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30th Anniversary of The Great Match Race

July 5, 2005     E-mail this page to a friend!

July 6, 1975
by Patrick Kerrison

It started with three horses and Ruffian wasn’t one of them.

The “Race of Champions” was an event the officials at NYRA were looking to create that would bring together Kentucky Derby winner Foolish Pleasure, Preakness winner Master Derby, and Belmont Stakes winner Avatar.

This was the race that was to decide who the true champion was in 1975.

However, they had overlooked one factor. One very significant factor.

A comment published in a Blood Horse editorial stirred the pot and changed the complexion of things.

“Until these colts are measured against Ruffian, none of them has much of a claim on the title of 3-year-old champion…. Right now we do not believe that- even to escape a swarm of Brazil’s hybrid African honeybees- any of these could catch up with Stuart Janneys’ big filly.”

Anyone following racing in 1975 agreed. They couldn’t dismiss this perfect filly.

Ruffian had started 10 times in her career and never lost a race.

Hell, she not only won every start, there was never a point of call in which she was headed. Fresh off another impressive win – this one the Coaching Club American Oaks - she had just won the Triple Crown for fillies.

Ruffian was invited.

Interest grew, but yet another change came to light. Tommy Doyle, Avatar’s trainer, said his colt wasn’t up to a challenge like this. He withdrew him from consideration and they returned to California and prepared for the Swaps Stakes.

Then there were three and the thrill began to dwindle.

Across the river in New Jersey, Monmouth Park’s President, Philip Islen, had already thought of a Match Race. He attempted to court the connections of Foolish Pleasure and Ruffian into a match with $400,000 offered in purses.

The truth is Monmouth never had a prayer. It didn’t matter how persuasive Islen was or how much money he put up, it wasn’t going to happen in Jersey.

Ruffian’s owners – Stuart and Barbara Janney – were related to Ogden Phipps. Phipps and Barbara Janney were brother and sister and Phipps’ son, Ogden Mills “Dinny” Phipps, was the vice chairman of the board of trustees of the New York Racing Association.

Jersey officials considered upping the ante to half-a-million dollars - an amount unheard of at the time - but they chose not to move forward. They knew they were out matched.

However, Islen did peak the racing community’s interest in the boy vs. girl idea – including NYRA - but that left Master Derby as the third wheel.

The New York Racing Association found themselves in the midst of a dilemma. Wanting to move forward with a match race of their own, they felt awkward “uninviting” Mrs. Lehmann and her Preakness winning colt, Master Derby.

NYRA decided to allocate $400,000 of purse money, leaving the contenders to run for $350,000 and offered Mrs. Leahmann $50,000 as "a testimony for her support.”

Game on.

July 6, 1975 was the scheduled date. Beautiful Belmont Park would be the venue. The Kentucky Derby winner Foolish Pleasure would face the Filly Triple Crown champion Ruffian.

In 1975, the height of the women’s movement, NYRA preyed on the ‘Battle of the Sexes’ angle. It served them well as over 50,000 people crowded the Elmont, NY racetrack. Dave Johnson would call the race on track.

CBS Sports covered the race on national television. Chick Anderson would call the race for TV with an estimated 18 million viewers who were about to witness The Great Match Race.

The distance was set at the classic distance of 1¼ miles.

Only two questions remained. The first was where to begin?

From wire-to-wire Belmont measures 1½ miles. It could start with the gate at an angle on the clubhouse turn or it could start from the chute and turn it into a one-turn 10-furlong event.

Starting on the turn would be a bad idea for two horses with their running styles. Both horses generally get out well and it was likely a speed duel would ensue from the outset. Neither trainer was keen on the idea of starting on a turn.

If they started on the chute they would have to overcome a change in racing surface. The Belmont Training Track crossed over that part of the racetrack. Additionally, few could even see the gate, even on TV.

Frank Whiteley, the trainer of Ruffian and Leroy Jolley, trainer of Foolish Pleasure, both agreed. They’ll race from the chute.

Yet, one question was left unanswered. Who will be riding?

Jacinto Vasquez was the regular rider of both horses. He was, perhaps, in the most precarious position any rider could find himself in and certainly, the most unique position he has ever faced.

