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Rachel, Zenyatta, and lessons from Ruffian

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In the last year there has been a great deal of discussion and debate around Rachel Alexandra and Zenyatta - which filly is better, what tracks and races each of them should run in.  A recent article at (The Fleur de Lis? Not For The Horse of the Year) is a good example of the debate that rages on within the horse racing community.  The debate is fun and lively (and sometimes very heated), but it also seems to miss the bigger picture.  With the recent news that Rachel will likely make her next start in the Grade 1 Ruffian Handicap, I started to think about the great filly for which that race is named, Ruffian

Ruffian's story is familiar to anyone that has followed the sport but is a somewhat obscure reference for the more casual or new race fan.  Sadly, if you Google ‘Ruffian' you'll get a lot of hits that discuss her catastrophic demise and few that promote her greatness.  And make no mistake, Ruffian was truly great.*

For those that don't know who Ruffian was, she was a dark brown, almost black filly owned by Stuart and Barbara Janney and trained by Frank Whiteley, Jr. in 1974 and 1975.  She made her racing debut on May 22, 1974 in a 5 ½ furlong Maiden Special Weight at Belmont Park where she promptly destroyed the field of nine other two year old fillies by 15 lengths. 

Ruffian was far superior to any filly that stepped foot on the same track as her in 1974 and 1975; she never won a race by less than 2 ¾ lengths and never, at any time, trailed another filly.  More impressively, Ruffian equaled or set a track record in every single race she won.  And as the races got longer, Ruffian seemed to get better.  She won the one mile Grade 1 Acorn by 8 ¼ lengths and then won the 1 1/8 Grade 1 Mother Goose by 13 ½, before winning the Coaching Club American Oaks at a mile and a half (back in the day when horses still ran at a mile and a half on the dirt).

Her tragic breakdown in her final race, The Great Match Race in 1975 against Foolish Pleasure, was a heartbreaking end to her brilliant but all-too-short career.  Next Tuesday will be the 35th anniversary of that day.  Unfortunately, it's the first thing that many people think of when they hear the name ‘Ruffian'.

In much of today's racing world we think of Ruffian as some kind of poster filly of the tragic side of the sport.  I think she's much more than that.  I think Ruffian is a reminder to racing fans to enjoy greatness in the present and accept it for what it is. 

We are in such a hurry to see horses do more than they have done that we forget to revere what they've accomplished.  Sure, it would have been great to see Rachel run in the Stephen Forster, or Zenyatta to ship to the Midwest or the East Coast.  But those are ancillary issues to their accomplishments.

Ruffian ran eleven times in her career, ten of those races in New York with one other race, the Grade 1 Sorority, at Monmouth Park.   Ruffian never raced in Florida, or Kentucky, or California.  And she never beat the boys.  But does it really matter?  I love seeing the truly top class fillies take on their male counterparts in the biggest races in the country, but at the same time, I don't think that makes them any greater of a champion.  Rachel Alexandra and Zenyatta would be great champions regardless of whether they ever challenged the boys, just as Ruffian was.    

True greatness in this sport is a rarity; we don't get to see it very often.  We should appreciate it for what it is, not for what it isn't.  That is something everyone should be reminded of when they hear the name ‘Ruffian'.

Below the jump is a video replay of Ruffian's last win, the Grade 1 Coaching Club American Oaks at a mile and a half.  Just to give you a little comparison, Drosselmeyer ran this year's mile and a half Belmont Stakes in 2:31.57.  Ruffian won the CCA in 2:27.80. 

*If you want to read a fantastic account of the life of Ruffian, I strongly recommend Jane Schwartz's Ruffian: Burning from the Start.