- TOP PLAYERSOffensePABLO S. TORRE | August 20, 2012
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- Faces in the CrowdJune 11, 2001
Ruffian looked good. The crowd couldn't help but notice, and many pointed and stared. She stood out like a full-grown mare in a field of yearlings. It wasn't just her size—though she was already almost 16 hands, and her girth, at 75½" bigger than Secretariat's had been at that age. It was more the way she held herself, a certain presence, that made people turn and take a second look. A lot of fillies, especially the 2-year-olds, act "silly." That's what horsemen call it, a stage fillies go through, like human adolescents; like a young girl who, giddy and embarrassed, dissolves into giggles when the boy she has a crush on finally asks her to dance. Not Ruffian. Ruffian never had a silly day in her life. Playful, yes. Nipping and nudging Massey in her stall; bumping Whiteley's old pony, Sled Dog, as they headed for the track in the morning; nipping at leaves on low-hanging branches. But never silly. She seemed to know instinctively what was called for in every situation; she seemed to understand, on this her first time in the paddock before a race, that she was on display. Head high, ears alert, and not—as Whiteley had worried—in the least bit nervous about crowds and the noise. Not a drop of sweat marred her shiny black coat.
She remained poised even as Massey brought her into the enclosure to be saddled. She stood calmly until he tightened her girth. Then, as always, she made one quick swipe at his arm, and immediately relaxed again, docile as ever. Still, Whiteley had directed Massey to skip the tour of the walking ring once Vasquez was aboard. Just take her right out to the track, he'd told him. Maybe the trainer was being overprotective, but he couldn't see taking a chance. With Whiteley, the horses always came first, and with a horse that powerful, that full of herself, you just never knew what could happen the first time out. But his worries were unfounded.
"Riders up!" barked the patrol judge.
The 10 horses were spread out around the paddock, and near each one was a little cluster of people, shaking hands, smiling, conferring. Trainers were giving last-minute instructions to their jocks, some of whom were jumping on their mounts for the first time. The jocks were nodding, some paying strict attention, others inwardly formulating their own strategies. Since Vasquez rode regularly for Whiteley, worked horses for him in the morning, and was well aware of this particular filly, he knew in advance exactly what was expected. Still, for the fun of it, to tease him, get him to relax, Vasquez looked up earnestly at Whiteley.
"You got any orders for me, Boss?" He tried not to smile.
"Yeah." Whiteley growled.
A flicker of surprise crossed the jock's face.
Whiteley took a final drag on his cigarette and crushed it out beneath his boot. "Don't screw up."
Ruffian warmed up beautifully, relaxing as Vasquez steered her past the clubhouse turn and onto the backstretch where the starting gate had been set up, 5½ furlongs from the finish line. The horses filed into the gate from the rail out, Ruffian in post position 9. She went in smoothly, and as soon as the doors closed behind her, Vasquez grabbed a fistful of her mane and twisted it around his hand, bracing himself for the start. His face was buried in her neck, eyes staring straight ahead, knees pressed against her shoulders. When the last horse was in place, when there was an instant of relative calm among the excited entrants, George Cassidy pressed the tongs of the starter's gun together and the gates sprang open. The first four horses broke in post-position order. Ruffian was one big jump behind them, but it was a good clean start. Then, before you could look down to check your program, Ruffian had moved out in front, cutting across the entire field as Vasquez guided her to the rail. After the first quarter mile, she had three lengths on the closest horse. Her time flashed on the tote: 22[1/5].
"Goddam! Goddam!" Weissman was on his feet in the racing secretary's office, his mismatched plaids and checks a blur of color. He grabbed Sullivan and pounded on his arm. "I knew she was a good one! I told you s.o.b.'s we had something! I knew it, I knew it!" His face was beet red and he was grinning from ear to ear. "Goddam it! I bet $3,000 on this filly!"