The sporting world will never forget Secretariat, the large chestnut colt they called “Big Red.” Hailed as the greatest American Thoroughbred racehorse of all time, he set a myriad of records on his way to becoming the first US Triple Crown winner in twenty-five years. His mastery over the Belmont Stakes en route to clinching the title in 1973 with a 31-length win in World Record time still finds its way into sports highlights around the world thousands of times each year. Yet, the equine champion’s trainer was quoted in the press as saying, "As God as my witness, she may even be better than Secretariat." The lady about whom he spoke was the seal brown filly known as Ruffian. The tan hair around Ruffian’s eyes and muzzle, with her black body color, disguised her pure guts. She was a fearless competitor and a true heroine.
Ruffian did not just win. She won her maiden race in record time by 15 lengths. She remained undefeated in the ten races she ran, leading at every point from start to finish. The filly set records in eight of the ten races that she won. The other two records she tied. However, in Ruffian's eleventh race run at Belmont Park on July 6, 1975, tragedy struck. It was a match race between Ruffian and that year's Kentucky Derby winner, Foolish Pleasure. Jacinto Vasquez had been the jockey for both horses, but chose to ride Ruffian in the match race, believing her to be the better of the two. 18 million Americans tuned in to watch what was billed as the "equine battle of the sexes."
As the gates opened, Ruffian led in typical fashion, and gained a half-length lead over her champion opponent when her right foreleg snapped – and it was over. She might very well have survived the ordeal, since the subsequent breakthrough surgery appeared successful, but upon awakening, her anesthesia wore off and she thrashed about wildly on the floor of a padded recovery stall as though she were still running in the race. Her flailing motions ripped open the injured leg once again, undoing the surgery. The great lady was euthanized.
Much has been written and produced in the aftermath of her death. There have even been substantial changes in post surgical procedures. Recovery pools were developed so awakened horses could be suspended in warm water without re-injuring themselves. As an animal lover publicly demanding more humane treatment of racehorses, it is little comfort to me.
It is ironic that the only race she ever lost also claimed her life.