Long before she was to fall madly, hopelessly in love with Zenyatta, there was another filly who captured Kari Bussell’s heart. Of course, the then 10 year-old Kari was not alone in her love of Ruffian — the big, beautiful filly was loved by thousands, from the very young to the most seasoned of horsemen. But Kari nurtured that love, as only she could, through adolescence, marriage, motherhood and granny-hood. In a very real sense, it was the magnificent Ruffian that set the stage for Zenyatta to come, dancing, into Kari’s life bringing her a joy she had never known before.
This one is for you, sweet Kari. You burn as brightly in my heart today as Ruffian shines in the hearts of those who protect her immortality from the winds of time. Ruffian and Kari taught me that some beings are so filled with promise, hope, courage and love that they can never be forgotten.
“As God is my judge, she might be better than Secretariat…” (Lucien Laurin, quoted in the Blood Horse’s Thoroughbred Legends: Ruffian)
On April 17, 1972, shortly before 10 p.m., a grey daughter of Native Dancer gave birth to a dark-hued filly. Neither the mare, Shenanigans, nor the filly’s sire, Reviewer, could have known that the birth of this foal would secure them a permanent place in thoroughbred history and legend.
The filly carried royal blood in her veins and as she struggled to stand on her willowy legs for the very first time, the breath of promise kissed her tiny hooves. Since Shenanigans’ daughter carried the bloodlines of Bold Ruler, Nasrullah, Challenger II, Fighting Fox, Sir Gallahad, Marguerite and the Grey Ghost himself, she had everything she needed, right from the start, to be a genuine firecracker of a race horse. Further, the newborn’s 5 – generation pedigree featured inbreeding to Discovery (4X5X4), the “Iron Horse” and broodmare sire of Native Dancer, Bold Ruler and Bed O’ Roses. Sir Gallahad III, the sire of Triple Crown winner, Gallant Fox, also appeared in her fourth and fifth generations.
Ruffian was big for a filly and by the time she was a yearling, she was the tallest of all the yearlings at Claiborne Farm that year. The youngster — so dark brown that she looked black — was elegant, if a little chubby, and seemed intelligent. The Reviewer filly was a homebred: the Janneys owned Shenanigans and had a share in her sire, who was thought to be Bold Ruler’s second-best son the year Ruffian was born, his best being the newly-retired Secretariat.
By the time she arrived at Frank Whiteley’s stable, Ruffian had been broken to bit and saddle. The seasoned trainer noticed her right away. She was beautiful, strong and looked to have promise, but Whiteley had been in the game long enough to know that what looked like a duck could end up being a donkey. Of course, that didn’t dissuade his interest or commitment. It just made him cautious.
Later, Whiteley and the others would remark on some of the traits that made Ruffian “special” right from the start. Her stature — she was an outstanding-looking individual and bigger than many colts. Her aloofness — the dark daughter of Shenanigans behaved like a supreme being, aloof from the world of horses and men despite a sweet temperament. Her will to win — her regular jockeys, Jacinto Vasquez and Vince Bracciale, Jr., noted how a change came over Ruffian when she knew she was racing. You could still do anything with her, even though she always wanted to lead, but her desire to win was almost visceral. Her way of going — both her exercise riders and jockeys were impressed by the way Ruffian seemed to float and fly over the track. None of them could follow Frank Whiteley’s instructions to the letter because it was impossible to feel how fast she was actually moving.
But, really, words seemed a poor medium in which to paint a portrait because, like all great horses, Ruffian was just too large to contain in language.
And here is where her legend begins:
Those who were there for her maiden race would never forget how the filly loped away from the field, just as though the other horses were stuck in molasses. It was a performance as scintillating as Secretariat’s Belmont or Rachel Alexandra’s Kentucky Oaks and the time still stands to this day as the fastest over the distance. Yet, according to the young Jacinto Vasquez, Ruffian had run easy and she strolled into the winner’s circle without even a trace of sweat on her glossy coat.
Frank Whitely had to have been pleased too, but being a veteran of the old school, he didn’t say. Frank’s horses came first and he took them along as far as they would — or could — go, one day at a time. Whiteley was one of the greats and he’d gotten there by working tirelessly and through astute observation. He knew that one short, maiden race doesn’t make a 2 year-old into a champion. But he also knew what he’d seen Ruffian execute that day. Listening to her enraptured young jockey, who was so taken with her that he declared his desire to ride her in each and every subsequent race, it seemed like she was going to be a serious race horse. But the trainer — whose career boasted the champions Tom Rolfe and Damascus — also knew that to develop and channel all that raw power, Ruffian would need to move up into stakes company.
