“…Ruffian was more than just another transient champion passing through. She was of a certain singularity that hinted of origins almost divine…Ruffian was a portrait of grace illumined by an inner fire…” – William Nack, Ruffian: A Racetrack Romance
Ruffian’s story is a tragedy, a romance, and a drama combined to create one of the most compelling stories that ever graced the American turf. Ruffian defined the Thoroughbred racehorse. Tall and slender, Ruffian stood nearly 17 hands high at the withers and exuded class with every graceful movement she made. Precocious and speedy, Ruffian vanquished her rivals with the stealth of a cat. Alluring and electrifying, Ruffian garnered an army of fans in her short time in this world, thrilling them with her victories. Tragic and heartbreaking, Ruffian abandoned this planet in a shocking moment, leaving behind a world that grieved for her, relying solely on the memories they had of her brilliance to cherish her.
The champion seemed to exist for just a fleeting moment. The stunning speed she exhibited nearly made it seem as if her life was that much shorter. But her brilliance was so intense that her impact can still be felt in the Thoroughbred community. Stories of the strikingly beautiful, near-black filly that captured America’s heart have been passed down throughout the years since her departure, leaving those that missed their opportunity to experience Ruffian’s reign to daydream of the Queen of the Fillies, reflecting on what could have been.
But before the question of “What could have been?” ever entered the picture for Ruffian, racing enthusiasts instead were enthralled by her breathtaking talent.
A Stuart S. Janney, Jr. and Barbara Phipps Janney homebred, Ruffian was born on the hallowed grounds of Claiborne Farm in Paris, Kentucky in April of 1972. A daughter of Bold Ruler’s brilliant but fragile Reviewer, Ruffian was born to Shenanigans, a stakes-placed mare that shared the same gray coloring as her great sire, the legendary Native Dancer. Ruffian was tall even when she was a youngster and she quickly caught the eye of her trainer, Hall of Fame conditioner Frank Whiteley, Jr.
Ruffian would prove to be the special filly she appeared to be. After winning her debut by a dazzling 15 lengths in her debut at Belmont Park, in which she tied the track mark, Ruffian immediately reaped the attention of racing analysts and enthusiasts. She lived up to the hype in her stakes debut, defeating the highly touted Copernica in the Fashion Stakes (GIII). Ruffian continued to shine, gathering victories in the Astoria Stakes (GIII), the Sorority Stakes (GI), and the Spinaway Stakes (GI). With each start, Ruffian displayed scintillating speed as she drew away from her rivals as if she had wings.
The filly, who had popped a splint after the Sorority, was found to have a hairline fracture in her right leg after the Spinaway Stakes. Her career was not over, but the racing world would see no longer enjoy the brilliance of her juvenile campaign, as she was put on the shelf until the next season.
Ruffian was awarded the Eclipse Award for Champion Two-Year-Old Filly of 1974, but as 1975 approached, the worry that she may not return to her brilliant form as a three-year-old was prominent.
But somehow, she had become better. Ruffian had grown into herself and now toyed with her competition, aware that she was unbeatable. Yet again, the black phenomenon carrying the Janneys’ white and red silks soared down the stretches of New York tracks en route to prestigious triumphs, becoming the fourth victress of the Filly Triple Crown, or the Triple Tiara.
Ruffian was seemingly unconquerable. In ten starts, she had never been defeated and if she’d ever appeared as though she was being tested, she was just playing with her competition. But Ruffian had only competed against fillies. Following her tenth victory, a match race to set her against that year’s Kentucky Derby (GI) winner, Foolish Pleasure, was arranged and vigorously promoted by the New York Racing Association.
The day was July 6, 1975. More than 50,000 filed into Belmont Park to see the race of a lifetime. Nearly 20 million more were at home, their eyes glued to the television for the match race. People adorned “Ruffian” and “Foolish Pleasure” pins and t-shirts, supporting their favorite horse. At the New York track, the beloved Ruffian and the Derby victor loaded into the starting gate for the mile and one-quarter battle.
