Ruffian Remembered

Ruffian Remembered
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Thoroughbred Legends: Ruffian
By Milton Toby

From Chapter 10: "Confidently Ridden"
Veteran handicapper Kenny Noe Jr. had been unable to separate Ruffian and Foolish Pleasure when he assigned weights for the Experimental Free Handicap. Now, six months later, Noe's assessment would be put to the ultimate test, a match race between the two juvenile champions.

Like every other great match race, Ruffian versus Foolish Pleasure had a "hook," though an unlikely one. Two years earlier, tennis champion Billie Jean King had defeated Bobby Riggs in a much-publicized, prime-time television match that supposedly demonstrated female athletes could compete on equal footing with their male counterparts.

In fact, all the Billie Jean King-Bobby Riggs "match" proved was that a six-time Wimbledon champion near the top of her game could defeat a glorified tennis hustler well past his prime, but no one seemed to notice. The Women's Liberation Movement was in full swing and looking for more heroines.

When the Ruffian-Foolish Pleasure match race was announced, the women's movement quickly embraced the filly as a symbol of its cause and, almost overnight, the event took on a life of its own. Ruffian became a cultural icon, and no longer was the race about which horse was better. It was transformed into a battle of the sexes, with the victorious gender getting bragging rights.

Even the backstretch was polarized, with grooms and hotwalkers sporting election-style buttons emblazoned with photographs of the filly or the colt.

"You were either for her or against her," Charlsie Cantey remembered.

"There were two distinct camps on the backstretch," Mike Bell recalled of the days leading up to the match race. "People would come and tell us what they were saying at LeRoy Jolley's barn, and I'm sure there were people going back and telling them what was going on at our barn.

"There was a lot of back and forth, but most of it was pretty good-natured. Deep down, I think there was a lot of respect on both sides.

"Of course, as the day of the race got closer, everyone started to get a little bit tighter."

Ironically, the standard-bearer for the women's movement bore more physical resemblance to a male than to a female. In fact, Ruffian often had been mistaken for a colt when she first arrived at the track.

Cantey recalled bringing Ruffian back from an early morning workout at Belmont Park before Ruffian broke her maiden, just letting the filly relax and make her own way on a loose rein. On such occasions, Ruffian sometimes would stop and nibble grass alongside the path.

Robin Smith, one of racing's first female jockeys, drove by the pair, then stopped her car and backed up to where Ruffian was grazing. "He's beautiful," Smith called out. "What's his name?"

"Her name," Cantey replied, "is Ruffian."

It was an easy mistake to make, even for an experienced horsewoman.

"Ruffian was a very big filly," New York Racing Association track veterinarian Dr. Manuel A. Gilman recalled, "much larger than the average filly. In fact, she was much larger than the average colt."

Dr. Gilman measured Ruffian and Foolish Pleasure several days before the match race, and Ruffian had the more imposing physique. Standing 16 hands, two inches at the withers, Ruffian was two and three-quarter inches taller than Foolish Pleasure, at 15 hands, 3 1/4 inches. Ruffian also was heavier than her male rival, weighing in at 1,125 pounds. Foolish Pleasure tipped the scales at 1,061 pounds.

Despite her obvious physical advantage, Ruffian still received a five-pound break in weight for the match race. Scale weight requires a three-year-old colt or gelding to carry 126 pounds, a three-year-old filly 121, with the five-pound difference thought necessary to give the female a fighting chance against the male. That concession to Ruffian's gender must have vexed the filly's female supporters, if they thought about it, since the clear implication was that a filly could not be competitive against a colt on her merits alone.

Even Ruffian's name seemed an unlikely, decidedly masculine choice for a filly. In fact, the name Ruffian originally had been reserved for another Locust Hill filly sired by Rambunctious, which probably was more appropriate breeding for the name. When the Janneys sold the Rambunctious filly as an unnamed yearling, however, they decided to use the name for their homebred Reviewer filly.

"Girls can be ruffians, too," Mrs. Janney observed after Ruffian's first stakes win. The filly certainly lived up to her name.

"Ruffian was tough to work around," Mike Bell recalled. "She wasn't mean, but she definitely liked to be in control. She didn't want to be restrained in any way. She just wanted to be free, and to do everything her own way. She demanded respect from everyone around her, and she got it."

