I remember the day Ruffian died. She was a huge black filly with unbelievable spirit and beauty. It was July 6, 1975 and she was locked in a duel with the Kentucky Derby winner, Foolish Pleasure, a small chestnut, in a highly publicized match race at Belmont Park. Then as dark clouds gathered, Ruffian stumbled and went down. The roaring fans in the grand stand gasped collectively. My friends and I were in shock and then the tears came. The gallant filly had broken her leg. She was later euthanized. It was as though the heavens weeped as a thunder shower moved in that day.
I missed last year’s tragedy where Eight Belles broke down after running second in the Kentucky Derby and was put down, but I think I would have cried again, even though two strong fillies have won the Derby since 1980 (and Regret won in 1915). The truth is that fillies race against colts all the time in Europe, but the classics are generally run on the turf there as opposed to on the dirt in America. I’m convinced that is what makes the competition more prone to injury.
This year a brave filly named Rachel Alexandra is flashing the charisma and spirit of Ruffian and her owners decided to test her in the Preakness against another small brown Derby winner, this one a longshot 50-1 gelding called Mine that Bird, a Canadian champ trained by a maverick cowboy out of New Mexico who didn’t get any respect at Churchill Downs until he blew the competition away.
I balked at the idea of watching two gutsy horses of opposite sexes matched up again in a classic race, especially when one of them is an underdog you want to love! It seemed unfair, I thought, to mess with a storybook ending for Mine that Bird when I originally read that the race was shaping up and that Jockey Calvin Borel was abandoning his mount on Mind That Bird to ride the filly. But I wasn’t surprised that a lot of feminist sites loved the idea of the match!
Still, when Rachel Alexandra won that Saturday in May, I took a deep breath then gave thanks for all the ways the world has changed since Ruffian and for a cast that Hollywood could never dream of! And stay tuned this racing season for more episodes with Rachel Alexandra, most recently racing and winning again with fillies in the Mother Goose at Belmont, and two “birds” still testing themselves, now that Summer Bird won the Belmont Stakes over his “brother” Mine that Bird (both were sired by Birdstone). Could it be a better reality series?