Thoroughbred racehorses can weigh as much as 3,000 pounds supported by four spindly legs. When they gallop along a track at top speed, potential tragedy rides in the saddle alongside the jockeys.
Thankfully, that kind of tragedy doesn’t occur often. When it does, every human connected to the horse feels physical and psychological pain - and so, too, do the $2 bettors gathered in the stands or infield.
Two years ago, Barbaro broke down in the Preakness Stakes at Pimlico and ultimately was destroyed after a long and unsuccessful rehabilitation. Two months ago, Eight Belles had to be destroyed after the Kentucky Derby.
Yet no such calamity caused more widespread grief than the death of Ruffian, arguably the best filly to cross a finish line, after she broke her right front ankle in a match race against Foolish Pleasure at Belmont Park on July 6, 1975.
Ruffian was a smallish runner (1,125 pounds) who won her first 10 races over two years and carried the hopes of underdogs everywhere. The match race against the Kentucky Derby winner probably shouldn’t have taken place - such extemporaneous events are virtually nonexistent in the sport of kings nowadays - but demand from fans to see it and big bucks from CBS television overcame prudence.
“Ruffian was an accident waiting to happen,” racing consultant and analyst Ellen Parker told writer William Nack three decades later.
The problem, Parker felt, largely was based on genetics. Ruffian’s sire, Reviewer, broke down four times because of “soft bones” and eventually was euthanized. Her dam, Shenanigans, had an identical predisposition for unsoundness.
In a way, it seemed remarkable that Ruffian swept her first 10 races, but then again some racing experts compared her to Secretariat, the legendary colt who capped his Triple Crown season with a 31-length victory in the Belmont Stakes two years earlier.
Such praise became passe with shocking swiftness when Ruffian broke down 3 1/2 furlongs and 35 seconds into the match race. She had pulverized the sesamoid bones in the ankle so severely that doctors counted more than 30 fractures.
“There was a sharp snap, almost like a pistol shot,” jockey Jacinto Vasquez said. The horse slowed, then stopped. Surgery ensued, but she reinjured the ankle when she came out of the anesthesia and was put down early the next morning.
Nack, a longtime writer for Sports Illustrated, recalled racing through the grandstand and onto the track to be at the injured animal’s side - just as he would 31 years later when Barbaro was felled by fate or bad luck.
“I felt as though I’d been transported back in time,” Nack wrote in a piece for ESPN’s Page 2 Web site. “I walked toward the stricken horse as if in sleep, fumbling and feeling my way along the damp walls of a recurring nightmare that long ago I’d come to know so well, the one where Ruffian had come and gone in a thrash of dying light.”
People feel deeply about racehorses, especially ones who are superstars. Nack admittedly loved Ruffian, whom he later described in a book as being “of a certain singularity that hinted at origins almost divine.”
No one knows for certain what animals feel when seriously wounded, but it’s easy to guess: panic, fear, incomprehension. In this, humans and horses are remarkably similar. Nobody can reassure a horse by saying “just lie still and everything will be all right.” Animals wouldn’t understand and likely wouldn’t believe that if they could.
When the veterinarians encased Ruffian in an inflatable plastic cast and got her to her feet, she limped terribly as she was led to and from a green horse ambulance. Meanwhile, blood poured over the shoe on her right front foot and onto the ground.
“Everybody who ain’t supposed to be here, out!” trainer Frank Whiteley shouted at a gathering throng. Then the horse’s owners, Mr. and Mrs. Stuart Janney Jr. arrived, the wife wringing her hands and in tears.
Three tranquilizer shots were administered to keep Ruffian as still as possible. Assistant trainer Mike Bell cradled her head in his arms as she stood on three legs.
Meanwhile, Foolish Pleasure trainer LeRoy Jolley stood nearby sadly. Of his reaction when jockey Jacinto Vasquez pulled up Ruffian, Jolley told The Washington Post, “It made me feel kinda sick. I was dumbfounded. Every time you saddle up a horse, you say that little prayer that they come back in one piece.”
Sometimes that prayer isn’t answered.
“I guess when you think about it, that’s what makes great horses - giving everything they’ve got all the time,” Jolley said. “The ones who run best are the ones who run hardest, even if it kills ‘em.”
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