SI Vault
William Oscar Johnson
July 21, 1975
After Ruffian's death came the questions. Could surgery have been delayed? Why can't a horse be tranquilized like a human? Was amputation possible? An account of a great filly's last hours
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July 21, 1975

Could She Have Been Saved?

After Ruffian's death came the questions. Could surgery have been delayed? Why can't a horse be tranquilized like a human? Was amputation possible? An account of a great filly's last hours

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Thoroughbreds are a commodity. Decisions concerning their lives and their deaths are, by and large, a matter of economics. Sentiment is seldom involved. And thus it was with Ruffian, the magnificent filly. She was destroyed after suffering desperate injury in a souped-up $350,000 match race with Foolish Pleasure, watched by 18 million people on CBS-TV. She was considered by some the best filly ever to race. We will never know now. Because the tragedy happened in such a supercharged fishbowl, the death of Ruffian will always rank among the most famous in horse-racing history.

She was worth a million dollars, and a herculean night-long effort was made to save her life. A far less valuable horse with the same injury would have been destroyed in a few minutes. The conditions were chaotic, the pressure was killing and, worse, the luck was consistently bad.

The first medical man to reach Ruffian after she broke down on the back-stretch of Belmont Park was Dr. Manuel Gilman, a calm, sober man, chief veterinarian on the New York racetracks for 31 years. He said, "It was as bad an accident as could happen. She had fractured both sesamoid bones [pyramid-shaped, walnut-sized bones behind the fetlock joint] of her right front leg. She had been going so fast and was so full of herself—she was in the race of her life—that she kept running on the fracture, grinding, grinding, grinding the bones. It was an unbelievable injury. The ligaments were shattered. The bones were like pieces of glass."

Ruffian's momentum had caused her to charge onward for 40 yards or more, each step bringing her 1,125 pounds down again and again on the torn nub of her ankle. The hoof was pointed up like a ski, the wound was stuffed with sand and filth from the track. Dr. Gilman put on an emergency airboot cast to hold the shattered bones and stop the bleeding. Ruffian was slipping into shock from the pain, from the massive effort she had made in the race (the first quarter was run in :22[1/5], a terrific pace) and from the horrifying surprise of suddenly having only three legs. Dr. William O. Reed, a veterinary surgeon who operated on Ruffian later that night in his equine hospital outside Belmont, said, "The psychological stress on her was immense with her leg gone. It's a terrifying shock to an animal to be that helpless—on three legs instead of four. She couldn't understand, she panicked."

An ambulance took Ruffian from the track to her stall in Barn 34. She was getting more excited, more panicky. The scene at the stall was pure chaos. Dozens of anxious friends of Owner Stuart Janney and Trainer Frank Whiteley were there, plus a throng of reporters, stable employees, Pinkerton guards. Ruffian, wild-eyed, was dripping sweat from the pain and the fear. She was literally losing gallons of fluid, becoming critically dehydrated. Three more doctors arrived to join Gilman and Reed in the stall. One was Dr. James Prendergast, who was Ruffian's doctor of record during her New York races. Another was Dr. Alex Harthill, a Louisville, Ky. veterinarian who has been in the news through the years in a number of controversial cases—including the dispute after the 1968 Kentucky Derby over medication Harthill allegedly administered to Dancer's Image. Many horsemen consider Dr. Harthill a brilliant practitioner; he was Ruffian's doctor when she wintered in South Carolina. He is not, however, licensed to practice at New York tracks, never having applied. When Dr. Gilman gave his dispassionate, detailed account of the factors that led to Ruffian's destruction, he managed not once to include the name of Alex Harthill. Finally, there was Dr. Edward C. Keefer, an orthopedic surgeon on the staff of New York Hospital, who had been at the race and was invited to the barn by Cynthia Phipps, Mrs. Janney's niece. Dr. Keefer had achieved celebrity among horsemen in 1973 when he fashioned an artificial foot, brace and laced-boot-contraption for Spanish Riddle, who had suffered a compound fracture. Keefer's orthopedic device saved the colt from being destroyed.

Dr. Harthill ordered Ruffian's leg placed in ice water. In a tape recording later distributed at Belmont, he said, "The most paramount thing we had to do was to get her into ice in an attempt to stop this terrible hemorrhage." In retrospect, this was a controversial choice of treatment. The water became polluted with the contaminants of the wound. Dr. Reed said, "If I had had a preference, it would have been to place a sterile dressing on it, under compression, to prevent excessive swelling." Dr. Gilman said, "I had nothing to do with it. I don't want to discuss it."

Meanwhile, Ruffian was getting more excited, and a mild dose of tranquilizer was administered. Here the bleakest bad luck entered the picture: the drug worked as a stimulant. Doctors call it a "drug idiosyncrasy," which caused a "paradoxical reaction." Instead of becoming quiet, Ruffian turned even more violent in the stall. "She reared up," said Dr. Gilman, "she tried to lie on her belly, she tried to throw herself over. If the tranquilizer had worked properly, she might have been fine. It didn't. Once the drug was in her, we couldn't take it out. We decided then that the only thing to do was to put her on an operating table and go to work on her. You can't put her to sleep in her stall; once she comes out of it, she'll wreck the place. Besides, it was full of filth and she was already infected."

During the ambulance trip to Dr. Reed's hospital, Ruffian calmed down a bit and seemed to be cooling out a little. Reed gave her 9 ccs. of promazine, another tranquilizer, and this time she began to relax. Nevertheless, she was in deep trouble. Dr. Harthill said, "She took a lot of consoling. The pain and the shock was becoming more intense all the time. She was sedated and anesthetized, and this anesthesia process became quite an issue because her heartbeat was running off; her breathing ceased and we had to use artificial respiration as well as artificial stimulants." Twice, the team of veterinarians had to bring Ruffian back from a point of medical death.

Harthill had told Owner Janney when they left the barn that Ruffian's chance of survival was not better than 10%. Dr. Reed said later, "She was a very poor risk. She had no chance of surviving as she was. If this was a human, we would not have operated. She was deep in shock and I would have liked to settle her down, to stabilize her gradually for some period of time before surgery—perhaps even two days—to allow her to tolerate everything as much as possible. But it was not my case to start with."

Because of her extreme dehydration, Ruffian's blood had become thick, sludgelike, and her heart was pumping fiercely to move it through her system. Her pulse was timed on a Datascope oscilloscope in the hospital at 76 beats a minute; normal is 36. Even after she was asleep under the anesthesia and throughout surgery, it never dropped lower. The anesthetic in her already-tormented system added yet another element of stress. She was in critical condition as the actual surgery began. Would it have been better to wait until she was more stabilized? Dr. Gilman said, "You have to pick a method and stick with it. There are always four or five ways of doing things. Our method was to put her to sleep and clean out the wound. It took half an hour—more—just to clean it, flush out the filth, put in a drain and stitch it up. If the fracture hadn't been compound, we could've put a cast on it in her stall and she would possibly have been O.K. The break itself wasn't so severe that she couldn't survive." Gangrene might have set in if the wound had been left dirty. That would have meant amputation. Even though such a treatment worked for Spanish Riddle, it could not have saved Ruffian. Dr. Gilman said, "Spanish Riddle's case was one in a million. Ruffian would've killed herself flailing about if we had amputated."

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