The Romance Reviews

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

What is a Champion?


I have a couple of alter-egos.  One is the creative person who makes and designs customized show leads for dog show people.  Another is a college English teacher (and let me tell you, that is one of my favorite alter-egos because I get to watch freshmen grow from barely being able to compose a complete, grammatically correct sentence to being able to put together a 3 – 4 page essay by the end of the semester).  Still another is the author.  But, the one I want to talk about is the collie fancier. 

one of the leads I've made
I’ve said before that I grew up knowing I was going to have Lassie someday.  I have long since learned that while Lassie is NOT a good example of the breed according to the standard as written by the parent club, the Collie Club of America, Lassie has been the best PR this breed could ever have.  But, today, I want to tell you a story about a collie who didn’t look like Lassie and often was mistaken for a Doberman Pinscher cross.  People who didn’t know the breed would even argue with me that this collie wasn’t a purebred and had to be a mongrel. 

Ch. Franchel's Prince of Belmar
Boots was known officially as Franchel’s Prince of Belmar, and later, added the CH for champion to the front of his name.  I showed Boots for three months from the time he was eight months old to eleven months to earn his American Kennel Club championship.  I then sent him home, with instructions to his breeder/owners that he needed to grow up before he could play in the “big dog” world of champions.  Winning the points to earn his championship as a baby puppy was one thing—being able to win in the ring with mature champions would be a whole other ball of wax.

At eighteen months of age, Boots came back to my house.  (And, just to let everyone know, he never left after that.)  Boots became my constant companion to dog shows because he was campaigned into the top fifteen for three years straight, and missed the top ten for two years by one and two points.  At four and a half years of age, I retired Boots from competition.  He was heart-broken.  For a long time, when I would load the van for the next dog show, he would wait in anticipation to be taken from his kennel run and put into the van.  When it became apparent he wasn’t going to be loaded, he would walk to the end of his run and sit with his back to me.  After almost a year of watching the younger dogs go, he stopped waiting and would just walk to the end of his run and present me with his back.  He even started to ignore me when I would try to pet him before I left. 

He was breaking my heart, but I had clients I was obligated to and by this time, I was his official co-owner.

When he was nine and a half years old, the Collie Nationals had a judge for the champions that I knew would appreciate his virtues, even if he was nine and a half.  I debated back and forth whether or not I should enter him.  He had arthritis in his left shoulder, and at times it was so bad he couldn’t bear weight on that leg.  His canine teeth had been broken when he tried to chew on a very hard knuckle bone.  At the very last minute (and I do mean last minute), I entered him through the show superintendent’s web site.  Entries for dog shows close at noon on a certain day.  His entry was time stamped for 11:59:59 a.m.  Like I said—last minute.

Two days before we were supposed to leave—seven days before he would be in the show ring again—somehow, Boots managed to slice the large pad on the bottom of his right front leg nearly off his foot.  I took him to my husband (who is also my “fur kids” veterinarian), sobbing hysterically, “I can’t take Boots.  I can’t take him.  Even if you can stitch this up, I can’t take him in the ring with stitches.”
My DH calmly told me to shut up and let him see what he could do with Boots’s foot.  The man is a genius with silk suture and a needle.  He used the smallest stitches I have ever seen, and the silk he used was so fine I swear he robbed a spider to get it.  And, he used white silk and told me to just trim the ends when I trimmed Boots’s feet. 

So, Boots went to Rochester, MN for the collie nationals.  I took an extra-large crate for him (think big enough to house a small elephant), placed a ten inch thick foam cushion in it and his orthopedic bed on top of that, and made sure I had his arthritis meds with—just in case. 

The morning smooth specials were judged, Boots was so stiff from his arthritis I didn’t think we were going to get him in the ring.  Amy, the young woman, who was assisting me was certain he wasn’t going to walk his way out of the stiffness.  Instead, we gently lifted Boots onto the grooming table, placed a heating pad over his shoulders, wrapped it with an ace bandage, plugged it in, and started grooming him.  I gave him some “cookies” and then his meds.

When we had all the smooth specials groomed (I had more than one), I grabbed the catalog to mark the arm-band numbers I would need.  Boots was in the first group of male specials, and he was the very first dog in the ring.  I’d already shown several dogs at that national, and my stomach sank.  The ring was at least one hundred feet wide by two hundred feet long.  Boots would have to set the pace for the twenty four males behind him.  

I sent Amy to get the arm-bands and loved on Boots.  I remember telling him that it didn’t matter what he did, so long as he got to go around the ring once more and hear the applause. 