As Ruffian emerged from the gate, she hit its right side, causing her to veer outward as Foolish Pleasure achieved a small, early advantage. But the filly – full of heart and determination – chased after her rival, leaning into him as she drew even with him. She began to get ahead of him, displaying her signature speed as she edged ahead.
Suddenly, Ruffian’s life changed, much to the distress of the world that adulated her. Attempts were made to save her from her injuries, but when she thrashed coming out of anesthesia, she injured herself again and could not be saved. The beautiful, brilliant filly that had captured the hearts of America was laid to rest in the Belmont infield, her head pointed in the direction of the finish line: the place she owned, the place she loved to cross ahead of her rivals, the place where she had made memories for all of her adoring fans.
With the loss of Ruffian came the loss of any opportunity to see her offspring display the same intensity she had become known for. But through her dam, the American Thoroughbred has continued Ruffian’s legacy. And never has there been a better horse to do so until now.
Nearly forty years after Ruffian was born there, a bay son of Malibu Moon and the Unbridled mare Lady Liberty was born at Claiborne Farm. The colt would grow into a colt named Orb, who is owned by Stuart Janney III and Phipps Stable and carries the same white and red silks that became Ruffian’s cape in the era of her superhero days.
Photo by Brittlan Wall
Carrying the appearance of an old-school Thoroughbred, Orb descends from the most royal of bloodlines. His fifth dam is none other than the dam of Ruffian, Shenanigans. Orb is not the only brilliant Janney horse to trace back to this mare; Coronado’s Quest, a flaming red Janney homebred, was a great-grandson of Shenanigans and went on to win a pair of grade ones.
Running through Orb's blood are the generations of classy Janney and Phipps mares, those that carry the same heritage as the nimble Ruffian. But this is not the only parallel he draws within his pedigree to Ruffian. His sire, a son of the great A.P. Indy, Malibu Moon, is from the same Bold Ruler sire line as the legend.
Orb did not display the same early precociousness as Ruffian. He was never even supposed to make it to the Derby. Among the 2010 crop of Phipps and Janney homebreds, Orb was clearly a talented individual, but he appeared to be a slow developer, a horse that wouldn’t find his best form until at least the summer of his three-year-old year.
Orb was third in his debut at Saratoga, rearing at the start but closing impressively to finish third behind eventual grade one winner Violence. He acted up in the gate yet again in his next start, finishing fourth. Fourth again in his following start behind future graded stakes winner Vyjack and black-type winner Clawback, Orb finally solved the puzzle in his final start as a two-year-old. Closing impressively from off the pace, Orb maintained his momentum despite going wide, scoring by two lengths while defeating eventual graded stakes winner and Derby third-place finisher Revolutionary in the process.
Once he’d won, Orb accelerated quickly, surprising his connections with the rate at which he was maturing. He commenced his sophomore campaign with a victory in a nine-furlong allowance optional claiming event at Gulfstream Park, convincing his owners and trainer to enter him in the Fountain of Youth Stakes (GII). For the first time in Orb’s career, the son of Malibu Moon would not be ridden by Joel Rosario.
But this did not prevent Orb from encountering success. Settling comfortably off the pace, Orb made an imposing rally to capture the race by a half-length under John Velazquez. His win was further evidence of how drastically the colt had improved, allowing his connections to realize Orb’s Derby potential.
The Florida Derby (GI) allowed Orb to confirm his connections’ belief in him. With Velazquez aboard for the second time, the colt again soared past his rivals in the stretch, conquering Florida’s premier Kentucky Derby prep by 2 ¾ lengths. Despite Orb’s victory, Velazquez opted to remain on the undefeated Wood Memorial Stakes (GI) winner Verrazano, leading Rosario to return to Orb.
