Ruffian (horse)

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Ruffian with her jockey Jacinto Vazquez.jpg
Ruffian, ridden by Jacinto Vasquez
GrandsireBold Ruler
DamsireNative Dancer
FoaledApril 17, 1972
Claiborne Farm, Paris, Kentucky, U.S.
DiedJuly 7, 1975(1975-07-07) (aged 3)
Elmont, New York, U.S.
CountryUnited States
ColourDark bay
BreederStuart & Barbara Janney
OwnerStuart & Barbara Janney
TrainerFrank Y. Whiteley, Jr.
Record11: 10-0-0 (1 DNF)
Major wins
Fashion Stakes (1974)
Astoria Stakes (1974)
Spinaway Stakes (1974)
Sorority Stakes (1974)
Comely Stakes (1975)
Acorn Stakes (1975)
Mother Goose Stakes (1975)
Coaching Club American Oaks (1975)
American Champion Two-Year-Old Filly (1974)
4th U.S. Triple Tiara Champion (1975)
American Champion Three-Year-Old Filly (1975)
U.S. Racing Hall of Fame (1976)
#35 - Top 100 U.S. Racehorses of the 20th Century #1 - Top U.S Female Racehorse of the 20th Century
Ruffian Handicap at Belmont Park
TV Film: Ruffian (2007)
Last updated on May 25, 2006

Ruffian (April 17, 1972 – July 7, 1975) was an American champion thoroughbred racehorse who won 10 consecutive races, usually by wide margins. In July 1975, she entered a highly anticipated match race with Kentucky Derby winner Foolish Pleasure, in which she broke down. Surgery was attempted but Ruffian reacted poorly and exacerbated the injuries while coming out of anesthesia. As a result, she was euthanized. Ruffian was ranked among the top U.S. racehorses of the 20th century by The Blood-Horse magazine. Her story was told in the 2007 film Ruffian and numerous books.


Ruffian was foaled at Claiborne Farm, near Paris, Kentucky. She was bred by Stuart S. Janney Jr. and Barbara Phipps Janney, owners of Locust Hill Farm in Glyndon, Maryland. Janney, a cousin of prominent horseman Ogden Mills Phipps, later became the chairman of the Bessemer Trust.[2] Ruffian was sired by the Phipps family's Bold Ruler stallion, Reviewer, and out of the Native Dancer mare Shenanigans. She was trained by Frank Y. Whiteley, Jr..

Ruffian was a nearly black filly standing 16.1 hands (65 inches, 165 cm) high as a two-year-old. Sportswriter Joe Hirsch called her the most imposing juvenile filly he'd ever seen.[3] William Nack, author of Ruffian: A Racetrack Romance, wrote, "She looked like an outside linebacker."[4] Ruffian used her size and strength to intimidate other fillies even before they started to race.[5]

Racing career[edit]

Two-year-old season[edit]

Ruffian made her debut at Belmont Park on May 22, 1974 in a ​5 12-furlong maiden special weight race. She went straight to the front and set very fast fractions while pulling away from her rivals. She eventually won by 15 lengths and tied the track record, a noteworthy feat for so young a horse. It was a sign of things to come: Ruffian was on the lead at every point of call in every race she ever ran. She set a new stakes record in each of the eight stakes races she won.[5] She also equaled two track records. Ruffian's jockey Jacinto Vasquez was asked in an interview if it was hard to get to the lead at the beginning of races. He replied, "No, Ruffian sets her own pace and gets there on her own".

In her second start in the ​5 12-furlong Fashion Stakes, Ruffian faced stiffer company but still won by nearly seven lengths while equaling her own track record. She next won the Astoria Stakes, this time by nine lengths. Her next start at Monmouth Park on July 27 in the Grade I Sorority Stakes would prove a greater challenge as she faced another top class filly called Hot n Nasty, who like Ruffian had already earned multiple stakes wins. Ruffian went to the early lead, setting a "torrid" pace but Hot n Nasty was just a length behind. As they turned into the stretch, Hot n Nasty moved alongside Ruffian and for a moment actually seemed to be leading. For the first and last time, Vasquez hit Ruffian with the whip. Ruffian responded by inching back into the lead, then finally drew away to win in a stakes record by ​2 12 lengths – the third place horse was 22 lengths behind. The day after the race, Ruffian came down with a heavy cough. Vasquez also believed she had popped a splint in the race, which, although not a serious injury, was painful and enough to take the edge off of most horses.[5]

