The Preakness Stakes at Pimlico may well be the homely wee sister of the Triple Crown — the Kentucky Derby being steeped in southern tradition and the Belmont Stakes as its the New York counterpart — but any race day is a good day to remember Ruffian, the filly who broke everyone’s heart 35 years ago.
In 2007 a TV-movie, “Ruffian,” showed up on ESPN. Before that a book about her, “Burning From the Start,” was published.
Four years ago her name was in the news after an injured champion named Barbaro benefitted from the recovery pool invented after Ruffian woke up from surgery, panicked, started kicking and re-injured herself.
Ruffian was very dark, almost black. And she was huge, like the male freak of nature to whom she was sometimes compared — Secretariat.
A match race billed as the “equine battle of the sexes.” The early 1970s was a time for such sporting events (think Billie Jean King vs. Bobby Riggs). Legendary horse trainer Lucien Laurin had said, “As God is my witness, she may even be better than Secretariat.”
The best girl would run against the best boy — Ruffian versus Foolish Pleasure, the winner of the 1975 Kentucky Derby. Ruffian was ahead by a nose when her foreleg snapped. Even as the jockey pulled her up, she was still trying to run. Surgeons tried to save her, but she was euthanized the next day.
Public tragedies like those of Ruffian, Barbaro and, in 2008, Eight Belles, fuel the controversies surrounding horse racing.
But as one sportswriter observed: These horses would never have been born if it weren’t for racing. And by now, with machines ruling our roads, we would have lost our historic connection to these magnificent creatures.
Last year on May 26, Ruffian Equine Medical Center opened. Ruffian is buried in the infield of Belmont Park, her nose pointed toward the finish line of the match race she did not finish.
[originally published by Politics Daily in 2010]