Remembering the last run of Ruffian

What made the filly a great race horse is also what killed her

July 11, 1999|By Neil Milbert

Hard-hearted Manhattan went to sleep with tears trickling down her pillow. And when she awakened her nightmare had become reality. Ruffian, thoroughbred racing's black beauty, was part of the past.

-- Chicago Tribune, July 7, 1975.

ON THE EVE of Belmont Park's great match race between the undefeated 3-year-old filly Ruffian and 1975 Kentucky Derby winner Foolish Pleasure, the story line seemed an exercise in simplicity.

It was a battle of the sexes.

But this story line never found its way into print. Instead of being a glamorous sporting event, the hitherto invincible filly's battle with a stellar colt degenerated into a grotesque tragedy.

The leader at every call in all 10 of her previous races, Ruffian apparently hit a bad spot on the track and broke down slightly more than three-eighths of a mile into the 1 and 1/4-mile race after battling her male adversary from the starting gate.

Suddenly, the story line became: "Can Ruffian win the fight for her life?"

A team of six veterinarians tried to save her, working feverishly at Dr. William Reed's hospital across from Belmont Park. But the day after the race, 24 years ago Wednesday, Ruffian was humanely destroyed.

If Ruffian had broken down in 1999 instead of 1975, would she have been saved? Has equine medicine improved so much that the outcome would have been similar to that of the recent injury to Charismatic?

Three of the veterinarians who operated on Ruffian -- Reed, Dr. Alex Harthill and Dr. Jim Prendergast -- came to the same conclusion when asked that question independently. They agreed that she almost certainly would have lost her life.

"That injury was so different than anything we'd ever seen before," Reed said. "So great. So severe. The only thing worse would have been if both front legs had been spontaneously pulverized."

When Ruffian was taken off the track in a horse ambulance, she had a compound fracture of both sesamoid bones in her right front ankle and a dislocated fetlock joint. Bones were protruding through the skin, and dirt from the track had gotten into the wound. There was bleeding and intensive swelling.

The veterinarians worked into the night. Then, after performing surgery and applying a cast, they waited for Ruffian to come out of anesthesia. When she did, racing's horror story reached its climax. Ruffian kicked and thrashed, in a matter of seconds turning the cast into a mangled mess. Realizing that another operation would be futile, the veterinarians agreed that a lethal injection was the only humane option. Harthill administered phenobarbital, and Ruffian died at 2:20 a.m.

Not quite 24 years later -- on June 5 -- another high-profile 3-year-old, a colt named Charismatic, was taken from that same track in an ambulance. Charismatic had broken down in an unsuccessful attempt to win the Belmont and sweep the Triple Crown.

Charismatic's injuries were to his left front ankle. He sustained a fracture in the lower part of the cannon bone and a vertical fracture to the lateral sesamoid, and his fetlock joint was dislocated.

The next morning, surgery was performed. Four screws were inserted to help align and stabilize the fetlock joint. A cast was applied.

Unlike Ruffian, Charismatic did not react violently when he came out of anesthesia. The cast stayed on, and he was taken back to his barn.

Though Charismatic will never race again, he apparently will be able to embark on a new career at stud next year.

"Charismatic was a walkover by comparison," Reed said. "Ruffian's joint capsule had been opened up and was badly contaminated. And her temperament was absolutely impossible. I've never seen a horse survive anything as bad."

"Ruffian had an inconceivable injury, as bad an injury as you can get," Harthill said. "Under ordinary circumstances, we'd put down a horse with that kind of injury before it left the track. The main reason we attempted to save her was because of who she was. There were little kids and nuns out there praying for her. We tried everything, and we didn't give up until the morning.

"Even with today's modern technology, saving her would have been a huge long shot. The only thing that might have helped her was doing a prosthesis, a procedure that wasn't perfected at that time. When you do a prosthesis, you drill a hole through the cannon bone and put a rod from the knee all the way to the foot to stabilize it.

"If she made it, she'd have been walking around with a stiff leg for the rest of her life, but a lot of horses today have stiff legs.

"But there still would have been the great danger of infection from the dirt of the racetrack that had gotten into the wound. And she was her own worst enemy when she came out of anesthesia. She was a terrible patient. She was running in place on her side, and she pulverized her elbow by wildly flailing the leg with the cast. Her temperament was against her.

"Her temperament is what made her great and what made her die."

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