On August 23 at Saratoga Race Course, Ruffian won the Spinaway Stakes by ​12 34 lengths in a track record time of 1:08​35.[5] The morning after the race, a stable hand found that she had left a lot of her food untouched. Whiteley examined the filly and noticed that her right hind leg was sensitive, so he had a veterinarian perform scans on her leg. It was discovered that she had a hairline fracture on her hind leg. Whiteley was interviewed about the fracture and asked if it were true that it happened during the race. He answered, "It did happen during the race, she was just a couple of strides from the wire." When asked why he thought Ruffian was not showing any signs of being hurt until the next day, he replied, "She is a very tough filly, and doesn't like to show any weaknesses."

Ruffian missed the rest of the two-year-old season but her five wins were sufficient to earn her the Eclipse Award for American Champion Two-Year-Old Filly. Ruffian was also voted 2 year old "Horse Of The Year" by Turf & Sport Digest as well as 1974 "Filly 2 year old Champion" [Reference: Turf & Sport Digest January 1975. Front Cover and full article page 24,25,26.]

Three-year-old season[edit]

Ruffian started her three-year-old campaign with an allowance race win, followed by a victory in the Comely Stakes at Aqueduct on April 30. In the latter, she set a stakes record of 1:21​15 for 7 furlongs. Ruffian then swept the New York Triple Tiara, which at that time consisted of the Acorn Stakes, Mother Goose Stakes and Coaching Club American Oaks.[3][5] In the Acorn Stakes on May 10 at Aqueduct, Ruffian was the 1-10 favorite and won by ​8 12 lengths in a stakes record time of 1:34​25 for one mile.[6] She followed up with another win in the Mother Goose Stakes on May 31, again at Aqueduct, breaking the previous stakes record by ​45 of a second while winning by ​13 12 lengths without urging from her jockey.[7] In the Coaching Club American Oaks on June 21 at Belmont Park, she was again made the 1-10 favorite. She opened up a 6 length lead on the backstretch but the field closed on her during the far turn, getting as close as 1 length. In the stretch, Ruffian again pulled away to win by ​2 34 lengths while tying the stakes record of 2:27​45 for ​1 12 miles.[8]

Ruffian was undefeated in her first ten races, covering distances from 5.5 furlongs (1.1 km) to 1.5 miles (2.4 km), with an average winning margin of 8​13 lengths. She set stakes records in each stakes race she entered.

Final race and death[edit]

Ruffian's eleventh race was run at Belmont Park on July 6, 1975. It was a match race between her and that year's Kentucky Derby winner, Foolish Pleasure. In the past, the horses had shared the same jockey: Jacinto Vasquez. Vasquez chose to ride Ruffian in the match race, believing her to be the better of the horses; Braulio Baeza rode Foolish Pleasure. The "Great Match" was heavily anticipated and attended by more than 50,000 spectators, with an estimated television audience of 20 million.

As Ruffian left the starting gate, she hit her shoulder hard before straightening herself. The first quarter-mile (402 m) was run in 22​15 seconds, with Ruffian ahead by a nose. Little more than 1 furlong (201 m) later, Ruffian was in front by half a length when she changed leads, followed by an audible crack: both sesamoid bones in her right foreleg had snapped.[9] Vasquez tried to pull her up, but the filly would not stop. She went on running, pulverizing her sesamoids, ripping the skin of her fetlock and tearing her ligaments until her hoof was flopping uselessly. Vasquez said it was impossible for him to stop her. She still tried to run and finish the race. Video showed Ruffian was startled by a bird in the infield and took a bad step. [10]

Ruffian was immediately attended to by a team of four veterinarians and an orthopedic surgeon, and underwent an emergency operation lasting twelve hours, during which she had to be revived twice after she stopped breathing.[11] When the anesthesia wore off after the surgery, she thrashed about wildly on the floor of a padded recovery stall as if still running in the race. Despite the efforts of numerous attendants, she began spinning in circles on the floor. As she flailed about with her legs, she repeatedly knocked the heavy plaster cast against her own elbow until the elbow, too, was smashed to bits. The vet who treated her said that her elbow was shattered and looked like a piece of ice after being smashed on the ground.[10] The cast slipped, and as it became dislodged it ripped open her foreleg all over again, undoing the surgery. The medical team, knowing that Ruffian would probably not survive more extensive surgery for the repair of her leg and elbow (much less the long period of stall rest required after surgery), euthanized her shortly afterward.[11]