Ruffian and Foolish Pleasure, of course, were impervious to all the hype surrounding their upcoming race, and their training proceeded as planned. Frank Whiteley and Jacinto Vasquez worked on keeping Ruffian's brilliant speed in check, as they had been trying to do for much of the filly's three-year-old campaign.

Their attempts to get Ruffian to rate, and to use her speed only when asked to run, had been largely successful. Showing brilliant early speed in her first races, Ruffian lately had learned to relax under Vasquez, and she toyed with her rivals before sprinting away from them in the stretch. In Ruffian's most recent races, her final fractions had been her best, because she was allowed to run only in the later stages of her races.

Whiteley recognized the horse that shows in front first usually wins a match race, and he wanted Ruffian sharp enough to race for the lead from the break. He did not want her to run with such abandon that she had nothing left in the later stages of the race, though.

"Ruffian was an easy horse to train," Bell said. "She put everything into her workouts in the morning and everything into her races in the afternoon. She would put out incredible fractions in the morning, times that would be a good race for a lot of horses, then she would be ready to race the next day. She was a big filly, but she moved so easy that you didn't realize how fast she was running until you saw the time."

LeRoy Jolley and Braulio Baeza were taking just the opposite tack with Foolish Pleasure, whose best races generally had been run from off the pace. Their goal was to sharpen the colt's early speed so he could run with Ruffian from the break, pushing her from the starting bell. No horse ever had done that, and the consensus was that such a strategy was Foolish Pleasure's best -- some said only -- real chance to win.

In that regard, Baeza might have been a better choice for Foolish Pleasure in the match race than Vasquez; he certainly knew how to coax the most speed from his mounts. Baeza had been aboard sprinter Dr. Fager in the 1968 Washington Park Handicap, in which the Horse of the Year rolled to a ten-length victory and won in 1:32 1/5. The time established a world record for one mile that stood for almost thirty years.

Dr. Fager's world-record race included a second quarter-mile in :20 3/5, generally considered to be the fastest time ever recorded by a Thoroughbred for a quarter-mile in the middle of a race. If Jolley wanted speed from Foolish Pleasure, Baeza knew how to get it.

Several days before the match race, Baeza worked Foolish Pleasure a half-mile in :44 4/5, five furlongs in :57 4/5. Foolish Pleasure's first eighth-mile was run in just over ten seconds, an impressive time, even from a moving start. If the only way to beat Ruffian was to challenge her at her own game, Foolish Pleasure seemed to be ready.

When the match race first was set, a couple of factors were undecided: whether to have betting or to run the race as an exhibition, and where on the racetrack to place the starting gate. The first decision was easy. The New York Racing Association was experimenting with Sunday racing, and betting on the match race would generate more interest, attendance, and betting handle.

The second question was more complicated. The main track at Belmont Park is one and a half miles in circumference, the longest racetrack in the United States. For a race at one and a quarter miles, the start would have to be either midway around the first turn, or at the end of a long chute leading on a straight path directly to the backstretch. There were problems with both options.

Jack J. Dreyfus Jr., NYRA chairman and one of the men who initially orchestrated the match race, wanted to start the race on the turn, where the crowd in the grandstand could see what was happening. Having the start on the turn would make for better television, too, and CBS had put up most of the purse for the race and had a vested interest.

Positioning the starting gate there, though, meant that the horses had to negotiate the turn immediately at the same time they were accelerating from the gate. Traffic problems were less likely to occur with only two horses in the race, but the possibility of having the race decided by an outside factor remained.

If the horses started from the end of the chute, on the other hand, the crowd in the stands would be able to see virtually nothing of the start, and little of the first quarter-mile. Such a start also would make televising the race more difficult.

Breaking from the chute also would require the horses to cross the Belmont Park training track to reach the main track's backstretch. Such a momentary change in racing surfaces could upset the strides of the horses, and a race like this one could turn on even the slightest advantage.

LeRoy Jolley did not take a firm stand one way or the other. Frank Whiteley, on the other hand, flatly refused to take part if the race was started on the first turn. The NYRA relented.

The match was on!



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