THERE'S NOT much meaningful metaphor to the story of Ruffian—nothing like the rags-to-riches run through the Depression that elevated Laura Hillenbrand's Seabiscuit—but as a horse story, it couldn't be better. A gorgeous dark-bay filly with a size and bearing that moved the most jaded of horsemen, Ruffian was perhaps the fastest female ever to run. She won the first 10 of her 11 starts—and never trailed at any pole. The 11th race, the July 7, 1975, battle of the sexes match race against the colt Foolish Pleasure, solidified Ruffian's legend and turned her tale into a heartwrenching saga.
It's more than enough to stir the passions of William Nack, the finest horse racing writer of our time. (He won six Eclipse Awards while at SI from 1978 to 2005.) Nack's Ruffian: A Racetrack Romance is keenly observed and exquisitely rendered; in his hands Ruffian—whom he describes as "like a teenage girl stepping onto the dance floor for the first time" at the start of her career—emerges as a layered and compelling personality.
Nack got a job as a Newsday turf writer in the early 1970s. ("I felt like Papillon as he leapt off that cliff," Nack writes.) It's unfortunate that in the movie version of Ruffian that debuted on ABC last Saturday (it's also on DVD) Nack, played by Frank Whaley (below), comes off as a caricature of a self-important scribe. When the camera's on him, you wish it were on the horse herself, or on her intractable no-nonsense trainer, Frank Whiteley Jr., portrayed superbly by Sam Shepard. At the heart of the film is a love story between a beautiful filly and a stoic 59-year-old horseman. In one scene Whiteley walks Ruffian outside the barn, strolling without a lead, chatting, rubbing her nose. The barn is otherwise empty of humans: It's Christmas.
From the opening hoofbeats the movie, like Ruffian's career, is a swift and gripping ride, driven by anticipation of her much-hyped showdown with Foolish Pleasure. A huge crowd came to Belmont Park that day, some dressed in I'M FOR HIM or I'M FOR HER T-shirts. The people left with an image of Ruffian, Jacinto Vasquez up, so powerful that three decades later the spirit of the great filly, the only horse buried in the Belmont infield, lives on.