"It was unfortunate we were in a learning period at the time," said her surgeon Dr. Edward Keefer in 2000. "Vets are really doing a hell of a job now and have improved tremendously in their knowledge and how to handle these catastrophic occurrences."[3]


Ruffian's breakdown and death led to a public outcry for more humane treatment of racehorses. As it is natural for horses to thrash and kick when coming out of anesthesia, a "recovery pool" was developed so that they awake suspended in warm water and don't re-injure themselves.[12] Medications such as corticosteroids for inflammation and pain management came into common use. However, while helping the horses in the short term, the increased use of medications at the track had a downside, as many more horses were raced while injured. The average number of starts per year steadily declined, though this may also be attributable to economic factors.[13]

Ruffian's breeding may be considered at least partly to blame for her broken leg; her sire, Reviewer, suffered three breakdowns in his racing career. After his fourth and last breakdown, which occurred while in his paddock, he had to be euthanized after surgery.[11][14][15] Shenanigans, Ruffian's dam, was euthanized following intestinal surgery on May 21, 1977 when she broke two legs while recovering from anesthetic. Ruffian's damsire, Native Dancer, is considered by some to be the purveyor of "soft boned" genetics, primarily through his brilliant but unsound son Raise A Native. Inbreeding to Raise A Native may have been a factor in the later breakdown of Eight Belles.[16]

Later research by Susan Stover showed that catastrophic breakdowns were most often preceded by smaller stress fractures,[17] though the fracture Ruffian experienced as a two-year-old was in a different leg. To help prevent similar tragedies, Stover has directed research into improved early detection, surgical techniques and rehabilitation methods.[18]


Ruffian is buried near a flag pole in the infield of Belmont Park, with her nose pointed toward the finish line.[11]

Ruffian posthumously earned the 1975 Eclipse Award for Outstanding Three-Year-Old Filly. In 1976, she was inducted into the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame.[19] The Blood-Horse magazine ranked her 35th in its list of the top 100 U.S. thoroughbred champions of the 20th Century; she is the highest-rated filly (or mare) on the list, and the only female horse on both lists (best female, best horse). Sports Illustrated included her as the only non-human on their list of the top 100 female athletes of the century, ranking her 53rd.[20]

In the summer of 1975, the folk singer Joan Baez dedicated a version of the song "Stewball" to Ruffian.[21]

Since 1976, the Ruffian Handicap has been run in Ruffian's honor. Until 2009, the race had been held at Belmont Park (on Long Island, New York), but it was moved upstate to Saratoga Race Course in 2010. In 2014, the Ruffian Handicap was moved back to Belmont Park.[22]

The Ruffian Equine Medical Center, now known as Cornell Ruffian Equine Specialists, opened on May 26, 2009. It cost $18 million to build and is located outside Gate 8 of Belmont Park. The facility offers a wide range of services ranging from acute care for race related injuries to preventative care and farrier consultations.[23]

Ruffian has many nicknames, such as "Queen of the Fillies", "Queen of the Century", "Queen of Racing", "Queen of the Track", "Filly of the Century", "The Super Filly", the "Black Terror" and more. Several books about her have been published, including Ruffian, Burning from the Start; Ruffian, A Racetrack Romance; Ruffian: Horse Racing's Black Beauty; and The Licorice Daughter, My Year with Ruffian.

Ruffian is the subject of a book of poems by Lyn Lifshin, entitled "The Licorice Daughter: My Year with Ruffian" (Texas Review Press).

In Lexington, Kentucky, the road into the Masterson Station Park is named “Ruffian Way” and a monument in her honor can be found inside the park. It reads, “This memorial erected in memory of Ruffian, dark bay thoroughbred filly. We were young when she died, too young to remember her with the greats of other eras. Yet to love grace and perfection is ours because we are human and none felt her loss more painfully than we. The Children of Lexington - 1975”


Ruffian was by Reviewer, a talented racehorse who was injured in each of the three seasons he raced. In a short career at stud, he sired two outstanding fillies, Ruffian and Revidere, but failed to sire a son capable of continuing his line.[24]

Ruffian's dam Shenanigans earned three wins in 22 starts for the Janneys, then became an outstanding broodmare. In addition to Ruffian, Shenanigans produced graded stakes winner and important sire Icecapade, the talented filly Laughter, who went on to become a producer of several stakes winners, and Buckfinder, another stakes winner and good sire. She was named the 1975 Kentucky Broodmare of the Year.[25]

