Tall Tales of the Track: A Girl Named Ruth(less)
The quiet of the day lingered over the expansive paddock as the lithe filly grazed idly in the sun. In the trees beyond, fauna moved furtively through the autumn day, footsteps parting the flora beneath as they sought the next sip of cool water or nip of the ample grass softening their steps. Hidden within the shadows, a man seeks opportunity.
Spotting movement nearby, he lifts his gun to eye level as he readies for the shot. He listens for the quiet huffs of breath and sees the outline of his prey just beyond the tree line. Finger tensed on the trigger, he aims and fires, the brief cacophony breaking the quiet of the day. Does he hear the muffled grunt of his shot finding flesh? Or does he move on, assuming his aim was off?
When she is found, Ruthless bears the mark of an errant bullet while her erstwhile assailant goes unknown. Glorious on the racetrack, she fights for her life with the same vigor she raced for a purse, her gameness and determination shining through. After all, the first winner of the Belmont Stakes deserved much more than this ignominious end.
Francis Morris was a man who made his money with words. He was among the financiers who helped bankroll the first telegraph line between Washington and Baltimore and served as president of the American Telegraph Company and the Central American Transit Line. The fortune he reaped from those business endeavors allowed Morris to invest in breeding and racing Thoroughbreds at his Morris Stud in Throggs Neck, New York.
Among his good friends was Richard Ten Broeck, the famed 19th-century horseman who owned the legendary Lexington and famed Ten Broeck in addition to his interest in the Metairie Race Course in New Orleans during the years before the Civil War. Ten Broeck wanted to try racing in England and Morris invested in his efforts, sending his son John across the Atlantic as well. While there, Ten Broeck bought two horses, Eclipse (not the famed undefeated 18th-century stallion) and Barbarity, and sent them back to America in 1859.
The two men fell out over money with a lawsuit settled out of court resolving their differences. Morris won both Eclipse and Barbarity and sent them to his Throggs Neck farm. From their second mating came a robust bay filly, 16 hands with two white coronets and a splotch on her forehead, Ruthless.
At two, she made her first appearance at Saratoga in the one-mile Saratoga Stakes, finishing second, and then broke her maiden two days later in a six-furlong overnight race against colts and fillies, including August Belmont’s Red Wing. The following month, racing moved to the new Jerome Park near New York City, where Ruthless faced four others in the inaugural Nursey Handicap. She won that one-mile juvenile test and then followed it up with a second to stablemate Monday in the 1 1/8-mile Trial Stakes at the Paterson, New Jersey racetrack.
With two wins and two seconds, Ruthless’s performances promised that her three-year-old season would bring more glory in Morris’s scarlet silks.
#FlashbackFriday on the eve of the @BelmontStakes? The first one, with the help of our @nmrhof friends. Ruthless, born in Westchester County, proved herself a, "Fleet filly," on a, "Gloriously beautiful," day at Jerome Park. Look back via @nytimes: https://t.co/ZyN02YEHnw pic.twitter.com/34chBNNceT— NYTB (@nytbreeders) June 8, 2019
With fewer distaff-exclusive races available to fillies and mares in the post-antebellum years, horses like Ruthless competed in open company races more often. That she faced many of the New York circuit’s best colts made her accomplishments even more remarkable.
She started her new season with a win at Jerome Park in the six-furlong Spring Stakes on May 23 and faced the starter again the next day in a 1 1/4-mile purse where she beat a five-year-old and two other three-year-olds. After a second to stablemate Monday in the 1 1/2-mile Jersey Derby, Ruthless faced Monday and two others in the inaugural Belmont Stakes, run at 1 5/8 miles at Jerome Park.
At the break, De Courcey took the lead over Rivoli with the Morris tandem of Monday and Ruthless biding their time behind them. Monday passed Rivoli on the far turn and caught up to De Courcey, but could not hold on into the stretch, an injury knocking him out of contention. That left Ruthless to challenge the leader. She powered into the final furlongs, catching De Courcey and battling head-to-head as they passed the crowded grandstand. In the final yards, Ruthless pulled clear to win the first Belmont Stakes by a length.
When she showed up at Saratoga for the fourth Travers Stakes, the filly had scared away all but two others. De Courcey and H.P. McGrath’s R.B. Connolly were no match for the filly at the zenith of her powers as she won the 1 3/4-mile Travers by two lengths. She followed that up with a win in the two-mile Sequel Stakes five days later.
Her loss in the Jersey St. Leger to De Courcey turned out to be the final race of her career. She was injured while training that fall and was sent back to Morris Stud to join her owner’s broodmare band. She produced two foals, Tomahawk, an unraced colt by Leamington, and Battle Axe, a stakes winner by her former stablemate Monday.
On a fall day, that errant shot from an unknown hunter found Ruthless in her paddock at Morris Stud. She hung on for five weeks, valiantly fighting her injuries, but succumbed in November 1876, nine years after her historic wins.
More than a century and a half after her historic win, Arcangelo’s victory in this year’s Belmont Stakes featured another historic first with Jena Antonucci becoming the first woman to train a winner of a Triple Crown classic. That win comes 30 years after Julie Krone became the first woman to ride the winner of a classic race, as she piloted Colonial Affair to a 2 1/4-length victory in 1993. How appropriate that these firsts came in the Belmont, the longest and most historic of the three Triple Crown stakes, whose inaugural edition in 1867 was won by that courageous bay filly.
A daughter of the British-bred Eclipse, Ruthless was the most famous of breeder/owner Francis Morris’s Barbarous Battalion, a legion of fillies out of the Irish mare Barbarity. More than the first name on a long list, this filly was the best of her generation, whose grand career on the track made her accidental demise off the track all the more tragic.