The remains of Ruffian, the Hall of Fame racehorse whose triumphant run in the 1970s was tragically cut short by an injury in a notorious race that led to her being euthanized, were reburied on Thursday in Kentucky, the filly’s birthplace.
Ruffian is considered perhaps the greatest female thoroughbred in history and went undefeated in 10 starts, setting stakes or track records in most of them. She had been buried at Belmont Park in Elmont, N.Y., since her ill-fated race on July 6, 1975, when the 3-year-old filly raced Foolish Pleasure, the winner of that year’s Kentucky Derby. Ruffian shattered her right front ankle in the race, and she was later put down by injection and buried in Belmont’s infield, 70 yards beyond the finish line.
The race and Ruffian’s injury captured national attention, and her burial site had for decades been a place to honor one of the most celebrated racing horses in history.
The New York Racing Association said in a statement that Ruffian was buried on Thursday at Claiborne’s Marchmont Cemetery in Paris, Ky., a final resting place “of numerous legends of the sport,” and a location that will “dramatically expand public access to her gravesite, in contrast to Belmont Park, where Ruffian’s site was clearly visible from the grandstand but inaccessible to fans.”
The association said the move was necessary because it is installing a one-mile synthetic track near the finish line at Belmont Park.
Stuart Janney, a board member of the New York Racing Association who jointly decided with Claiborne to move the horse’s remains, said in a statement that “Claiborne is one of the most beautiful and revered thoroughbred farms in America and the home of some of the greatest horses in racing history, and the ideal place for Ruffian.”
Ruffian’s dominance was evident from the start. At 2 years old, she won her first race by 15 lengths.
“She led the field at every post in every race she ever ran and set records in each of her eight winning stakes races,” the association said.
Twenty-five years later, Frank Whiteley Jr., the thoroughbred racing Hall of Famer who trained Ruffian and died in 2008, recalled the first time he saw her in a pasture at Claiborne Farm in Kentucky.
“She was only a yearling,” he said, “but she had that quality you only see once in a lifetime.”
The high stakes of Ruffian’s mile-and-a-quarter race against the colt Foolish Pleasure in 1975 were underscored by the celebrated Battle of the Sexes tennis match between Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs in 1973. The race was seen as the equivalent of a glamorous boy versus girl duel and an equine sideshow to the women’s rights movement.
Their race, however, would become one of the most infamous in the sport. Nearly half a mile into the race, in front by a neck, Ruffian suffered an ankle injury. Still, she continued to run for another 40 yards, which compounded her injury as her jockey, Jacinto Vasquez, somehow managed to keep her upright.
A team of veterinarians operated on Ruffian into the night, placing a cast on her broken leg. But while coming out of anesthesia, Ruffian struggled so violently that she smashed that leg. At 2:20 a.m. the day after the race, she was put down by injection.
The news made the front pages of newspapers. Dr. Alex Harthill, one of the surgeons, told The New York Times in 1975 that Ruffian had struggled and fought hard when coming out of anesthesia.
“If we put her through anesthesia and another operation, it would only have been worse the next time,” Dr. Harthill said at the time.
Another doctor told The Times in July 1975 that “the severe stress of an extreme effort, an ultimate effort, contributed to her accident.”
Two days after Ruffian’s death, a wreath of 1,200 white carnations in the shape of a horseshoe was placed on her grave at Belmont.