Pedigree of Ruffian
Bold Ruler Nasrullah Nearco
Mumtaz Begum
Miss Disco Discovery
Broadway Hasty Road Roman
Traffic Court
Flitabout Challedon
Bird Flower
Native Dancer Polynesian Unbreakable
Black Polly
Geisha Discovery
Bold Irish Fighting Fox Sir Gallahad
Erin Transmute
Rosie O'Grady

Further reading[edit]

  • Schwartz, Jane (1994-03-02). Ruffian: Burning From the Start. New York: Ballantine Books. ISBN 0-345-38602-7.
  • Toby, Milton (2002-01-25). Ruffian (Thoroughbred Legends, No. 13). Eclipse Press. ISBN 1-58150-059-9.
  • Lyshin, Lyn (2006-02-10). The Licorice Daughter: My Year with Ruffian. Texas Review Press. ISBN 1-881515-79-6.
  • Nack, William (2007-05-08). Ruffian: A Racetrack Romance. ESPN Books. ISBN 1-933060-30-1.
  • Hanna, Linda (2008-04-15). Barbaro, Smarty Jones & Ruffian: The People's Horses. Wilmington, DE: Middle Atlantic Press. ISBN 0-9705804-5-2.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Ruffian Profile". Retrieved 31 August 2016.
  2. ^ Korman, Chris. "Maryland's Janney shuns limelight, even with Derby favorite Orb". Retrieved 31 August 2016.
  3. ^ a b c Avalyn Hunter. "Ruffian (horse)". American Classic Pedigrees. Retrieved 31 August 2016.
  4. ^ Shapiro, Leonard (3 June 2007). "A Dark Horse Tale". The Washington Post. Retrieved 31 August 2016.
  5. ^ a b c d e Haskin, Steve. "A 'Nasty' Challenge For Ruffian". Retrieved 31 August 2016.
  6. ^ Associated Press. "Unbeaten Ruffian Breezes to Acorn Victory". Ocala Star-Banner. Retrieved 1 September 2016.
  7. ^ Associated Press. "Ruffian proves to be too much for the competition". Ocala Star-Banner. Retrieved 1 September 2016.
  8. ^ "Ruffian Captures Coaching Oaks". The Spokesman-Review. Retrieved 1 September 2016.
  9. ^ Associated Press. "Ruffian is Humanely Destroyed". The Gadsden Times. Retrieved 1 September 2016.
  10. ^ a b Schwartz, Jane (1994-03-02). Ruffian: Burning From the Start. New York: Ballantine Books. ISBN 0-345-38602-7.
  11. ^ a b c d Jones, Kathleen (2002). "Ruffian". Archived from the original on 2008-04-04. Retrieved 2008-05-03.
  12. ^ "Post Surgery Horse Recovery Pool Systems - HydroHorse". Retrieved 31 August 2016.
  13. ^ Schmid, Neal (2004-05-01). "Horse of a different color". Cincinnati Enquirer. Retrieved 2008-05-03.
  14. ^
  15. ^ Parker, Ellen. "Ruffian - What Made Her Great Made Her Die". Pedilnes. Archived from the original on 2008-04-30. Retrieved 2008-05-03.
  16. ^ Nack, Bill (16 January 2009). "The DNA of Eight Belles' tragic breakdown". Retrieved 1 September 2016.
  17. ^ "Merial-NIH National Veterinary Scholars Symposium" (PDF). p. 31. Archived from the original (PDF) on 15 September 2016. Retrieved 9 August 2016.
  18. ^ "2016 UK Equine Research Hall of Fame Inductees Announced". Retrieved 31 August 2016.
  19. ^ "Ruffian". 1976-01-01. Retrieved 2019-04-26.
  20. ^ "Sports Illustrated 100 Greatest Female Athletes". CNN.
  21. ^ Baez, Joan (1976). From Every Stage (CD). A&M.
  22. ^ "Ten Things You Should Know About the Ruffian Handicap at Hello Race Fans".
  23. ^ "Cornell Ruffian Equine Specialists". Retrieved 31 August 2016.
  24. ^ Avalyn Hunter. "Reviewer (horse)". American Classic Pedigrees. Retrieved 1 September 2016.
  25. ^ Avalyn Hunter. "Shenanigans (horse)". American Classic Pedigrees. Retrieved 1 September 2016.

External links[edit]