He used his head and his heart. He chose Ruffian. Leroy Jolley named Braulio Baeza on Foolish Pleasure.

About half an hour before the day’s first post – scheduled at 1:00 p.m. – my father, brother Damien, sister Francesca and myself stepped out of our Delta 88 Oldsmobile in the Press parking lot at Belmont.

Before we entered the doors of the cathedral I called home every Saturday and Sunday afternoon during my adolescence, we ran into a pair of tables set up outside. A group of men sat working at one while a group of women worked the other. They were handing out pins. Each had “The Great Match” written on the top of it in green, and either “Ruffian” or “Foolish Pleasure” at the bottom with a picture of the respective equine powerhouse in its center. All of us – even a six year old like me - were entitled to one each.

Like Vasquez, I too chose Ruffian. So did my sister Francesca. Dad and my brother thought there was no way the big colt could lose to the filly.

All of Belmont was split down the middle that Sunday afternoon.

The race didn’t go off until just after 6:00 p.m. The day had been glorious by anyone’s standards until a couple of races before the Battle of the Sexes was to get underway. An ominous and foreboding cloud cover settled over Belmont. Just off in the distance stood the island of Manhattan, getting doused in a rainstorm. We wondered if it would make it to the track before what we came to see.

Sitting on my father’s shoulders I joined thousands of others pressed up against the rail on the apron, out front on the clubhouse side of the fence, just outside the tunnel that led from the paddock to the track.

Here they came.

When the big filly made her way into the sights of 50-plus thousand people, the crowd simply erupted. Shortly following was Foolish Pleasure. They didn’t soften their enthusiasm any for him.

I swear the ground moved when they got on the track.

I am one with very few memories of my childhood. I know people who claim to remember things in their lives when they were three and four years of age. Me? Hell, I don’t remember a damned thing at that age.

However, I can testify that my earliest memories of childhood were of Thoroughbred horse racing.

I had seen Ruffian run on several occasions at Belmont and although I was only six, I loved her. She was my favorite. y sister Francesca – 11 at the time – loved her too.

How could you not? She was breathtaking. A dark bay or brown filly, she bordered on black and my God, she was fast. I mean fast!

She seemed to either tie or break stakes and track records every time she set foot on a racetrack.

At the age of 2 she equaled track records at Belmont and Aqueduct in the Fashion and Astoria Stakes, respectively. She then went on to set new stakes records in the Sorority at Monmouth and Spinaway at Saratoga.

When she was a 3-year-old she captured the Filly Triple Crown and set new stakes records in Aqueduct’s Comely, Acorn and Mother Goose Stakes and tied the stakes mark for the Coaching Club American Oaks at Belmont.

Trainer Lucien Lauren, who two years prior saddled the champion Secretariat, once said “God as my witness, I think she may be faster than Secretariat.”

Now that’s saying something.

They galloped past the crowd and made their way toward the backstretch for that long journey to the starting gate.

The tote board’s time of day and post time signs illuminated identically to one another and the crowd grew louder and louder.

It’s time.

The announcer Dave Johnson was talking as they were led to the gate but you could barely hear a word.

Shortly after he exclaimed ‘they’re off’ it grew even louder. Barely audible, Johnson noted that both horses broke well and the race was on.

Truth is, the head-on camera shows that Ruffian’s head was twisted to the left and facing down. When the latch sprung and the doors parted, Ruffian banged her shoulder into the left side of the starting gate and, for a moment, stood perpendicular to her rival.

Under the able hands of Jacinto Vasquez, she quickly recovered and in typical Ruffian fashion was in front at the first point of call.

Vasquez figured Baeza would try and pin the filly to the rail. Although she was on the inside of him, they broke from the three and four holes, respectively.

Vasquez angled out, brushing Foolish Pleasure repeatedly. Five times, in fact. This was nothing more than race riding. Neither horse lost a step in their stride nor would the actions have been cause for a change in order of finish if questioned later.

As the pair hustled down the chute and made their way onto the main track they had completed the first quarter in rapid 22 1/5 seconds.

This is what we came for. Two exceptional race horses in a speed duel for 1¼ miles.

