Two brilliant fillies who tried to beat colts not only lost the races, they lost their lives.
In 1964, Lamb Chop, after having won the national 3-year-old filly championship the year before, ran second to Gun Bow in a division of the San Fernando Stakes at Santa Anita. This was the same Gun Bow who would battle Kelso at the end of the year.
A couple of weeks after the San Fernando, Gun Bow and Lamb Chop met again in the Strub Stakes. Gun Bow went off at 2-1, and Lamb Chop was the second choice.
At the start of the run down the backstretch, Lamb Chop broke down. She had suffered a broken left foreleg, slightly above the ankle, and there was no chance of saving her. Lamb Chop was buried beneath a cluster of palm trees in the infield. “A light chestnut flame has died,” said Blood-Horse magazine. Gun Bow won the Strub by 12 lengths.
Ten years later, a strapping, near-black filly gave racing another bright flame. Ruffian was as big as the biggest of colts and she won all five of her races as a 2-year-old, by margins totaling 46 lengths.
In 1975, there were no thoughts of running Ruffian in the Kentucky Derby, but that spring she continued to beat fillies by devastating margins, and it became clear that eventually she would have to challenge colts. By now, Ruffian weighed more than 1,100 pounds.
Foolish Pleasure won the Derby, and had he also taken the Preakness, Ruffian would have opposed him in the Belmont, the Triple Crown finale. But Master Derby won the Preakness, and Ruffian continued to demolish the fillies, sweeping the New York triple for 3-year-olds in winning 10 consecutive races.
A $350,000 match race was arranged between Foolish Pleasure and Ruffian at Belmont Park on July 6. Jacinto Vasquez, who had been riding both horses, chose Ruffian, leaving Foolish Pleasure to be ridden by Braulio Baeza.
They had run a little less than a half-mile of the 1 1/4-mile race, with Ruffian holding a half-length lead, when the filly’s right foreleg snapped. Ruffian came out slightly to bump Foolish Pleasure as he went by, then under a tight hold from Vasquez, she staggered toward the outside fence. The horrified crowd of more than 50,000 watched silently as Foolish Pleasure completed the course.
Equine surgeons struggled through the night at a nearby horse hospital, trying to save Ruffian. Ruffian must have thought she was still in a race. “She threw us around like little children,” veterinarian Alex Harthill said.
Ruffian threw a shoe, smashed a cast that had been fitted on her leg and began hemorrhaging again.
At 2:20 a.m., the surgeons gave up. The Great Match Race had turned into tragedy, but racing won’t change: As long as there are horses, there will be fillies trying to beat colts.