When the announcer called for the first group of specials to make their way to the ready ring, Amy and I lifted Boots down.  He limped all the way to the ring.  If my stomach sank before, it was now joined by heart somewhere in the vicinity of my shoe laces.  I remember looking at that ring and how huge it grew by the moment.  I remember thinking, “Just let him take his lap around the ring, Joan.  You don’t have to use him, just let him go around once more.”  And, I remember leaning over to kiss him on the top of his head and whispering in his ear, “Just like old times, Bootsie.  Just like the group ring.”

The ring steward called us in and Boots led the class.  He hit that mat and I had to pull him off his front feet to slow him down.  The limp was gone. 

When the group of twenty five was in the ring, Joan walked up to me and said, “I hate to do this, but I was busy checking arm band numbers off.  I didn’t see the class go around.  Would you please take them around again?”

I laughed and told her, “I don’t know if I can make it around again.”

I was elated when Joan pulled Boots out and he made the first cut.  We walked out of the ring and he started to limp again.  I told Amy, as she handed me the dog I had to show in the next group to put rewrap Boots’s shoulder with the heating pad, make up an ice pack for his other foot and wrap that on the bottom of his foot, and let him rest in the exercise pen. 

When I came back (as I didn’t make the cut with the second dog and had another group before I had to take my third smooth male champion into the ring in the fourth group), Boots was actually snoring in the exercise pen.  I let him sleep.

After Joan went through all the male smooth champions, all the males making the first cut were called back to the ring.  Once more, Boots had to take the class around.  Once more, on the way to the ring, he was limping.  And, once more, the minute he was in the ring, he refused to limp.  Boots made a second cut.

Amy and I put Boots back into the exercise pen, heated his shoulder and iced his foot.  I then went and showed my smooth girl, Magic.  Magic made a cut.  As Amy and I were walking back to our set-up, she asked me the question I knew I was going to have to face.  If Magic made the second cut, which dog was I taking into the ring?  As a professional handler, my commitment had to be to Magic, my client.  I took a deep breath, and said, “I’m calling Diane, Magic’s owner.”

Diane answered on the first ring.  She had been following the judging online, in real time.  And, I will forever be thankful to Diane because the first words out of her mouth were “If Magic makes the second cut, you put someone else on her.  There will be more shows for Magic.  I know this is Boots’s last show.  You stay on YOUR dog.”

Magic didn’t make the second cut, as hard as I tried.  And, I know why.  It wasn’t that I didn’t want it bad enough, because I did.  I wanted a dog I bred and sold to be in the final standings, but I was also very aware that Magic’s front assembly just wasn’t good enough to go all the way.  She was a beautiful girl, but she had a straight front.

There was a fifteen minute break before all the champions making the second cut would come back into the ring.  I went back to get Boots and as we walked up to the ring, he was limping—painfully, slowly.  But, as we approached the ring, I felt all the tension disappear from the lead.  He had pulled himself up into the collar and if a dog can grit his teeth, Boots was gritting his.  He had decided that he was not leaving until the last dog did and he was going to be one of the last dogs.

We took the class of the cream of the smooth collie world around the ring one last time.  When we stopped, Boots pulled himself all the way up, tilted his head at me, and the eyebrow over his right eye twitched…as if he and I were sharing a private joke.  In that moment, it was just Boots and me in that ring, and the dog he was in his prime, the dog who won herding groups, the dog who gave me 200% every time he walked into the ring stood before me.  I stood there, letting him show himself and show his heart out, and I didn’t care that the tears were rolling down my face. 

We didn’t win Best of Variety or Best of Opposite Sex (if a girl is Best of Variety, a boy has to be Best of Opposite), but we got an Award of Merit.  As we stood, waiting to get Boots’s ribbon, I could see that he was standing on his toes, trying not to put any weight on the sutured foot and trying not to bear a lot of weight on the arthritic shoulder.  His eyes were half shut and I could see the tension in his neck and back.  When we were handed the ribbon, the first step he took out of the ring and off the mat, Boots sank into a sit, looked up at me, and sighed.  As clearly as if he had spoken, it was as if he said, “I’m tired, Mommy.  I can’t do it anymore.”

I bent down, gently hugged him around the shoulders, and told him, “You don’t have to, buddy.  You did it.”  I hung his ribbon on his collar, picked him up, and carried all eighty-five pounds of him back to my set-up. 

Champions are determined by how closely a dog conforms, in the opinion of no less than three judges, to the standard of perfection.  Champions are also so much more than a piece of pretty paper from the American Kennel Club.  That day, Boots proved that champions are heart, and determination, and pure grit.

When I had to let Boots go to the Rainbow Bridge four years later, I knew it was time because he told me, just as he told me that day that he was tired and he couldn’t do it anymore.    I sat on the floor with him, held him across my lap and cradled his head to shoulder, and told him exactly what I told him in Rochester, “You don’t have to, buddy.  You did it.”  He did everything I ever asked of him. 

