rags to Riches in 2007.
- The Ruthless Stakes at Aqueduct is named in Ruthless’ honor.