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
Ruffian inspiring fans after 30 years
POET CAPTURES PERSONALITY OF FILLY SHE NEVER KNEW
By Maryjean Wall
HERALD-LEADER RACING WRITER
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
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
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
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
And Ruffian, the foal, is taken away with four other fillies who
will soon forget their mothers as weanlings do. But for the first
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
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
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