As my DH was injecting that final shot into Boots’s vein, Boots twitched his right eyebrow.  Every time I think about him, I know we still share that private joke.

Sunday, May 27, 2012

Homesick?


So, I was working on the second round of editing for The Devil’s Own Desperado and realized that I’m homesick—homesick for a place and a time that I’m fairly certain didn’t exist as I’ve envisioned it, and the reality of that time and place has been created in an incredibly romanticized manner.  First of all, I see that place through the most amazing rose tinted glasses.  Secondly, I’m talking about a time before daily showers (or on hot days like today after working for a while on the new dog show rig—a two-shower day) and deodorant.  And, lastly, how in the sam hill can I be homesick for a place that I have never lived in during this lifetime? I stared at the screen for a long time, entranced by a blinking cursor, and tried to convince myself that it is impossible to be homesick for this place of my imaginings and dreams.


Surprisingly, I couldn’t convince myself of any of this.  You see, there’s this little voice in the back of my head who keeps asking, “What if it was a simpler time?  What if the beauty you see there now did exist for the people then, as well?”  It doesn’t do a darn bit of good to tell that voice to shut up.  That voice has the persistence of my six-year old grand-daughter when she really wants my attention.  Even though my better half and I are raising Jadelynn, there are a few times I slip into “gramma mode” and give in to that persistence.  And, if nothing else, that little voice in the back of my head took lessons on persistence from a six-year old.

Like an idiot, I opened up the picture files I keep stored on the same jump drive where I have all my novels saved.  Those pictures are saved in a file named “For When I’m Homesick.”  You’d think I’d know better…

As I was looking through the pictures, I kept forcing myself to look at them as if I had to live there.  As if I had to deal with the almost six months of winter weather.  As if I had to put up with a wind that never stops.  (I remember reading somewhere that people often went completely insane from listening to that constant wind.)  As if I had to fight the land for everything—protection from the elements, a livelihood, even food on the table.  

And, I still couldn’t do it.

No matter how harsh the landscape appeared, no matter how deep the snow fall, no matter how stunted the trees grew because of that ever present wind, I couldn’t see anything be a fierce, harsh, rugged beauty to this place that holds my heart. 

After scrolling through pictures for about an hour (yes, I have that many saved to the jump drive), I was ready to return to editing.  But, I’m still homesick.


Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Blurb for *The Devil's Own Desperado*


I just got the blurb for The Devil’s Own Desperado from the marketing department at The Wild Rose Press. I am beyond stunned. Those folks did a real bang-up job (and the pun is fully intended). Here it is:

He's everything she fears…

Wounded gunfighter Colt Evans stumbles onto a remote homestead never expecting to find compassion. But beautiful Amelia McCollister is like no other woman. Suddenly, his dream of settling down with a wife and home is within reach—but only if his past never comes gunning for him.

She's everything he dreams of…


Amelia had to grow up fast after outlaws murdered her parents, leaving her to raise her siblings alone. With a young brother who idolizes shootists, she dreads having a notorious gunman in her home. But as Colt slowly recovers, he reveals a caring nature under his tough exterior that Amelia can't resist.

Just when Colt starts to believe he can leave the gunfighter life behind, his past returns, bringing danger to them all. Can a shootist ever hang up his hardware? Or will their dreams disappear in the smoke of a desperado's gun?

Now, this blurb really got me to thinking about how I struggle to write a jacket blurb, how much of a battle it is to write a sucknopsis (or for those of you who insist it be called by its proper name: a synopsis) and how I truly would rather have a pelvic exam or a root canal than write either of those tools of the author’s trade.

Yes, they are tools and just like any tool, if there isn’t mastery of the tool and how to use it, it’s like trying to hammer a nail home with the butt of a revolver.  It can be an exercise in futility at its best, or downright dangerous at its worst.  I have never learned how to use those tools to my advantage.  I will be the first to admit that. 

I also admit that I’m what most authors call a “by-the-seat-of-the-pants” author.  I don’t write to an outline.  I don’t have the sucknopsis written before I start writing the story.  I just start writing and let the characters talk to me and dictate where we’re going and exactly how we’re going to get there.  We (as in me and the voices in my head who are my characters) know that we’re going to get to the happily ever-after, but that’s all we know when we start out on the journey of their story.  Writing the sucknopsis and the blurb is the last thing I do—after I’ve edited the MS several times. 

So, when I got that blurb—which was vastly different from the pathetic thing I sent to the marketing department at the beginning of this process of moving to publication—my jaw literally dropped and I was squealing in my chair like a little girl for a pony ride at the circus.  My hat is off to those people in the marketing department at The Wild Rose Press.  They are AWESOME!  And, I want to take this little corner of cyberspace to thank them for what they did with that blurb.

