Photo: the real Ruffian, circa 1976.

In July 1976 I was eighteen and preparing to leave home. In August I would join The Re’Generation for a year-long tour, so I wasn’t thinking much about television, national sports, or world events. So I missed something that would have broken my heart had I paid it any attention.

Last night I watched RUFFIAN on DVD, a movie produced by ESPN. And even though I knew what was coming (the movie summary told me that the horse broke her leg in a match race in July 1976), I experienced the single most upsetting moment I have EVER seen on film–made so much worse because I knew it was true.

When I saw that piece of footage, I–well, I’m not sure what the word is: yelped, sobbed, screamed–sort of a combination of all three, and then I sat there sobbing noisily for the next ten minutes of the movie. I kid you not, it’s a good thing I wasn’t in a theater–they’d have asked me to leave.

Afterward, I looked up Ruffian on the web, and found actual footage of that tragic race on Fortunately, the actual footage, shot from a distance, isn’t nearly as graphic as what you see in the movie. But I went to bed last night with swollen eyes, a red nose, and a spongy brain.

The true tragedy is that Ruffian didn’t have to race against FOOLISH PLEASURE. It was a race designed for the media and the business, and had nothing to do with establishing Ruffian as the finest filly of that year–and probably of all time.

I’m not even sure I can recommend the movie. I’m glad I saw it, but it was a heart breaker. I can recommend the performances of everyone who performed in the movie, especially Sam Shepherd. And the real Ruffian, who is featured in footage at the end.

I’m still getting teary-eyed every time I think about it, and I’ve just ordered a book on Ruffian from Maybe it’s my childhood attachment to BLACK BEAUTY, but I just can’t let this one go.



  1. Kay

    Oh, did you not see the footage of Barbaro breaking his leg just a while back? oh my gosh.
    I love horses. I may have to see this one, even though you’ve given fair warning.
    I love your tender heart.

  2. Angela

    Yes, I did read all about Barbaro–sort of followed that story from a safe distance. 🙁 Cheered when he seemed to be recovering, and felt awful when they had to put him down.

    I tell you, it’s enough to put me off the sport of horse racing entirely, but then again, these horses are bred to run. And if a thing is happy–and yes, I think animals feel happiness–when it’s doing what it’s supposed to do . . .

    But I hear stories about doping in racing, and cruel treatment, and that makes me spitting mad. Wrong, wrong, wrong.

    I did run across an article on the web about Ruffian–seems that her sire broke down three times on a racetrack, so her “frail” bones were hereditary. That’s a shame.

    That’s why I care so much about the breeding of mastiffs–of any animal, really. There are health problems in pure breeds of any kind, so we have to be responsible and not breed unhealthy animals.

    I’m reading a novel now, STILL LIFE WITH ELEPHANTS, that is about a woman who rescues horses . . . and an elephant. So far, so good.

    Angie, rambling when she ought to be working

  3. CrownLaidDown

    I just wrote a series of horse stories/ parables last week from my growing up years. The one on fences will get to you, as well.

    Thanks for telling about Ruffian. I have never heard of it. I will check it out (with kleenex in hand).

  4. Nicole

    Please forgive me for this shameless plug of my book Hope Of Glory which is the most comprehensive story of American horse racing written for adults in the US. It’s huge, but it shows you the authenticity of this sport (in which my husband and I spent over 30 years)from the inside out, and it captures the language, lifestyle, and culture of middle echelon horse racing. Having experienced the joys and heartbreaks of the sport, this novel is a true rendition of racing. But perhaps the most important aspect of the novel is God spoke it into existence with a near audible instruction.

    Anyone who is interested in reading about the realities of the industry from a spiritual perspective, please leave a comment on my blog at, and I will be happy to send you a copy of the book.

    Please forgive me for taking up so much space for this, but it is a subject dear to my heart and a place where I spent the bulk of my life, most importantly where I met the Lord Jesus Christ.

    Nicole Petrino-Salter

  5. Anonymous

    You have your dates wrong. Ruffian was put down on July 7, 1975. I was 14 years old when it happened and I actually SAW the Match Race. In fact, I watched every single race she ran. I was completely and utterly in love with that horse!! She had grace and beauty and charm. I watched the Ruffian movie when it first aired, and I recently acquired the DVD. I must say, knowing what is going to happen does not soften the blow when it does… I cried like a baby every time I watched it–and I HAD to watch it more than once because she was so absolutely captivating that I couldn’t help myself.

  6. Donna Chasen

    I followed Ruffian throughout her career. I loved the big black beautiful filly so much. To see her run was to see greatness. I watched the match race. I couldn’t stop crying. I finally fell asleep. When I work the next morning, my husband told me that she hadn’t make it. I spent the day crying in the stockroom (I worked at UVA at the time) with a lab assistant whose husband was a groom. We were inconsolable. To this day, I can’t speak of Ruffian for more than one sentence without breaking down. It is the strangest thing, but she broke my heart all those years ago and the pain remains. She was so beautiful, so wonderful and she lives on forever in my heart. Nothing has ever touched me to this depth before or after nor ever will. Rest in peace beautiful lady. I will always miss you.


Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.