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The rise and sudden fall of a `Ruffian'

June 04, 2007|From the Washington Post

The nation mourned when the great Barbaro was euthanized less than nine months after winning the 2006 Kentucky Derby. Many also wept three decades ago after the undefeated filly Ruffian went hoofbeat to hoofbeat with 1975 Kentucky Derby winner Foolish Pleasure in a match race one fateful Sunday at Belmont Park.

That storied race, which ended in tragedy 600 yards from the starting gate, became the inspiration for "Ruffian," a bittersweet TV movie that airs at 9 p.m. Saturday, the same day as the Belmont Stakes, both on ABC.

William Nack, 66, a longtime Sports Illustrated writer, served as a consultant and is a main character in the film, played by Frank Whaley. As a young reporter for the Long Island newspaper Newsday, Nack covered most of Ruffian's short career.

It's merely coincidence that the Ruffian story airs a year after Barbaro's plight: The film had been in development for several years.

"Ruffian" follows the filly's career through her early training all the way to one of racing's darkest days, when she shattered bones in her right foreleg and had to be put down less than 12 hours later.

The film captures the allure and backstretch mystique of the racetrack as well as the often quirky characters who populate it, including Ruffian's crusty trainer, Hall of Famer Frank Whiteley Jr., played by Sam Shepard.

The movie was filmed over a six-week period in 2006 in Shreveport, La., with several scenes also shot at Belmont Park in New York. Five horses were used to portray Ruffian, all of them geldings.

The film re-creates how surgeons at the track hospital tried to save Ruffian long into the night. The horse began thrashing about when she was coming out of anesthesia, reinjuring her foreleg and also fracturing her elbow. She had to be euthanized.

Ruffian was buried on the Belmont infield the next day, and a plaque marks her grave at the historic racetrack.

Nack, who has written a memoir, "Ruffian: A Racetrack Romance," also was on hand at the 2006 Preakness the afternoon Barbaro broke down.

"It was deja vu," he said. "Barbaro almost made it, and you'd like to think that Ruffian would have had a helluva better shot at surviving today."

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