For obvious reasons, the mention of the immortal Ruffian always brings to mind Edna St. Vincent Millay's four-line poem "First Fig:"
My candle burns at both ends;
It will not last the night;
But ah, my foes, and oh, my friends—
It gives a lovely light!
And with the 105th anniversary of the Coaching Club American Oaks (G1) only two sleeps away, Ruffian is very much a part of that history.
Foaled in Kentucky in 1972, the imposing dark-as-sin daughter of Reviewer—Shenanigans, by Native Dancer, raced as a homebred for Barbara and Stuart Janney's Locust Hill Farm.
Trained by Frank Whiteley Jr., Ruffian from the outset exhibited her patent-pending trademark: brilliant speed. She debuted in May of her juvenile year, a 5 1/2-furlong maiden special weight at Belmont Park. The betting public made her the 4-1 second choice in the 10-horse field that day. Ruffian would never be anything but the favorite again.
Her 15-length margin at the finish came in 1:03 and equaled the track record set by 2-year-old colt Raise a Cup in the Youthful Stakes (G3) the previous year.
Thrust into stakes company in her second start, Ruffian (at 2-5) proved her maiden voyage to be no fluke, when she faced five rivals in the Fashion Stakes (G3), winning by 6 3/4 lengths and once again equaling the track record.
The Astoria Stakes (G3) at Aqueduct Racetrack was almost a carbon copy. Her three rivals could only watch her hind quarters grow smaller and smaller in her nine-length margin at the wire. She narrowly missed the Aqueduct track record, completing the 5 1/2 furlongs in 1:02 4/5 and missing the standard by 1/5.
Speed, yes! Longer distances? No problem. She relished the six furlongs of both the Sorority Stakes (G1) at Monmouth Park and the Spinaway (G1) at Saratoga Race Course, winning the latter by 12 3/4 lengths, her fifth victory in as many starts.
In a yet-to-be recognized portent of things to come, the following day at the Spa, a 2-year-old colt named Foolish Pleasure won the Hopeful Stakes (G1).
Illness forced Ruffian to miss the remainder of her juvenile season but not the championship honors that went with it.
Ruffian took her first step toward a Filly Triple Crown in the May 10 Acorn Stakes (G1) at Aqueduct. Although she broke fifth of seven in the one-mile event, she drew away authoritatively in the final furlongs to win by 8 1/4 before more than 33,000 fans and remain undefeated. She would never race in front of less than 30,000 again. One jewel collected, two to go.
Three weeks later, May 31 Memorial Day racing, Ruffian entered the gate for the nine-furlong Mother Goose Stakes (G1). Facing familiar foes, she shirked neither the distance nor the competition. Six fillies tested Ruffian in her first trip beyond a mile and she dusted her foes by 13 1/2 in a gate-to-wire performance.
Only the big jewel remained, the CCA Oaks at the very testing 12-furlong distance and with a new kid on the block: King Ranch's Equal Change. By Belmont Stakes winner Arts and Letters and a maternal granddaughter of Belmont victor Cavan, Equal Change had the genetic stuff for the distance. Plus, she had annihilated an allowance field by 16 lengths eight days earlier.
Although the winning margin might have been less, the ease with which Ruffian won was not as she became the fourth filly and first undefeated one to wear the Filly Triple Crown title.
In a match race against Kentucky Derby (G1) winner Foolish Pleasure, she fractured sesamoids. Complications arising from coming out of anesthesia necessitated her being euthanized.
Fate and a misstep might have closed the curtain on the Ruffian saga but not on a legend that still "gives a lovely light."