It was billed as the Great Match Race. It turned into a disaster. Unbeaten Ruffian, the superlative filly, had raced a blistering half mile with Foolish Pleasure in a head-to-head duel last Sunday at Belmont Park in New York when suddenly the sesamoids in her right foreleg, those complex and fragile bones near the fetlock a few inches above the hoof, splintered beneath her outsize 1,125 pounds, piercing her flesh.
That night at the nearby veterinary hospital of Dr. William O. Reed, a team of six doctors, including Dr. Edward Keefer, operated on her. Keefer, an orthopedic surgeon, was one of several doctors called in to save the life of the brilliant colt, Hoist the Flag, in 1971 after a similar shattering incident; he also helped design an artificial foot for Spanish Riddle, which saved that fine sprinter for stud duty. But this time all the skill and wisdom could not do it, and early Monday morning the filly was dead.
The accident happened halfway up the backstretch, three quarters of a mile from the finish of the mile-and-a-quarter race. Both the filly and the colt had come roaring out of the starting gate located in the chute on the far side of the racetrack, Foolish Pleasure a neck ahead at first, maybe more. Ruffian quickly drew even and got her head in front as they went through the first quarter mile in 22[1/5] seconds, exceptionally fast time. Early in the second quarter, the last she would ever run, Ruffian appeared to be opening up on Foolish Pleasure, as the smart money figured she would. She had half a length on him, perhaps even three quarters.
As the first half mile neared completion the race was being run in a style approaching the perfection demanded by purists—or by CBS-TV, which had put up most of the extravagant $350,000 purse. The big, almost black filly ran her second quarter in 22[2/5] seconds, very fast, just as fast as she was supposed to run, and the little bay colt was running with her, showing surprising speed to go with his unquestioned courage. He had even closed some of Ruffian's early margin as they reached the candy-striped three-quarter pole directly across from the grandstand. Perhaps a stride past that marker Foolish Pleasure was suddenly in the lead, half a length, a length in front—and the cheering crowd of 50,764 found itself choking back those cheers. Ruffian had stumbled, sagged and staggered off to her right toward the outside rail. Jockey Jacinto Vasquez pulled her to a stop, jumped off and peered at her with concern as Foolish Pleasure went on his lonely way around Belmont's far turn to the finish line.
An ambulance, incongruous on a track designed for horses, moved down the backstretch toward the dismounted jockey and the disabled Ruffian, and from the other direction a square green horse van moved quietly, ominously, onto the scene. The saddle was stripped from the filly's back, and Dr. Manuel Gilman, the track veterinarian, put her right foreleg in a plastic air-inflated cast. She reared in pain, twisted, bent over, but finally allowed herself to be led, limping, into the van.
On the opposite side of the track, in front of the quiet grandstand, Jockey Braulio Baeza guided Foolish Pleasure past the finish line. Although Baeza knew the race had ended when he heard Ruffian's leg pop, his colt had passed six furlongs in 1:08[3/5], only a fifth of a second off the Belmont track record, set by horses who did not have to run alone or any farther than that. And though Foolish Pleasure was then easing up, running his last half mile in a sedate 54[1/5], his time for the mile and a quarter was 2:02[4/5], less than a second slower than his winning time in the Kentucky Derby.
Baeza, businesslike as usual, brought Foolish Pleasure back to the winner's circle, where there was a perfunctory, joyless trophy presentation. He then strode off, in his Genghis Khan way, toward the jockeys' room. Outside the door he kissed his children, went inside and asked for Vasquez. Baeza's fellow Panamanian was in the shower, having been excused from his mount in the next race.
Baeza, like Foolish Pleasure's trainer LeRoy Jolley, had believed his horse could beat Ruffian, but he had another motive in this race. In 1968 Baeza had ridden for Frank Whiteley, Ruffian's trainer, and had been beaten in two stakes. Whiteley criticized Baeza's rides, and in turn the jockey says he has had "no respect for that creep" ever since.
"I wanted to beat him on the level," he said after the ill-fated match race. "I believe it would have been neck and neck to the quarter pole, and then I would have pulled away."
Baeza found Vasquez, and the two chatted in Spanish for a while. They had each heard the snap, "like when you break a stick" when the sesamoids shattered. "My horse was running very comfortable," Vasquez said. "My instructions were to go as fast as I had to. She didn't give me no warning. It's lucky I had a tight hold on her when it happened, or I could have gone down. I am sure—I am positive—that she would have won the race if she didn't get hurt."