Two Horses, Two Great Female Athletes


It must have been only a curious coincidence that on the day a filly won the Belmont Stakes, the ABC television network aired a story about the most famous filly in racing history.

The two events must have occurred only by chance -- television moguls couldn't have predicted Rags to Riches was going to be the first filly since 1905 to win the Belmont Stakes, only hours before they decided to debut the movie "Ruffian."

In winning the prestigious June 6 Belmont race, Rags to Riches put on a gutsy stretch run, to nip Preakness winner Curlin at the finish line.

The race, the final leg of the Triple Crown, was billed as an equine battle of the sexes.

In beating Curlin, a chestnut colt, Rags to Riches accomplished what many in racing circles say is the toughest task in the sport -- for a filly to outrun a colt.

Even Rags to Riches jockey John Valazquez got caught up in the drama.

Following the race he told reporters, "It was really giving me goose bumps thinking about the crowd, getting so pumped up about the filly running against the colts."

My father, a former racehorse and polo pony trainer in Southern California, said some of the best advice he could give me was "never bet on a filly against the colts."

Sorry Dad, Rags to Riches and Ruffian proved you wrong.

As good as Rags to Riches is, many consider Ruffian the greatest female racehorse of all time.

Her accomplishments in the mid-1970s earned her the title of "Queen of the Fillies."

Her life story aired on ABC, the same afternoon Rags to Riches won the Preakness.

Ruffian, who died July 7, 1975, is buried near the finish line in the infield at Belmont Park, her nose pointed toward the finish pole.

Ruffian's final race was run at Belmont July 6, 1975 in a match race against Kentucky Derby winner, Foolish Pleasure.

Racehorse fans clamored for the match race for over a year and an estimated 18 million people eventually watched the race on television.

At the conclusion of the first quarter-mile, Ruffian led Foolish Pleasure by a nose. About a furlong later, the filly was leading by a half-length, when both sesamoid bones in her lag snapped. Her jockey tried to rein her in, but the gallant filly continued to run another 50 yards.

Veterinarians and surgeons performed an emergency operation that continued for over 12 hours.

Sadly, when the anesthesia wore off after the surgery, the filly thrashed about, breaking the cast and the other leg.

Surgeons didn't believe she could survive another extensive operation and the horse owners, Stuart and Barbara Janney, eventually made the decision to euthanize her.

Since her death, she has been included into the National Museum of Racing, was chosen one of the top-100 racehorses of the 20th century and was given the Eclipse Award for Outstanding 3-Year-Old Filly in 1975.

Sports Illustrated chose her as the only non-human on their list of the top 100 female athletes of the century.

During Ruffian's three-year racing career, she was never defeated and set new records in every one of the eight stakes races she won. She raced at distances from 5.5 furlongs to 1.5 miles, with an average winning margin of over eight lengths.

Many called her "Super Horse."

It was only fitting, but probably just a twist of fate, that the story of her life aired on the same day another filly broke the 100-plus year stranglehold colts had on winning the Belmont Stakes.

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