Nonetheless, it was on to Louisville for the colt that was never expected to make it there. Suddenly, Orb gave his connections a valid shot at garnering their first Derby victory. His chances only seemed to excel once he reached Churchill Downs. The colt’s bay coat glimmered in the morning sun as he exercised beneath the hallowed twin spires as a wave of gossip washed over the backside, commending Orb’s work over the track. Orb carried the look of a throwback, the sleekness of the filly that had become a racing legend in the mid-70s. As a result of his improvement and eye-catching final preparations, Orb was made the morning line favorite for the Kentucky Derby.
|Orb preparing for the Kentucky Derby|
Photo by Brittlan Wall
On race day, Orb broke well but in slightly uncomfortable fashion from the sixteenth gate – the second slot in the auxiliary gate. Rosario guided him a few paths over, allowing the colt to race among the horses near the rear of the field as nineteen Thoroughbreds thundered before the grandstand. Unexpectedly, Palace Malice seized an aggressive lead, setting the first quarter in a blistering 22.57 seconds. Orb, comfortable in sixteenth, raced approximately ten lengths off the lead at the end of these initial two furlongs, galloping wide around the clubhouse turn.
With just three horses beaten as the Derby field entered the backstretch, Orb remained steady beneath Rosario. Palace Malice maintained the brisk pace, blazing the first half-mile in 45.33 as Orb raced nearly eighteen lengths back. Down the backstretch, Orb galloped alongside second-choice Revolutionary, taking the seventeenth spot as the horses galloped midway down the far side.
As the three-year-olds neared the far turn, Orb was maneuvered to a wider position as Rosario began to encourage the colt to pick up the pace. Traveling to the far outside, Orb did just that. With powerful strides, the favorite overtook a cluster of rivals, moving determinedly on the outside, victory his main goal.
The years of carefully planned matings of Phipps and Janney horses – the heritage that had produced the great Ruffian – ran through Orb’s veins as he focused on wearing down his competitors. The heart that had been bred into him shone through as, despite the mud being catapulted onto him and the obstruction of other horses forcing him to take the long way home, Orb was solely centering his attention upon what his mind, his heart, and his soul were telling him to do: win. Just like Ruffian, he displayed a remarkable will to win.
At the top of the stretch, Orb had the view of being on top of the world. He wasn’t in front – yet – but he had a clear stretch ahead of him and only a handful of opponents to surpass. Rosario, vigorously throwing the reins at the colt, asked Orb for the mightiest of rallies and despite running greenly, Orb responded, taking the lead at the sixteenth pole.
With sheer ease, Orb drew away from his opponents, posting a 2 ½-length victory. The colt, in a moment of pure joy for running, perked his ears as he crossed the wire. Moments later, he stood within the winner’s circle with the exact garland of red roses that had eluded the Janneys and Phippses draped over his shoulders.
|Orb and trainer Shug McGaughey after winning the Kentucky Derby|
Photo by Brittlan Wall
Nearly forty years have passed since the adored and admired Ruffian escaped our grasp, abandoning this world in an unexpected, sudden moment. As decades have passed since that fateful summer day in 1975, racing enthusiasts have mourned her death, looking at photographs and paintings of the majestic filly and watching vague videos of her brilliance. With tear filled eyes, these fans have wished for a different end for Ruffian, their hearts heavy as they imagine what she was prevented from gifting the world.
It has seemed as if, with her death, all that was left of Ruffian was her memory. But now we have Orb. No, he does not possess her blazing speed or her jet black coat. But he does carry her class and her legacy. The attention of the racing world rests upon Orb as he approaches the remainder of the Triple Crown. Should he capture the Preakness Stakes (GI) next Saturday (May 18), thus approaching the Belmont Stakes (GI) with the chance of becoming the first horse to conquer the Triple Crown, nerves will run rampant at the New York track. But one thing is certain should that opportunity emerge: racing with him will be the angel of Belmont, the royalty that runs through his veins, the Queen of Fillies, the legendary Ruffian.