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Remembering Ruffian

The family of Stuart Janney, co-owner of Orb, owned the doomed horse.

The family of Stuart Janney, co-owner of Orb, owned the doomed horse Ruffian. (AP file photo)
The family of Stuart Janney, co-owner of Orb, owned the doomed horse Ruffian. (AP file photo)Read more

BALTIMORE - It was July 6, 1975, the day of the Great Match, my first trip to Belmont Park. It was the unbeaten and seemingly unbeatable filly Ruffian against the winner of the 1975 Kentucky Derby, Foolish Pleasure and campaign style buttons with a head shot of each horse were handed out to 50,000 fans that came to the track to see two horses run the American classic distance of a mile and quarter for a $350,000 purse.

Ruffian had never been behind at any call in her 10 races. She had won her races by an average of 8 lengths, shattering stakes and track records along the way. Foolish Pleasure has won all seven of his races as a 2-year-old, including the Champagne and Hopeful stakes. He had won 11 of 14 races, with close seconds in the Preakness and Belmont Stakes. She was the 2-5 betting favorite. He was 9-10 as the two horses entered the starting gate, acres away across the infield from the packed grandstand.

The match race was mostly a made-for-television creation. It turned into a disaster.

Like me, Stuart Janney III had driven up from Baltimore County for the race. Unlike me, his parents owned Ruffian.

Perhaps 90 minutes after Orb, the horse he co-owns, won this year's Derby, Janney was standing in the Kentucky Derby Museum talking with me and Tim Layden (one of my co-stars in "Secretariat") of Sports Illustrated, remembering the match and its aftermath like it was yesterday.

Janney, a graduate of Baltimore's Gilman School, the University of North Carolina and the University of Maryland Law School, was a legislative assistant for Maryland Sen. Charles "Mac" Mathias, in 1975, far from the horse business. Just 24, he was seated with his parents in the Belmont box seats, right at the finish line.

"It was a huge event," Janney remembered. "There was a big buildup. I remember driving up with my sisters to New York, having the people at a tollbooth [ask about the race because of the Ruffian sticker on their car].

"I remember leaving the paddock and walking up the steps at Belmont and I could hardly make my feet go up and down, I was so nervous . . . And then sitting there and watching this thing and really not believing what I was seeing."

Match races historically have nothing to do with actual racing. The two horses just go as fast as they can until one of them breaks.

Ruffian left the gate a bit awkwardly, and it took a while for her to get in front. But, after the pair had sprinted full out for approximately 700 yards, she was about a half-length in front, looking as if she was about to pull away.

At that instant, her right foreleg exploded, bones crushed, ligaments ripped, her hoof barely attached to her leg, even as she continued trying to run.

"There's certain people probably that respond instantly to something that happens, somebody drowning, whatever," Janney said. "I'm not sure I'm one of those people. I'm looking and trying to understand."

Unlike Barbaro (2006 Preakness) and Go For Wand (1990 Breeders' Cup), Ruffian's breakdown did not occur right in front of the grandstand. It was on the other side of the massive infield. You knew something was wrong, but did not know how wrong.

Janney knew when he got back to the stable area with his then-date now wife.

"There's Ruffian and she's got her head on [trainer] Frank Whiteley's shoulder," Janney said. "My father was a horseman all his life. He knew everything about what was going on. I would suspect at the time that both he and Frank thought that what had happened was irreversible. But they realized they had to do absolutely everything. And they did."

The extensive surgery was a success. If the same injuries happened today, Ruffian would be put in a recovery pool so if she thrashed about when the anesthesia wore off, she would not hurt herself. Sadly, there was no pool.

The family stayed in the stable area until nearly midnight before heading off to try to sleep.

When Ruffian woke up, she began hitting the cast on her leg against her own body. The surgery was undone in minutes. In the early hours of the day after the Great Match, Ruffian was euthanized. She is buried in the Belmont Park infield. Match races became an American racing relic.

"I can remember waking up the next morning, talking to dad very early and being so crushed," Janney said. "It was an extraordinary emotional gamut that you went through with her."

The Janneys spent that summer at their home in Maine.

"Literally, there was a room in our house, and it was not a small room, and there were letters in that room that had to have been maybe 2 feet high and there were stacks and stacks," Janney said. "We spent the entire summer, my sisters, my parents and I, we'd each have a stack each night and we sent out a thank-you letter.

"It was very cathartic. It was a wonderful family experience. I don't know that we ever spent that many nights together on any other subject, but that's just the way it was. We were very touched by this extraordinary number of people that thought this was something they needed to write about."

The Janneys lived then and Stuart lives now in the Maryland horse country, north of Baltimore, not far from Sagamore Farm, the home of the legendary Native Dancer. Think Chester County's rolling hills and grass fields that spread out to the horizon.

The elder Janneys passed away in the late 1980s. The son thought about getting out of the sport, but his uncle, his mother's brother, convinced him to stay in, forming a partnership. That partnership is now with his uncle's son, Janney's cousin. Orb is the result.

The Great Match, the Derby. It is, Janney said, just horse racing.

"They're the highs and the lows," he said. "And if you can't take the lows . . . You can't be in the game for as long as we've been in it without being able to deal with that."

Now, the Preakness. Janney's first was in 1961 when he was 12. He was there to see his uncle's horse, Hitting Away.

"I will tell you a funny story and these were simpler times," Janney said. "I was told by my parents that my uncle was nervous before races so they didn't really need to hear a lot talk from me. I should be quiet. I was, pretty much. I left the paddock. I was with Uncle Ogden.

"He said, 'Come on with me.' We went to the bar between the paddock and the box. We get to the bar . . . And he orders two shots of whiskey and one of them is in front of me. He takes his whiskey and 'boom,' like this. Then, he looks at me and says, 'Come on, we're ready to go.' I went like that.

"I'll never forget getting to the box and my parents kind of looking at me, like, what the hell is wrong with this kid. But that was my uncle. I can remember that to this day."

Janney told that story when he eulogized his Uncle Ogden. Hitting Away finished sixth at 9-1. Orb won't be 9-1.