I was a young sportswriter at The Cincinnati Enquirer when, almost 50 years ago, the great racing filly Ruffian broke down during a match race with Kentucky Derby winner Foolish Pleasure.
I had a front row seat to the public’s reaction when our sports columnist, tweaking the public’s sensitivity just to provoke outrage, wrote that he could not quite understand the outpouring of heartfelt emotion. His point: “It’s just a horse.”
I am reminded of that as Saturday’s Preakness Stakes, the second leg of horse racing’s Triple Crown, approaches under the cloud of seven equine fatalities at Churchill Downs during Derby Week 2023.
For those who have forgotten, or never heard of her, Ruffian was ranked the top filly of the twentieth century by The Blood-Horse magazine. She won her first 10 races, never trailing and setting records in all eight of the stakes races among them.
Because Ruffian had been so dominant, the racing world was clamoring for her to run against Foolish Pleasure—a test that would determine if she could “hold her own with the big boys.” (Horse racing has always allowed males and females to compete head-to-head.)
Trainer Frank Whiteley Jr. felt the right time and place for such a showdown was the Travers Stakes at Saratoga that August.
The Travers is known in racing circles as the mid-summer Derby, ranked third among races for three-year-olds, behind the Run for the Roses and the Belmont. And Saratoga is often called the House of Upsets or Graveyard of Champions for the number of famous horses to lose there.
“Prove the point one time and that’ll be it,” Whiteley had said. “I don’t want to put too much pressure on her.”
But the pressure for a match race between Ruffian and Foolish Pleasure was so great that owners Stuart and Barbara Janney overruled their trainer and agreed to a two-horse run-off at Belmont Park, Ruffian’s home track, the month before the Travers.
A television audience estimated at 20 million and more than 50,000 spectators at Belmont watched the race.
Ruffian led by a nose after the first quarter-mile and was in front by a half-length when jockey Jacinto Vasquez heard a crack. Braulio Baeza, aboard Foolish Pleasure, heard it, too.
Video later showed Ruffian had been startled by a bird in the infield and a misstep resulted. The sesamoid bones in her right foreleg snapped.
Vasquez tried to pull her up, but Ruffian gamely tried to finish the race. He said it was impossible to stop her.
Ruffian underwent a 12-hour surgery, then did more damage to herself thrashing about during recovery.
The medical team—four veterinarians and an orthopedic surgeon—agreed that the horse likely would not survive additional surgery, much less a long recovery period.
Ruffian was euthanized at 2:25 a.m. on July 7, 1975.
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At the risk of sounding a bit like my colleague back then, the recent deaths at Churchill Downs—while a regrettable loss—are not unique in horse racing.
The number in one week, while unusually high for such a short span, doesn’t approach what happened at Santa Anita in 2019. More than 30 horses died in the same meeting that year. It was a news story that transcended horse racing.
After this Derby Week, I sought some perspective.
It turns out that, combined, the more than 20 racetracks that still hold annual meets across America average about two horse fatalities per thousand starts. That means at least 50 Thoroughbreds perish each year.
Whenever several horses die in a short period of time, as at Churchill Downs, or in horrifically large numbers, as at Santa Anita, the calls for increased scrutiny of the sport and greater emphasis on safety are immediate, including replacing dirt tracks with synthetic racing surfaces.
But Santa Anita has had something called Cushion Track—a mixture of silica sand, synthetic fibers, elastic fiber, granulated rubber and a wax coating—since 2007. And post-race testing has intensified, greatly reducing equine drug abuse.
The reality is that, when animals with an average weight of 1,100 pounds reach speeds that average close to 30 miles per hour and approach 40 in short bursts, the stress on their legs, in particular, is great. And sometimes, sadly, they can’t handle it.
Keep that in mind as you watch the Preakness and read or hear about the recent “carnage” at Churchill Downs.
Denny Dressman is a veteran of 43 years in the newspaper business, including 25 at the Rocky Mountain News, where he began as executive sports editor. He is the author of 15 books, nine of them sports-related. You can write to Denny at email@example.com.