The bright star that burned out too soon

Ruffian — Burning from the start

Book Title: Ruffian — Burning from the start
ISBN: 9780345450005
Author: Jane Schwartz
Publisher: Ballantine Books
Publication Year: 2002
Price: RM10 (Book fair price)

This is one for the horse fans. If you follow horse racing, you are more than likely to have heard of the legendary Ruffian and her tragic ending. But whether you have or haven’t heard of this filly, reading this novel will make you a fan of her.

On April 17, 1972, one of the racing world’s most impressive athletes was born. Her bloodlines traced back to equine royalty — and as horse experts would often say, she was practically born with a tiara. The filly carried royal blood in her veins. Her sire is Reviewer and her dam is Shenanigans, a mare by the magnificent Native Dancer (a.k.a the Grey Ghost) who won 21 of his 22 races.

Since Ruffian 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. Born a big, strong, healthy foal who later grew into an impressively built yearling, her connections started to take notice of her.

As she was just learning the ropes of being handled and ridden, a certain relative of hers swept the 1973 Triple Crown, the most coveted horse racing series in northern America. As 1974 approached, the two-year-old filly made her way to North Carolina from Kentucky to learn how to become a racehorse. Trainer Frank Whiteley knew after a few sessions that he had something special in his care.

The speedy freak

Shipped to New York, she began her racing career at age two (as many racehorses do), and gained her name, Ruffian. The dark-brown, almost black filly began blowing competition away and setting track record after track record, often winning by huge margins. But as she ran, Whiteley could not help but worry about her powerhouse body set on her dainty legs, and this proved a true concern when a slight hairline fracture in her ankle caused her debut season to come “to an abrupt end”.

But 1974 gave way to high hopes for her three-year-old season in 1975. She came back with vengeance, sweeping the filly Triple Crown. That year, Foolish Pleasure, a three-year-old colt, took the Kentucky Derby and became a heavy favourite for the rest of the Triple Crown series.

However, he did not manage to win the series, coming in second in the following two legs. Due to their successes, there became a cry for a match race between Ruffian and Foolish Pleasure — a battle of the sexes on the level of Billie Jean King vs. Bobby Riggs tennis match. As the end of the season drew near, the date was finally set and the race was on. Tragically, nobody would ever know the outcome.

The legendary Ruffian

The aftermath

“Ruffian has broken down! Ruffian has broken down!”

I almost stopped reading at this part because I became so emotional about what happened after. But if there’s one thing I’ve learned, these magnificent animals have heart beyond comprehension. That horse loved to run. That horse fought her own body to finish that race.

Everyone in the stands and following the race that day was impacted because they witnessed immense greatness followed by immense destruction.

It was reported by her jockey, Jacinto Vasquez that he tried to pull her up to the side and stop, but the filly would not. She went on running, pulverising 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.

Ruffian was immediately attended to by a team of 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. When the anesthesia wore off after the surgery, she thrashed about wildly on the floor of a padded recovery stall, as if she is still running in the race. After it was determined that there is no way that she can recover, the great filly was euthanised shortly afterwards.

Schwartz successfully reconstructs the brightest and darkest moments of Ruffian’s life. Anyone who reads this novel comes as close as I think they can to understanding how that felt.

Being an avid horse racing fan since I was a little boy watching “The Adventures of the Black Stallion” on TV2 and occasionally going to the race track at the Sarawak Turf Club in 8th Mile back in the day, I truly enjoyed how the author described the talented horse, and to the people around her — Frank Whiteley, her trainer, her groom, exercise riders, jockey and her owners. I came away with a great respect for all of them.

She captures almost every aspects of Ruffian beautifully through alternates chapters dealing with Ruffian’s training and racing, her past, with chapters leading up to the match race with Foolish Pleasure. I only knew about Ruffian after I saw a movie about her a few years ago, and the story is compelling enough for me that I began looking for more stories about her on the internet, and luckily for me, I found this book on sale at a book fair in a shopping mall a year back.

I highly recommend this book to horse racing fans, as it is an amazing narrative, moving, informative, and brilliantly put together. Schwartz certainly did her homework in the research department, and she writes with enough skill and subtlety to touch you deeply, without having to resort to petty tricks. It helps that the story of Ruffian is a tragedy, but I believe the author’s skills and writing style contributed a lot to this compelling stroy.


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