Orb, Ruffian and the Triple Crown

I didn’t bet on Orb, this year’s Kentucky Derby winner, but I should have.

I should have noticed Orb was wearing the colors of one – if not the – greatest fillies of all time: Ruffian. 

Then, there would have been no doubt where to lay the measly dollar I put down in an informal pool bet.

Since Orb’s win, his ties to Ruffian and Secretariat have been briefly mentioned by articles and turf writers, but the focus has been more on the Secretariat connection, which I fear has left too many without a sense of just who the great Ruffian was.

Ruffian was a tremendous brown filly born in 1972 at Claiborne Farm in Kentucky, the granddaughter of Bold Ruler, Secretariat’s father. Interestingly enough, Orb’s derby win came just one day before the 40th anniversary of Secretariat’s own Derby victory. 

But Orb is not just related to Ruffian and Secretariat by blood; his connections are also related. 

Before that 1973 race, Ogden Phipps had an arrangement at Penny Chenery’s Meadow Stable to breed two of Chenery’s mares to Bold Ruler over two years. A coin toss would determine who would own each colt. The year of Secretariat’s birth (the second year), Phipps famously lost the toss.

Fast-forward about 30 years, and Phipps’ son Ogden Mills “Dinny” Phipps and his first cousin Stuart Janney III kept horse racing in the family and partner on a handful of horses, including Orb.

This is where the second Ruffian connection is made: Stuart Janney is the son of Ruffian’s owners, Stuart S. Janney Jr. and Barbara Phipps Janney.

Ruffian was voted the Outstanding 2-Year-Old Filly of 1974 and won the Filly Triple Crown in 1975. She was unbeaten in 10 races and lead at every point of every race she ran. Ruffian also set stakes records in eight stakes races. She would soon become known for her heart and drive in racing for as much as her record.  Ruffian refused to let another horse past her. In one race, she popped a splint. She was no doubt in pain, but there is no way she would let the other filly pass her. 

Ruffian’s determination was ultimately her downfall.  In her 11th race, a nationally televised match race between her and Kentucky Derby Winner Foolish Pleasure in 1975, Ruffian broke her sesamoid bones and snapped her right foreleg during the race. Despite her jockey, Jacinto Vasquez’s, mightiest effort to pull her up, Ruffian would not give in, pummeling her own legs until she finally went down.

Ruffian immediately underwent a three-hour surgery, but when the anesthesia wore off, it is believed Ruffian still thought she was on the race track, thrashing and kicking the recovery stall as if trying to finish the race. The determined filly hammered the floor so much, she re-injured herself immediately.

Veterinarians believed Ruffian would not survive more surgery and she was euthanized on July 7, 1975.  

She is buried near the flag pole at Belmont Park, her nose pointing to the track’s finish line. Sports Illustrated included her as the only non-human on their list of the top 100 female athletes of the century, ranking her 53rd. Even Lucien Laurin, Secretariat’s trainer, told reporters, “As God as my witness, she may even be better than Secretariat.” Countless books and movies (which I have never had the heart to watch) have attempted to document Ruffian’s persona. Perhaps the only good things to come of Ruffian’s tragic death were strides made in racing and veterinarian medicine. A match race between two champions has not taken place in America since her death, and a “recovery pool” was developed so that horses now awake from anesthesia suspended in warm water and don’t re-injure themselves.

There are more than the connections to Ruffian that has me starting to believe Orb could be the horse to break the Triple Crown drought. Not only has a Triple Crown victory never been achieved in my lifetime (the last was Affirmed, who won it in 1978), but I think Orb is the first horse I’ve really hoped can do it.

Orb’s owners, Janney and Phipps, along with Orb’s trainer, Kentuckian Shug McGaughey, are old-time,true-blue horsemen. From all media reports, I get the sense they truly are in this heart-wrenching,exhilarating, beautiful sport for the horses. They are racing veterans who know the fleeting exhilaration of winning as well as the feeling of a spinning defeat, like a sucker punch to the neck, from factors that can’t be controlled.  

Janney told a New York Times reporter he says a prayer before every race, “Come Home Safe.” (Admittedly, I have a similar ritual just before the gates pop open.) Both Janney and Phipps were at the racetrack the day Ruffian broke down. Not only does the memory of Ruffian’s last race haunt Phipps, but after the 2006 breakdown of Pine Island, the man embedded in horse racing with enough money to buy three tracks of his own could not return races for nine months. And in interviews, he still seems remorseful of the loss. 

The three men are not plagued by rumors of cheating; their records are not marred with horses that tested positive for drugs, which only further blacken the cloud that has come to grow above the racing industry due to greedy, unethical and unmerciful cads who have lost sight of the lives they are supposed to be caring for. These men, Shug in particular, are known for their patience, caring and understanding of horses. Racing, the horses, it’s all in their blood. It’s not about the money for two families who have plenty. They are not some fly-by-night partnership erupted from disposable wealth with a lust for the limelight of a Triple Crown.

They embody what horse racing should be: an outlet for the spirit of the horse to shine. They embody what the American Dream is supposed to be built upon – hard work, patience and climbing the high road, skipping the shortcuts.

It’s a road I’m hoping will take them and Orb to the winner’s circle on Saturday during the Preakness and again on June 9 at the Belmont.

The Preakness is off at 5:20 p.m. CST.