Ruffian remembered on ESPN Classic

Stuart Janney III has seen the images hundreds of times. He was at Belmont Park on July 6, 1975, when Ruffian broke down during her match race with Foolish Pleasure. He has seen the videotape replaying the horrible scene - and he has lived with an erratic stream of flashbacks. His father and mother owned the towering Ruffian, perhaps the best filly to set foot on an American racetrack.

On Wednesday, nearly 25 years since Ruffian lost her life in one of the saddest events in North American racing, Janney replayed the scene once again. This time, it was at the invitation of ESPN, which has produced a 30-minute documentary to commemorate the date of Ruffian's breakdown.

"I think it's very well done, and very powerful," Janney said after a screening of the program at the Jockey Club offices in Manhattan. In the bright glare of the turned-up lights, his eyes were a bit red at the corners.

"Very, very powerful," he said.

The program, produced by Gerry Matalon and Gentry Kirby, will air on Thursday, July 6, at 9 p.m. Eastern on ESPN Classic. Janney provides some comments for the program, but Thursday's viewing was the first time he had seen any part of the edited program.

Janney was 26 when Ruffian died. She was laid to rest in the Belmont infield a day after the sesamoids in her right foreleg shattered a half-mile into a match race with 1975 Kentucky Derby winner, Foolish Pleasure.

The match race was arranged and feverishly promoted by the New York Racing Association, and 50,754 people came to Belmont to see it. Another 18 million watched on television.

The race was to be the sport's modern pinnacle, just two years after Secretariat had renewed interest in racing with his dramatic Triple Crown run. At the time the pair entered the gate, Ruffian, undefeated and never headed in her 10 races, had become associated with the women's rights movement, and the race against Foolish Pleasure had become another symbolic contest in the battle of the sexes, akin to Bobby Riggs vs. Billie Jean King.

The ESPN program is a moving retelling of Ruffian's career up to the match, as well as of the race itself and the effort to save Ruffian's life. Nearly two dozen journalists, historians, and racing participants, including Ruffian's trainer, Frank Whiteley, and her jockey, Jacinto Vasquez, were interviewed for the program.

What emerges from their stories is a comprehensive and compassionate look at the fragility of racing's athletes and of the sport itself. A quarter of a century after the fact, Ruffian's death is still a factor in Thoroughbred racing's decline in popularity. For an untold number of people drawn because of the drama of "girl vs. boy," Ruffian's last race was the last horse race they had the stomach to watch.

"It's as if the sport never stopped exhaling," said William Nack, who covers horse racing for Sports Illustrated and authored Scretariat's biography. "It just knocked the wind out of us."

ESPN did not shy from using graphic footage and graphic language in dealing with Ruffian's injury. At one point, the breakdown is characterized as if her bones "exploded like a hand grenade inside her ankle." The scenes can cause seasoned racegoers to wince and turn away on several occasions, even those who have seen the footage and heard the stories before.

Janney remembered how the Ruffian documentary that NYRA produced shortly after the match race used a blurred fade-out at the point of the breakdown, to shield viewers from the tragedy.

"That was the right thing to do at that time," Janney said. "But 25 years have gone past. I don't think it's the same situation anymore. I thought the balance was right. It needs to be shown. It's too much a part of the story, and it needs to be told."

As one of those interviewed in the ESPN program, Jack Whitaker, the host of the live CBS broadcast of the race in 1975, offered this view: "Nothing can take away the horror of seeing a horse break down. It's like seeing a masterpiece destroyed."