She's bigger than Secretariat, she may be faster than Foolish Pleasure and she is grievously misnamed. She's called Ruffian, but she's a sweet young thing.
She was particularly sweet winning the Acorn at Aqueduct last Saturday. It was her eighth victory against no defeats since she began racing a year ago, and she made the other 3-year-old fillies in the mile event look ridiculous. She won by 8¼ lengths, seemingly without effort, and set a stakes record of 1:34[2/5]. The Acorn is the first race in the female equivalent of the Triple Crown, the Mother Goose and the Coaching Club American Oaks being the others.
Her trainer, Frank Whiteley Jr., is asked repeatedly when Ruffian will race against Kentucky Derby winner Foolish Pleasure and the other colts. All indications are that it won't be until the fall.
"Maybe she's a great horse," Whiteley said after the Acorn, "but you can't say that until she beats colts. When will I run her against colts? I don't know. Not soon. I don't know what I'm going to do with her. So you don't know either."
Aside from being a marvelous horse, and despite her name, Ruffian is a lady. Before the Acorn, surrounded by a motley group of humans, she was quiet, curious and affectionate. She is just under 17 hands tall—enormous for a filly—but she is so well proportioned that from a distance you don't realize her size. Up close, it is awesome.
She gazes at visitors complacently. Just before the Acorn, standing in her stall waiting to be saddled, she ducked her head to nuzzle the hand of a complete stranger, then lifted her head and looked at him a bit unhappily. She dipped her head again and nudged his hand up to see if he were hiding something in it, then turned away.
"She looking for something to eat," said Dan Williams, her elderly groom. "She very quiet, very kind, but sometime she don't take to some people."
Whiteley, a leathery, handsome man with white hair and a cheerful, strong face, nodded. "Most of the time she's friendly," he said. "But she can be cantankerous, too. Watch when they tighten her girth."
She was being saddled for the race, and when the girth was tightened, she sidestepped. Then she lifted her head angrily.
"Shoo, shoo," said the groom, and she quieted. She walked docilely out of the stall to go to the post, the heavy muscles twisting gently under her shining coat. She is a rich dark brown, almost black, with a tiny white mark high on her forehead.
A middle-aged lady with a weather-beaten face watched her go. "My God," she said to no one in particular. "You ever seen anything like her? She's not real."
Ruffian was placid during the parade to the post, but a bit flighty in the gate. When the horses went off, she dwelled a moment, but very quickly moved to the front.
Piece of Luck stayed with her until they reached the first turn. Then Ruffian moved away easily. She never seemed to be working hard and finished coasting under Jacinto Vasquez, her jockey.
Because Ruffian is so big, there was doubt that her legs could take the pounding a thoroughbred endures in a race. Indeed, last autumn she was withdrawn from competition for a while because of a hairline fracture in her right hind ankle, but that healed perfectly; in her two races this spring she has won by a total of 12½ lengths. She is not a pounding runner, anyway, but has a soft, reaching stride that carries her along so gently that her head seems to be floating. The other horses in the race were bobbing and straining, but Ruffian, even down the homestretch when she was flowing away from the field, never showed any sign of strain.
"It's a little different, riding Ruffian," said Vasquez, who also rides Foolish Pleasure. If the two horses ever run against each other, he is likely to be up on Ruffian, since Whiteley has first call on his services. "She breaks running and finishes running. The rest of the horses don't run that way.
"The only thing I have to make sure of is that she breaks good," the jockey said. "If ever she broke real slow and somebody got in front of her, she might go right over the top. Maybe she's got to learn to relax a little. I give her her head today and when the horse next to me at the quarter moved, she wanted to run away. But with this competition, she can run like this for two miles. Against the colts, I don't know. There are four or five pretty good colts."
"She's easy to train," Whiteley said. He was squatted down on the sunny side of the barn wall, and he was cheerful. A man brought him a chart of the race and he looked at it.
"Eight and a quarter lengths?" he said. "She looked good because she wasn't running against anything, I guess."
"That's just about her average," the man said. "First seven races, she win by 58½ lengths, so you got to figure that's her average."
"She's a good mare," Whiteley admitted. "No problems. No special diet. She doesn't have to have a mascot around her, or anything like that. And she likes to run." She likes to eat, too. When she was out of action with the fracture, Whiteley had to watch her diet.
"Normally, she eats about 10 quarts a day," he said, "and she'd like to eat more than that. When she was hurt, we cut her down to about four or five and she wasn't very happy about it. We were lucky she had a cast that let her move around. If she hadn't moved and we had fed her a regular diet, she would have blown up like a balloon."
Ruffian gets enough exercise now to allow her 10 quarts of oats, and if there is an ounce of fat under the sleek dark coat, it does not show.
Her next race will be the 1‚⅛-mile Mother Goose at Aqueduct on May 31. The Coaching Club American Oaks at Belmont Park on June 21 is at a mile and a half. There has been some question whether Ruffian, whose earlier races had all been sprints, could go a distance, but the Acorn seems to have answered it.
"She run pretty fast early," Vasquez said. "Some say maybe she slowed a little at the end. But I didn't notice it. And I don't think she did."