RUFFIAN: A RACETRACK ROMANCE By William Nack, ESPN books, Spring 2007
After his serendipitous entrance into racing journalism – precipitated by his recital of every Kentucky Derby winner while standing on a desk at a Newsday Christmas party – William Nack had the immediate blessing of covering two Thoroughbred immortals, Secretariat and Ruffian
We were blessed, too. Their brilliance on a racetrack is mirrored by Nack’s brilliance on a typewriter/computer, documented by his seven Eclipse Awards during his career at Newsday, the Thoroughbred Record and Sports Illustrated.
Nack’s book on Secretariat was a classic. His new offering on Ruffian, released in conjunction with the Ruffian movie which he consulted on, is a personal masterpiece as he deftly weaves his own life, emotions and vulnerability through the saga of perhaps the greatest filly of all time.
His bittersweet voyage becomes ours. He thought his was over, but he, like we, watched Barbaro in last year’s Kentucky Derby and then in last year’s Preakness. We saw his transformation from magnificent, undefeated Thoroughbred to a gruesome reminder of the tragic possibilities when a thousand-pound animal travels 40 miles per hour on legs so narrow you can reach your fingers around them.
Millions of viewers could turn away from Barbaro’s breakdown by pressing the button on the remote, but Nack was physically there, just as he was for Ruffian’s. He could no more walk away than deny the love of horses he’s carried since he mucked stalls with his sister Dee in a Skokie, Illinois, riding stable. He rubbed horses on the backstretches of Chicago’s racetracks, went to the races with his dad and fell in love with Damascus. He relived the memories while serving in Vietnam, listening to audiotapes of race calls sent by his mother. When he barely escaped Saigon before it fell, he left the tapes behind and still muses about a Vietnamese officer finding the tapes and trying to decipher them.
After the war, he’s just begun covering racing for Newsday – quite a relief after writing about freshwater aquifiers and sewers for a Long Island newspaper – when a two-year-old named Secretariat shipped into trainer Lucien Laurin’s barn at Belmont Park.
Two years later, Nack missed Ruffian’s two-year-old debut, but his buddy at Newsday, handicapper and racing columnist John Pricci, filled him in on Ruffian’s incredible performance as she aired by 15 lengths, equaling the Belmont track for 5.5 furlongs, 1:03.
Initially resenting the notion that any Thoroughbred could intrude on Secretariat’s legacy just months after he was retired to stud, Nack fell hopelessly in love the first time he saw the beautiful black filly in the paddock before her second career start in the Fashion Stakes. He called her “the Audrey Hepburn of her tribe.”
Watching Ruffian demolish her competition by nearly seven lengths in the exact same record-tying time for 5.5 furlongs, he knew this filly was special. He resisted the temptation to proclaim her greatness, because he “had seen so many phenoms come and go, so many coloured flares that exploded in a hiss of smoke.”
He wanted to see her do it again. She did, of course. She won all of her 10 starts, including two Filly Triple Crowns, before her July 6th match race with 1975 Kentucky Derby winner Foolish Pleasure. A national television audience saw the infamous Sunday afternoon matching the two best three-year-olds in the country end in unimaginable horror.
Nack witnessed her breakdown, the unsuccessful attempt to save her life and her burial in the Belmont Par infield. His grief is ours.
There are no guarantees when you fall in love, yet we know, as he surely knows, that some people never fall in love, never feel the passion and joy and, yes, despair.