In the Fashion Stakes, Ruffian’s second start, she met up with another filly who had generated a lot of talk that year, Copernica. A daughter of the incomparable Nijinsky II, Copernica had been born blind in her left eye. But given her lineage, it was decided to start her under trainer Mack Miller as a 2 year-old despite the handicap. Copernica did not disappoint: she won her maiden by 14 lengths and then took a subsequent race by 5 . She was clearly a very promising filly and would provide tougher competition for Ruffian:
Both Jane Schwartz, author of the compelling “Ruffian: Burning From The Start,” and former sports commentator, Charlsie Cantey, attest to the fact that her Fashion Stakes win also earned Ruffian the title of “heartbreaker.” This term is used by horse people to connote a thoroughbred so overpowering that they can break the heart of even a great horse — and Copernica was never the same after her loss to Ruffian. Although she continued to race for Mack Miller with good results, the bay Nijinsky filly who was so game despite her blindness lost her sparkle. ( In retirement, Copernica had success with her son, Crusader Sword, who now lives in retirement at the Frankel division of Old Friends after an excellent stud career in Florida.)
As for “Herself,” the filly who was known around the barn at that time as “Soul Sister” — and later, as “Sofie” — finished up her feed and then, ears pricked, spent the evening after the Fashion Stakes victory nickering to her “barn family,” all of whom were delighted with her. Next came the Astoria, Sorority and the Spinaway: Ruffian won them all with the same powerful acceleration and determination that had marked her maiden race.
This was to be her signature: the ease with which she shattered or tied track records.
Her time at Saratoga in the Spinaway was a new track record: Ruffian ran the fastest 6 furlongs that any juvenile has ever run at Saratoga. The filly’s performance was so dominant that talk began of pitting her against the best colt of her generation, Foolish Pleasure, perhaps in the upcoming Champagne. After all, even though she was still a baby, Ruffian’s girth was wider than Secretariat’s and her speed was mind-boggling. However, before any of that, Frank needed to get at least one more race into her and his choice was the Frizette.
The morning of the race, the filly left food over in her tub and Minnor, her groom, summoned the trainer to take a look at her. She had a slight temperature and the decision was made to scratch her, much to the dismay of her fans, who had arrived in legions to see her win. Over the following two days, Whiteley watched Ruffian carefully, noting what appeared to be discomfort in her right hip. The vet was called and it was discovered that the champion had a hairline fracture in her right hind leg, sidelining her for the rest of the season.
A plaster cast was applied and Ruffian refused to tolerate it, jumping around in her stall with the intent of smashing it to smithereens. But there was no way that the 2 year-old could simply stand around in her stall while it healed without something to immobilize the leg. So it was decided to try a lighter, jelly cast which the filly accepted calmly. Ruffian was assigned “bed rest” for two months, which meant that she needed to stay in her stall and move around very little. As she had been up until now, with the exception of the plaster cast incident, Ruffian took the whole thing in stride and proved to be a model patient. She was very intelligent and seemed to understand that she needed to be relatively still — a tough task for any thoroughbred juvenile. By the time she was ready to be hand-walked around the shed row, her regular groom had quit. Frank Whiteley assigned Dan Williams to take over and, in an unprecedented move for the trainer, Ruffian became Dan’s only charge.
Dan Williams had rubbed many horses for Frank Whiteley and was considered one of the best in the business. A stranger looking into his face might well have thought Dan was a taciturn type. But it was really the rigours of a hard life that etched his features. Dan had lost his wife when his 4 children were young and he had had to raise his family pretty much on his own, while working long, long hours at the track. Shortly before Ruffian came into his life, one of Dan’s sons had been killed in Vietnam.
Dan was a close friend of John “Squeaky” Truesdale, one of the filly’s regular exercise riders and together, the two men nursed their “Sofie” back to health. Ruffian loved Dan. She played games with him, nipped at him when she was feeling playful and nibbled his jacket when something made her nervous. He could do anything with her and he read her like a book. Dan Williams’ connection to Ruffian was exactly what Frank Whiteley needed to know how his filly was really doing, from her mental attitude to her physical well-being. The trainer had other important members of his team who could also keep him informed, Squeaky, Mike Bell, his assistant trainer and Yates Kennedy who, with Squeaky, was Ruffian’s regular exercise rider. But it would always be Dan who knew her better than anyone.
Despite her injury, Ruffian was made 1974 Eclipse Champion 2 year-old and Frank Whiteley was sent to the ceremony to accept the award, which he did in the shortest acceptance speech ever given. Frank was a man who shunned the spotlight and he couldn’t get back to his table fast enough.
There were countless examples of brilliant juveniles that come back a year later as only a shadow of their former selves. And as Ruffian prepared for her 3 year-old campaign the question on everyone’s mind was, “Will she be as good as she was at two?”
