By RICHARD GOLDSTEIN
Frank Whiteley Jr., Trained Ruffian, Is Dead at 93
Published: May 4, 2008
Frank Whiteley Jr., the thoroughbred racing Hall of Famer who trained the brilliant but ill-fated filly Ruffian, died Friday in Camden, S.C. He was 93.
His death was announced by the New York Racing Association.
A trainer for nearly a half century, Mr. Whiteley saddled the great gelding Forego and the 1967 horse of the year Damascus. But he was best remembered for Ruffian, perhaps the greatest female thoroughbred in history.
On July 6, 1975, Ruffian, undefeated in 10 starts — setting stakes or track records in most of them — and having swept the filly Triple Crown, was matched against Foolish Pleasure, the winner of that year’s Kentucky Derby, in a mile-and-a-quarter race at Belmont Park.
Coming two years after tennis’s celebrated Battle of the Sexes between Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs, the match race of the 3-year-olds was billed as horse racing’s equivalent of a glamorous boy versus girl duel, an equine sideshow to the women’s rights movement.
But what promised to be one of horse racing’s greatest days became one of its grimmest. Nearly half a mile into the race, in front by a neck, Ruffian shattered her right front ankle. Flashing her competitive spirit, she continued to run for another 40 yards, compounding her injury, as her jockey, Jacinto Vasquez, somehow managed to keep her upright.
In an emotional sports saga that captured national attention, a team of veterinarians operated on Ruffian into the night in the face of virtually hopeless odds. They placed a cast on her broken leg, but while coming out of anesthesia, Ruffian struggled so violently that she smashed it. At 2:20 a.m. the day after the race, she was put down by injection. That night, she was buried at Belmont’s infield, 70 yards beyond the finish line, beneath a flag pole that had been flying at half staff.
Twenty-five years after Ruffian took her fatal misstep, Mr. Whiteley recalled the moment he had first seen her, in a pasture at Claiborne Farm in Kentucky. He said, “She was only a yearling, but she had that quality you only see once in a lifetime.”
. . .
Frank Yewell Whiteley Jr. was born and raised on a farm in Centreville, Md. He rode horses at shows and fairs and obtained his trainer’s license in Maryland in 1936.
Mr. Whiteley won a Triple Crown race for the first time in 1965, when he saddled Tom Rolfe in the Preakness Stakes. Two years later, he trained Damascus, who won horse of the year honors after victories in the Preakness, the Belmont Stakes, the Travers and the Woodward.
In 1976, Mr. Whiteley took over the training of Forego, who won the horse of the year title that year. Mr. Whiteley was inducted into the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame at Saratoga Springs, N.Y., in 1978.
Mr. Whiteley was “a wonderful horseman, who did it the grass-roots way, and there just aren’t that many around any more,” his fellow Hall of Fame trainer Shug McGaughey told the New York Racing Association. “When they got sick, he gave them aspirin. When they needed to be iced, he hosed them.”
Mr. Whiteley retired in 1984 and conducted winter training for many years in Camden. Last year, he was portrayed by Sam Shepard in the television movie “Ruffian.”
He is survived by his sons David and Alan. David Whiteley trained Coastal, the 1979 Belmont Stakes winner.