Yesterday’s SpectraVET Classic Performance featured Ruffian, whose spectacular racing career and tragic death touched the heart of a nation. Today, Amanda Ronan reviews an ESPN film chronicling her life.
After my brief interlude with Zac Efron and his Derby Stallion, I decided to search out a more serious horse movie. Ruffian, directed by Yves Simoneau and starring Sam Shepard, seemed to fit the bill.
The movie opens with Shepard… WAIT! That’s Frank Calhoun… Noah’s dad!
So, Shepard wakes up before the crack of dawn to prepare for his day… definitely a horse person. As he drives through the foggy dawn headed to the barn, we are told that the movie is set in South Carolina and the year is 1973. We are immediately introduced to a tall, dark filly who is compared to a Da Vinci drawing by the narrator. The cagey trainer, Frank Whiteley played by Shepard, simply says, “Never know till they run” as he watches her trot away.
Training of the filly, Ruffian, begins 5 months later in 1974. The filly does not fail to impress, judging by the goofy grins of the spectators. We then are zipped away to May 22, 1974, Ruffian’s Maiden Race at Belmont Park. The quiet moments with Whiteley saddling up Ruffian were quite lovely. For one, Shepard actually looked like he knew what he was doing as he adjusted the girth and stretched out the filly’s legs, but the soft background music also struck a cord. I watched the scene twice.
Ruffian breaks to an eight-length lead immediately…
…and then wins by an astounding 15 lengths.
Whiteley: “Well, it looks like we might have a good one.”
After a showdown concerning whip usage between Whiteley and his jockey, whom he calls Puerto Rican, we are introduced to Ruffian’s first rival, the filly Hot ‘n Nasty.
I don’t know if you’ll be able to grasp how beautiful this movie is by these pictures. Even on the Youtube free version where I watched it is hard to imagine that this movie wasn’t shown in theaters.
Ruffian does defeat Hot ‘n Nasty, but barely. Whiteley and the camera ominously zoom in on the filly’s front legs. During the lameness exam, Whiteley finds a splint and prescribes time off.
The narrator, whom we find out is a journalist, chats with Whiteley about how to make a horse happy. The man of few words simply says, “Fuss with them. Rub on ‘em a little.”
Ruffian’s next race is Saratoga, where she is met with cheers and applause.
Again, Ruffian charges to the lead and maintains that lead through the finish adding to her “birth of a legend” status in the newspapers. The victory is overshadowed, however, by the discovery of a hairline fracture on her right hind leg.
Four months later, Whiteley and Ruffian share a Christmas stroll demonstrating their bond that would impress any fan of natural horsemanship.
By April 1975 Ruffian is back, winning her first race by five lengths. Her success continues throughout the spring and summer, becoming the only undefeated 3-year-old of the year. The news reporters begin circulating rumors of a “Race of Champions,” a race of the best three colts in the year.
“Guess those boys forgot to invite her to their little stag party,” sneers a reporter when asked if the race organizers were going to include Ruffian in the race. The narrator/news reporter then instigates the race organizers to include Ruffian. Pressured by organizers, fans and money, Ruffian’s owners agree to the race without Whiteley’s approval. Two horses drop out quickly, leaving a $400,000 match race between Ruffian and Kentucky Derby winner Foolish Pleasure.
There is only one problem: The two horses up to this point have shared the same jockey.
Whiteley: “The only reason to get on her back, is ‘cause you think she’s the better horse. So what’s it gonna be?”
Of course he picks Ruffian!
Armed with the loyalty of her jockey, Ruffian finishes her summer by winning the “Filly Triple Crown” and prepares for the Match Race.
At this point, we are led through the bleakness of corporate sponsors, television producers, news reporters and how they are constantly at war with the needs of horses and horse trainers. Whiteley argues to protect his horse at all costs, despite the fact that Ruffian’s owners seem to be both spineless and greedy. The race also starts getting attention for being a “Battle of the Sexes,” being compared to the famous tennis match between Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs.
Separating himself from the spectacle, Whiteley sits beside the stall of Ruffian. Again, I have to point out the brilliant cinematography and soundtrack of this movie. Every other minute they show us these beautiful, iconic images paired with gentle piano music.
Sunlight filtering in to a clean, peaceful barn aisle. Is there any image more tranquil and serene to a horse lover? But for a movie, scenes like this usually forewarn of a disaster.
July 6, 1975, the day of the Great Match Race, Whiteley goes through the very same routine of ponying Ruffian, saddling her himself and stretching out her front legs just as he did on her Maiden.
At the start, Ruffian breaks bad, knocking in to the gate as she exits. But the filly rallies, pulling into the lead.
I must WARN you that the next image is gruesome. My stomach flipped and I had to pause the movie, close my eyes and pull myself together.
Ruffian breaks her leg. The veterinarian gives her a less than 10% chance of recovery.
Sam Shepard and all of the side characters do a remarkable job at conveying the utter heartbreak of the moment as Ruffian is hauled off the track in the ambulance trailer.
The next few minutes of the movie were agonizing soul-crushers. Ruffian survives a brutal surgery only to break her other leg by panicking in the recovery room.
Whiteley and the owners decide to end Ruffian’s suffering. With the people that loved her by her side, Ruffian closed her eyes for the final time. Ruffian was buried at Belmont, under the colors of her barn, LHF. Her and Frank Whiteley were both inducted in to the Racing Hall of Fame.
This movie nearly brought me to tears and that does not happen very often. It reminded me that the things these animals do for us, be it jumping a 3-foot pile of logs on a cross country course, racing 36 mph down a track, or carrying a grandchild for the first time in a lead line class–these things are both remarkable and a gift.
I give this movie a full 4 Golden Horseshoes. Watch it on YouTube here!
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