As it turned out, Ruffian came back at 3 as an even tougher individual than she had been at 2. She had grown into that large physique and, after months of bed rest and hand walking, was a much tougher customer to handle. She was a filly who needed to run and had matured into a bloody-minded competitor who would not, under any circumstances, allow another horse ahead of her. She was stronger and Jacinto Vasquez, as well as Yates Kennedy, wrestled with her each and every time she hit the track.
It was only Squeaky who could handle her. He thought of his big, dark baby as a restless teenager and learned how to avoid confronting her. As Jane Schwartz tells us, in Ruffian: Burning From The Start, game Ruffian played with Squeaky at her works was this: she would lower her head as far as she could without eating dirt and wait for Squeaky to pick it up. If he did, she’d take off under him like a shot. If he didn’t — and she’d really test him on this — Ruffian would slowly come back to him and listen to his hands and legs.
For his part, Jacinto Vasquez was trying to teach his champ how to win without running herself into the ground. In several of her races at 3, he can be seen asking her to pace herself, wait for a challenger and then spurt a little ahead. By the time the undefeated heroine of the track entered the last leg of the Triple Crown Tiara, she had learned how to play this way with the competition. By then, the Match Race with Foolish Pleasure had been confirmed and Vasquez didn’t want to use her up in the Oaks: Ruffian would only have 2 weeks off before she was due to meet the colt. Vasquez was Foolish Pleasure’s regular jockey and, although he felt the filly was the better horse, he also knew the colt would ask everything of her.
After an allowance race and another impressive win in the Comely, the undefeated filly went on to take the 1975 Triple Crown for Fillies/ New York Triple Tiara. It was a feat only accomplished three times before her, by Dark Mirage (1968), Shuvee (1969) and Chris Evert (1974).
After she took the Triple Crown, the stage was set for a Match Race between the greatest filly and the greatest colt of the 1975 racing season.
So much has been said about the pandemonium leading up to the race and the appeal of a “Battle of the Sexes” in 1975. There were t-shirts, pins and no shortage of Match Race memorabilia; Frank Whiteley put barricades up around his barn and posted a 24-hour guard outside the filly’s stall. Truth be told, Whiteley barely slept outside the barn himself in the days leading up to the race. It was that hyped.
We know, of course, how the story ends. It was a tragedy that those who were there and those who loved her will never forget.
Today, things might have gone differently. There are baths for horses that awake from anaesthesia to prevent the damage Ruffian did to herself after the surgery.
Frank Whiteley, Dan Williams, Mike Bell, Yates Kennedy and the medical team did everything they could for her. Only there wasn’t much anyone really could do. And Ruffian, who had been an ideal patient the year before, clearly had gone into surgery so traumatized that she never really could get past it — except by running away.
It was her determination to get away that made it impossible to save her.
Ruffian was buried in the infield at Belmont close to the rail where she had broken down. It was an unprecedented move for the track, but so great was the filly’s reputation that they considered it a privilege. Under the flag that flew at half-mast in her honour, Ruffian was laid to rest. Before the grave was closed, Frank Whiteley asked Mike Bell to go down into the pit where her body lay, covered in a white sheet, to place two of Ruffian’s red blankets snuggly around her.
When a life ends tragically, it is always tempting to see the ending as the heart of the story.
But anyone who knew Ruffian understands that this is not how she ought to be re-memoried.
Ruffian, aka Soul Sister, aka Sofie was one of the most gifted fillies to ever grace the sport. And today, as on the last day of her life, Ruffian exudes the magic of those great thoroughbreds who appear, every once and awhile, to remind us of what it means to draw near to a being that moves in perfect harmony with destiny. From the beginning, thoroughbreds like Ruffian distinguish themselves from their peers. Not just because they tend to be good-looking and are, without question, mighty on the track. Nor is it a matter of personality: for every one as sweet as Ruffian or Secretariat or Zenyatta or Rachel, there are an equal number who are as incorrigible as Native Dancer, Seattle Slew or Sunday Silence .
What they all seem to share in common is what we call “presence.” Their presence bespeaks something greater than their conformation, or track record or exploits. Just as we learn in school, what makes a sign different from a symbol is that the latter always refers to something greater and more complex than itself.
So it was with Ruffian. You can tell her story, event by event and incident by incident, or just look at images of her big, beautiful self. You can string all the quotable quotes together. You can watch her run. But none of this adds up to Ruffian. She evoked the human heart in so many different ways and, perhaps, conjured a time long, long ago when horses were sacred, mysterious beings — who, like Ruffian, derived from a world of immortals and returned to them when her legend was woven.
In her video to Ruffian, below, Kari Bussell said: “Ruffian was my first love. I was 10 when I watched her break down in horror. I promised I would never forget her. In essence this video is my way of keeping my promise. I will love her for eternity. RIP- Ruffian.”
Nor will we ever forget you, Kari. Your presence in our lives is one of beauty, generosity and the embodiment of love. And that is eternal, without end.