Remembering Sophie

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They called her Sophie. She was round and soft and big and slow. Sophie, like maybe your aunt or your Labrador Retriever. Nice, friendly, calm. Bake cookies or fetch a tennis ball for you if she could. Then she grew up.

Trainer Barclay Tagg put his hands on the saddle stand at the end of his shedrow in his tree-shaded barn on the main track at Saratoga Saturday morning and went back in time about a one-of-a-kind Thoroughbred he had the privilege to know. Sophie the docile baby became Ruffian the freakishly fast racehorse.

At the Camden Training Center in South Carolina, in 1974, Ruffian was one of the bunch in trainer Frank Whiteley’s string of 2-year-olds and other horses cranking up for the season. Tagg, by then a reformed steeplechase jockey and hope-to-be trainer, rode the daughter of Reviewer and the Native Dancer mare Shenanigans in some of her earliest work there. They galloped on the training track or frequently on the nearby polo fields; Tagg split the mount with local legend Squeaky Truesdale.

Thoroughbreds go to Camden for the climate, but the place can get cool enough on a winter morning to force horsemen to change plans.

“Whiteley used to make us go out in the polo field if the track was frozen,” Tagg said. “It sounds funny, but that training track would freeze sometimes and we’d take them over to the polo field. It had real long grass that just laid over so it was nice and soft.”

Tagg and the other riders would do figure-eights on the young horses in the long grass. For 15 minutes or more, they’d turn left and right, cross, circle, switch leads, put in their work – and learn. Ruffian took her place in line.

“This big old fat thing can’t keep up,” Tagg would think at the start of those sessions. By the end, he was thinking differently.

“When the rest of them were pulling themselves up and walking, she just kept going around there,” he said. “Everything was easy for her. Everything.”

Officially dark bay/brown but looking black, the filly was not easy on riders.

“She was strong, she was really strong,” said Tagg. “Squeaky and I galloped her all winter of her 2-year-old year. He was same size I was, we were the big guys. Little people couldn’t hold her.”

When the stable went north, Whiteley used the lighter Yates Kennedy on the filly, who continued to build a reputation for budding ability despite the trainer’s conservative approach. Ever the individualist horseman, he didn’t bother to have hind shoes put on Ruffian until the day before her first race in May at Belmont Park. “Hold that horse for the blacksmith,” Whiteley barked one morning.

Tagg obliged, grabbed the shank and watched as Elmer Campbell shod the stable starlet all the way around in less than 15 minutes. Trimming, rasping, nailing, clinching, bap-bap-bap-bap, all of it. The blacksmith worked almost as fast as the horse.

“I hope they don’t fall off when she comes out of the gate,” Tagg told his trainer.

They didn’t.

Ruffian won that first start, a 5 1/2-furlong maiden, by leading at every call and coasting home 15 lengths to the good of nine others. Sent off at better than 4-1, she paid for her share of drinks at Esposito’s or wherever the gang went back then.

Ruffian built on that success, winning four more races, including Saratoga’s Grade 1 Spinaway, that year. A hairline fracture in a hind pastern cost her an autumn campaign, but she easily won champion 2-year-old filly honors. Tagg only spent a year with Whiteley, so missed the up-close parts of Ruffian’s 3-year-old campaign. She went to Camden again, and picked up where she left off as a juvenile. She won an allowance at Aqueduct in mid-April, won the Comely, swept the New York Filly Triple Crown (the last step the Coaching Club American Oaks at a grueling 1 1/2 miles). Tagg kept watch from afar, and marveled as Ruffian improved to 10-for-10 in her career.

“Whiteley would give (Jacinto) Vasquez a leg up and say ‘Don’t get her hurt and don’t get her beat,’ ” Tagg said. “She was amazing. I don’t think she was ever headed after two strides out of the gate.”

Then came the end. Ruffian and Kentucky Derby winner Foolish Pleasure were the stars of the 3-year-old division and plans for a match race came to be for Belmont Park at 1 1/4 miles and with a $350,000 purse. The race wasn’t Whiteley’s style, probably wasn’t Leroy Jolley’s either, but on July 6, 1975 it happened – in front of 50,000 fans and live television coverage. Of course, Ruffian broke down after a quarter-mile, leaving Foolish Pleasure to gallop on alone. Like the shooting of John F. Kennedy, the moment holds with anyone in racing.

But I’d prefer to just think about Sophie.