Ruffian: Burning from the Start by Jane Schwartz

Trigger Warning: This novel and review discuss the following: graphic imagery, death.

Goodreads Rating: 5 Stars (and it deserves more!)


Another one for the horse fans. If you follow horse racing, you more than likely have heard of Ruffian and her tragic ending. But whether you have or haven’t heard of this filly, reading this novel will make you a fan of her.

April 17, 1972, one of the racing world’s most impressive athletes was born. Her bloodlines traced back to equine royalty- and as a friend of mine would say, she was practically born with a tiara. Born a big, strong, healthy foal who later grew into an impressively built yearling, her connections started to take notice of her. And as she was just learning the ropes of being handled and ridden, a certain relative of hers swept the 1973 Triple Crown. As 1974 approached, the filly made her way to North Carolina from Kentucky to learn how to become a racehorse. Trainer Frank Whiteley knew after a few sessions that he had something special in his care:

“The speedball, the beauty, the female, the freak.”

Shipped to New York, she began her racing career at age two (as many do), and gained her name, Ruffian. She began blowing competition away and setting track record after track record, eating up the ground. But as she ran, Whiteley couldn’t help but worry about her powerhouse body set on her dainty legs, and this proved a true concern when a slight hairline fracture in her ankle caused her debut season to come “to an abrupt end”.

Image result for Ruffian horse

(Photo Credit: Google Images)

But 1974 gave way to high hopes for her three-year-old season in 1975. She came back with vengeance, sweeping the filly Triple Crown. That year, Foolish Pleasure, a three-year-old colt, took the Kentucky Derby and became a heavy favorite for the rest of the Triple Crown series (he didn’t take the crown though, coming in second in the following two legs of the series). Due to their successes, there became a cry for a match race between Ruffian and Foolish Pleasure- a battle of the sexes. As the end of the season drew near, the date was finally set and the race was on.  Tragically, nobody would ever know the outcome.

Now, if you don’t know what happens next and want to know, stop reading this and go get this book. You do that, and you’ll understand exactly what I’m about to say, and you’ll appreciate it more.

Those of you still with me- when I picked up this book, I was still new to the racing industry. I appreciated the athleticism, the thrill, the legends that rose above the rest. I had heard of Ruffian, knew of her demise. But when I read the lines:

“Ruffian has broken down! Ruffian has broken down!” 

I had to stop reading because I became so emotional that I was choked up and fighting tears. Here I am, decades after this filly left her mark that day at Belmont, and her she is in black and white on these pages, leaving her mark on me now. I’ve still got a long ways to go when it comes to learning about the racing industry, and even more so about the equine industry. But if there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s that these magnificent animals have heart beyond comprehension. That horse loved to run. That horse fought her own body to finish that race. Everyone in the stands and following the race that day was impacted because they witnessed immense greatness followed by immense destruction.

Schwartz successfully reconstructs the brightest and darkest moments of Ruffian’s life. Anyone who reads this novel comes as close as I think they can to understanding how that felt.

*6/19/2018* I found some video footage via and I thought I would share. This filly still takes my breath away decades after she’s been long gone. You can find the tragic film of her last race in the link above, if you choose to. I prefer to watch the good times instead- one of her taking the win for the Acorn Stakes.

Published: 1991

Publisher: Ballantine Books

TL/DR: Ruffian: Burning from the Start by Jane Schwartz is a memoir style novel about the legendary filly racehorse, Ruffian- the highlights of her career and her last moments.

Read it? Yes, especially for equestrian and racing fanatics.

Recommend it? Yes, especially to anyone who is interested in the racing industry or curious to learn more about the heart of racing thoroughbreds.

Buy it? YES. You’ll want to hug the book for comfort at the end.

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Categories: Animals, Book Review, Nonfiction

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3 replies


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