Moving up the backside and a furlong further into the contest with Ruffian on the lead, Vasquez and Baeza both heard a snap, like a twig or a branch breaking.

All of a sudden Foolish Pleasure took command. He was in front by one length, then two, then three.

Dave Johnson’s voice resonated through a subdued crowd. “Ruffian has broken down,” he exclaimed. Again he said it. “Ruffian has broken down.”

You could have heard a pin drop immediately after you heard over 50 thousand people gasp at once.

I kept asking my father what happened. What happened?!

He wasn’t any different from any one else. He didn’t know what to say. Then I heard him.

“She broke down, Patrick.”

For the first time in half an hour he felt the weight of me on his shoulders. He helped me down and put his arm around me.

A minute or so later I remember seeing Foolish Pleasure and Baeza gallop past the wire. My vision was obstructed at this point but I recall seeing the silks of black and white through the crowd.

He crossed under the wire alone.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the racetrack, Vasquez had finally found a way to keep the big filly from going on. She fought him tooth and nail, desperately wanting to run.

She ignored the heartened efforts of her rider to stop. She ignored the bit tearing at her mouth. She ignored the pain. Ruffian insisted on running.

Vasquez knew if he could get her to stop and not fall to the ground that maybe, just maybe, there might be a chance to save her.

When he won that battle – feeble as it ultimately became - and leaped off, he grabbed the reigns in his left hand and leaned against her left shoulder to offer her further support. He looked down to find her right front was barely hanging together with the bone protruding through the skin. Her sesamoid bones were shattered.

The ambulance raced to the injured filly and a pneumatic cast was immediately applied. She was given a 10 percent chance of survival.

Four vets and an orthopedic surgeon worked tirelessly in an effort to pull off the impossible. Twice during her surgery she was revived and at last the work had been completed.

Unfortunately, the worse was yet to come.

As her anesthetic wore off and she began to wake she was disoriented and in pain. Thrashing wildly about in spite of several attendants efforts to calm her down, Ruffian had broken her cast and further damaged an already delicate fetlock. There was no way she could have endured further surgery. The only humane thing left to do was to put her to rest.

Shortly after 2 a.m. on Monday morning, July 7, 1975 Ruffian was put down.

By 9 p.m. that evening she had been buried near the flagpole at the site of her first and last race at Belmont Park. Her nose facing the wire.

The more I see in this game and the more I learn, the more I seem to appreciate what it gives us daily.

That said I still remain a little bitter about the race. I have balked at the idea of match races ever since. I think pitting two horses together is a gross and selfish spectacle. I think it’s nonsense.

In theory, it could likely serve as the ultimate litmus test in determining who is better. But as we all know, on any given race day, both horses have to be fit. Both horses have to be at the top of their game. Both horses have to have the proverbial perfect trip and both horses have to like the surface for it to be a true determinant.

What’s the likelihood of that?

I will grant you that tragedy is a part of life in any aspect. Name the sport and it has experienced its share of heartbreak.

Oakland Raiders’ Safety Jack Tatum left New England Patriots receiver Darryl Stingley paralyzed from the neck down after a hit. A baseball player named Ray Chapman was once hit in the head with a fastball, got knocked out and never woke up again.

It happens.

But when misfortune strikes and it involves children or an animal, it seems that such tragedy is amplified 10 fold.

The Great Match Race 30 years ago today was Thoroughbred horse racing’s misfortune and over 18 million saw it live on television. Some of us saw it live at Belmont Park.

So many believed that a horse of her magnitude, size, strength and talent could never be beaten, let alone be susceptible to harm.

Yet her injury and subsequent death as a result remains a cruel and unforgiving reminder of her mortality.

This is one racing story that, unfortunately, doesn’t end with a blanket of roses, a clever quip from a fan-favorite quotable trainer or with champagne flowing in a racetrack’s ‘Presidential Suite.’

If that was what you were expecting to read, I regret your disappointment.

It ends as it ended in life. Sadly.

However, as any diehard racing fan and historian will tell you, the story of Ruffian remains one worth being told; a story always to be remembered.

My generation and I will always remember her as the game’s greatest filly.