The portrait of Ruffian is in the private collection  of John Bellucci

Winner of the Texas Review Award

(The portrait of Ruffian on the cover
is in the private collection of John Bellucci)

The following article was posted on Tue, Dec. 27, 2005 in the Lexington Herald-Leader

Ruffian inspiring fans after 30 years


By Maryjean Wall

someone said she looked

big, more like a colt

than a filly. She wanted

to get to her feet right

away, kicked the straw

as she would again in

her darkest late night

later ...

Lyn Lifshin, who wrote these lines about Ruffian's birth, is a poet who spent a year with the champion filly without hardly leaving her kitchen table.

She never personally knew Ruffian. The popular filly died 30 years ago from complications of a broken leg suffered in a highly hyped match race with Kentucky Derby winner Foolish Pleasure.

But without even knowing Ruffian, Lifshin believes she came to understand her. The result has been a compilation of poems Lifshin wrote, titled The Licorice Daughter: My Year with Ruffian (Texas Review Press, 2005). Lifshin writes of Ruffian:

a beauty 13 lengths ahead of

all the fillies. How she never

trailed ...

Lifshin wasn't even aware of Ruffian when the boy-versus-girl contest took place. She learned about Ruffian some months after the race from a student in one of her poetry workshops.

The student, Lifshin recalls, was wheelchair-bound with multiple sclerosis. The student told Lifshin she modeled her life after Ruffian.

Who was this racehorse, Lifshin wondered, who could inspire someone like her student?

Lifshin began to read the reams of stories written about Ruffian. Like so many others, she fell under her spell.

And she began to write.

From scraps of paper came lines that compressed Ruffian's three years of life into rhythm with hints of the portending tragedy.

Everything about Ruffian

beautiful, big

but her feet

a little small

and her cannon bone,

a beautiful bracelet

unwilling to give

Sitting at her table, sipping tea, stroking her cat and staring out the kitchen window, Lifshin said she wrote while transporting herself into Ruffian's world.

She smelled in her mind the clover pastures, the fresh-laid straw in the clean-swept barns, the adrenaline rush of the race.

Some would call this imagination. Lifshin termed it an obsession.

Perhaps the affair with Ruffian was not unlike best-selling author Laura Hillenbrand's compelling attraction to Seabiscuit.

"I worry that maybe the title, the part about "My Year with Ruffian," is a bit misleading," Lifshin says in a phone conversation from her home in Vienna, Va. She wasn't really with Ruffian, as though working in the filly's stable.

"But I was with her, in a very mysterious way," the poet explains. "I was totally drowning, swimming in her."

She wrote her first poem about Ruffian 30 years ago, soon after learning about the filly. Then for nearly 30 years, she put writing about Ruffian aside.

She had other poems to write. (She has more than 100 published books of poetry.)

The time was long coming before the muse of Ruffian reappeared in Lifshin's life.

"I was going through a bad time myself," the poet says. Ruffian carried her off and away from her problems.

The words began to flow quickly, as they did about Ruffian's weaning from her mother, Shenanigans, during early autumn in Paris at Claiborne Farm. Of the foals, Lifshin says, "I had to imagine their fear, stamping their feet, trucks coming to take them away."

Hinges creak on the gate.

Someone is coming too

early. Something is

unlatching the every

day, the warmth of her

mare ...

And Ruffian, the foal, is taken away with four other fillies who will soon forget their mothers as weanlings do. But for the first few days:

Terrified and disoriented,

they had new clean hay

and food and water

but no mothers. The

new stalls too empty.

The fillies squealed.

Blue haze, a day of a

little death they will

survive before the others

What is it, we ask Lifshin, that so captivates people about Ruffian's story? Young people who weren't alive when Ruffian died in 1975 are among those hungry for Ruffian stories.

"I came across a quote, and now I can't remember who wrote it," Lifshin says as she considers the question. She wishes she could place her hands on this errant piece of wisdom, for she believes it contains the essence of the Ruffian mystique:

"You look in a horse for what you're looking for in yourself," she says while trying to remember the quote. It went something like that.

Ruffian's dark, mysterious beauty; her apparent invincibility; and most of all her refusal to quit characterized her appeal.

She was born a big, black, long-legged foal, sired by Reviewer. She went to race for the Stuart Janney Jr. family, in the barn of trainer Frank Whiteley, winning her first race by 15 lengths. She never lost a race until the final one. For a year, she had seemed unbeatable, unreal.

Sometimes it seemed

she wasn't running,

never came back

winded. Those long

legs seemed too

long for a real horse.

Someone said it

was as if she hung

there and the ground

rushed under her

She was champion 2-year-old filly of 1974. The following year when she was to race Foolish Pleasure, the coming contest captivated the sporting world.

Then came Ruffian running on her broken leg, scrambling in the recovery room and rebreaking the leg after surgery. Ruffian who would not quit, even when it meant her death.

That was her real story. And what made her real. The match race brought out her character as though she were a fated heroine in a tragic play:

It was as if she had

wings and then

the wings turned to

wax, were melting.

There was a hush

Many of those who watched the race, at Belmont Park or on television, can still recall her final, flying steps in the first quarter-mile, far across the infield from the grandstand. And then jockey Jacinto Vasquez trying to pull her up. But too late:

There was nothing left

to do but cover her remains

with the blankets ...

... I think of Ruffian's

trainer, pale and his wife

holding a bouquet of roses,

the blankets draped over his

arm. When I think how

they couldn't save her

from herself, I think of

him, chalk faced with

her on the ambulance, in

the barn, the hospital and

now here, just standing

holding her blankets


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