Ruffian remembered


Before Barbaro, of course, there was Ruffian.

The superstar filly's breakdown during a July 1975 match race with Foolish Pleasure horrified a nation enthralled with Ruffian's undefeated record and the Battle of the Sexes aspect of the televised duel.

Neither tragedy will soon be forgotten. And this week, Barbaro and Ruffian will be very much alive in our thoughts and emotions.

Wednesday night, HBO Sports debuts "Barbaro," a one-hour documentary focusing on the valiant but ultimately unsuccessful attempts by the horse and his handlers to save his life.

Saturday night at 9 p.m. ET on ABC, ESPN Original Entertainment premieres "Ruffian," a movie that brings her sad story to a younger audience, including a re-enactment of her leg fracture that will seem shockingly graphic to many. Bill Nack, a sports journalism icon who is a character in the movie and was a consultant during filming, also has a new Ruffian book hitting the shelves.

They say timing is everything, and the demise of Barbaro is still fresh in the minds of the public. The Ruffian movie was in production at the time Barbaro was hurt.

But the circumstances surrounding the two fallen horses are notably different.

Barbaro was euthanized Jan. 29 after an eight-month battle with a shattered right hind leg and the related and ravaging effects of laminitis. He had burst onto the public scene with his runaway Kentucky Derby win, and was injured two weeks later in a Preakness Stakes witnessed by about 9 million viewers. Yet the TV ratings for that day pale in comparison to the untold millions more drawn into the long drama, which displayed a compassionate side of horse racing many never knew. As warped as it sounds, Barbaro might have been a net positive to the sport.

Ruffian's situation, on the other hand, had no saving grace. Her swan song on that summer Belmont Park afternoon remains the darkest moment in American racing history.

Thirty-two years ago, thoroughbred racing occupied a much greater role in the American sports world than it does today. Secretariat had made the covers of Time and Newsweek after his 1973 Triple Crown sweep, but far more fundamental to the sport was the fact that the vast majority of citizens who wanted to gamble had to visit a racetrack to do so.

Las Vegas wasn't Las Vegas yet. Atlantic City was known primarily for its boardwalk and the Miss America pageant. Indian and riverboat casinos were nowhere to be found. We didn't have PCs, much less internet gambling. And off-track betting existed nowhere but New York City, and even there had been around only four years.

Horse racing can still pummel Stanley Cup hockey in the Nielsens, but back in the day it was part of the fabric of our culture. People will always gamble, and because racetracks were virtually the only legal wagering venues, they were regularly packed with citizens representing all demographics who through regular exposure also became interested in the sport and its stars. Willie Shoemaker was a sports icon, and before that, Eddie Arcaro was a man about town in Manhattan along with Joe DiMaggio.

A brilliant filly like Ruffian could make front pages of newspaper sports sections, back when people also still read newspapers. Fierce and with an almost uncontrollable competitive urge, Ruffian broke a track record in her very first start as a 2-year-old in 1974. She was conservatively kept out of the Triple Crown the next spring, but she easily swept the New York Racing Association's so-called Filly Triple Crown. She was not only a perfect 10-for-10, she was virtually untested -- with an average winning margin of more than 8 lengths.

Two years earlier, a 55-year-old tennis hustler named Bobby Riggs had come out of retirement to publicly challenge top female players Margaret Court and Billie Jean King, demolishing the former and being demolished by the latter in a heavily-hyped "Battle of the Sexes."

In that environment, the public clamored to see Ruffian tested against males.

Ruffian's crusty and careful trainer, Frank Whiteley, didn't much like the idea. He thought it too gimmicky. But a winner-take-all match race was made between the owners of the near-black filly wonder and Foolish Pleasure, that year's Kentucky Derby winner. Jacinto Vasquez was the regular jockey for both horses, and chose to ride Ruffian.

Match races usually afford an edge to horses with the most early speed, and Ruffian figured to have an advantage in that regard. Before a track crowd of 50,000 and a reported CBS audience of 18 million viewers, Ruffian had moved up inside Foolish Pleasure to put her head in front after a quarter-mile when the bones in her right foreleg snapped.

Ruffian's injury was a compound fracture, meaning that bone had broken through the skin, exposing the leg to almost certain infection from racetrack dirt and grime.

By comparison, Barbaro's fracture did not break the skin, yet despite huge advances in veterinary science between 1973 and 2005, Barbaro did not survive in the end. The odds against Ruffian were astronomical. Still, a surgical team worked into the early-morning hours to piece Ruffian's broken bones back together and give her a longshot chance. But when she awoke from anesthesia in a confused state on the floor of a padded stall -- before the days when post-surgical patients such as Barbaro were brought out of surgery safely in a sling in a swimming pool - Ruffian thrashed about wildly and undid the repair her surgeons had performed. She was immediately euthanized.

In Ruffian's case, we saw only a gruesome injury and awoke the next morning to the anticipated death of a star. No warm and fuzzy feelings. No videos of an apparently happy horse eating apples in a hospital stall lined with flowers and get-well cards. No Dr. Dean Richardson offering us at least some hope of a happy ending. With Ruffian, we got nothing but stunning heartbreak, spotlighting the very worst of racing with nary a glimmer of a positive.

Some believe thoroughbred racing has never fully recovered from that afternoon.

The Sport of Kings has many aspects that make it truly unique and at times wonderful. Only in this arena can a semi-literate Cajun jockey team with a professional bullrider-turned-trainer to win a race witnessed by the Queen of England, and days later be at the White House on the receiving end of a bear hug from the leader of the free world and seated next to the Super Bowl MVP at dinner.

But like other sports, racing has its dark side, too. And this week, the emotional roller-coaster takes us all for a wild ride.

Barbaro on Wednesday.

The Belmont Stakes, third leg of the Triple Crown on Saturday afternoon.

Ruffian on Saturday night.

It doesn't get much better than that, and definitely doesn't get worse.