I can’t wait to see what the art department does with the cover.


Tuesday, May 15, 2012

What is your character's Alabama?


Alabama

I write alone, often in the middle of the night.  Insomnia tends to lend itself to writing in the small, wee hours of the morning.  Even as I write those words, I have a slightly overweight, incredibly spoiled calico cat dozing on my lap.  Occasionally, she pries one green eye open to be sure I’m not totally ignoring her, butts her head against my elbow, and resumes purring.  Her name is Alabama, and she was named for the state she went to when she was less than twenty four hours old. She was an orphaned kitten when she was given to me—still slightly wet—and I was on my way to the Collie Club of Alabama shows.  I didn’t have a choice but take her with me for the weekend.  She traveled to Alabama in a small cardboard box, her heating pad plugged into the inverter in the rig, and was such a hit at the show, I literally had to put a sign over her little box in my grooming area that said, “My name is Alabama.  My human mommy is Lynda.  If I’m sleeping, please don’t wake me up.  If I’m awake and my Mommy is in the ring with a dog, my bottle is in the cooler and the water heater is plugged in next to me.”  I think every collie person at the show that weekend fed her at least once. 

The competition in the show ring is fierce and can be nasty (seldom in my chosen breed—but in other breeds—OY!), but this little orphan revealed a much softer side to all the people I compete against on a regular basis.  People who are highly competitive were seen sitting in a folding chair, bottle-feeding a tiny mewling ball of fluff, cooing and murmuring softly as they snuggled Alabama.  Even people who said they don’t really like cats were caught in the act. 

And, it’s that softer side as an author that I have to find in my characters.  It’s all too easy to write the damaged hero who keeps his heart well-guarded behind a stony façade because he isn’t about to risk the kind of pain that heartache brings, but what is it that breaks down the protective stone and reveals the vulnerability and longing?  What is it that takes down the walls, whether tiny chip by chip or with a massive wrecking ball (as Alabama proved to be for some people)?  In The Devil’s Own Desperado, the work I’m currently working on with my editor, Susan Yates, at The Wild Rose Press, Colt Evans’s Alabama turns out to be Amelia’s little sister Jenny, a young girl traumatized into silence by witnessing her parents murder.  Amelia has been chipping away at the façade, but it’s Jenny who is the wrecking ball, bringing all of his defenses crashing down.

The following is an excerpt from the upcoming novel:

Colt found Jenny in Angel’s stall, knees drawn to her chin, arms wrapped around her legs. She was shaking with silent sobs. He hung the lantern on a nail, and let himself into the horse’s stall. Colt sank next to Jenny in the clean straw. She looked up at him, her eyes welling with frightened tears. He slipped his arm around her and she dropped her head to his side, her tears dampening his shirt. “Aw, Jenny, I’m sorry. I didn’t know.”

She sniffled, and wiped the back of hand across her nose. Angel nosed the girl, his warm breath rustling the bright blue ribbons in her braids. Colt pushed the gelding’s head away. “Amy said you saw your momma and daddy killed by some very bad people.” 

Jenny lifted her head and nodded, memories darkening her already dark eyes. Her lower lip quivered and tears spilled down her cheeks.

“Jenny, not everyone who carries a gun is going to hurt you.” He caressed her slender arm. “Learning to hunt is something a lot of boys do. It’s part of growing up.”

She shook her head vehemently, and then buried her face against his side. Her arms snaked around him and hugged him tightly, her slender frame shuddering.

With a finger under her slender chin, Colt tilted her face up. “Do you think I would ever let anyone hurt you?”

Those huge brown eyes searched his face, and then, slowly, she shook her head.

He drew a deep breath. “Do you think I would give Saul a rifle if I thought he was going to hurt you or Amy with it?”

Again, she slowly shook her head.

He brushed her bangs from her forehead, and tugged slightly on one of her long pigtails. “You know, Miss Jenny, when I came here a few days ago, I was wearing a gun.”

She swallowed and nodded.

“Do you think I’d ever hurt you?”

There wasn’t a second of hesitation before she shook her head. Colt folded her into his side again. “I promise, Miss Jenny, so long as I’m here, no one will hurt you or Saul or Amy. I swear that to you.”

Her thin arms tightened around his waist and Colt’s throat clenched. He sat with her for a long moment, the weight of her head against his ribs filling him with a protectiveness he hadn’t felt in a long time. He slipped her long braid through his fingers.

“You know what, Jenny?”

She shook her head against his side, her tiny hand catching his in the sling. Her fingers tightened around his palm.

“A man could get real used to living in a place like this with a couple of kids like you and Saul. That used to be something I dreamed of having…a couple of great kids, a beautiful wife like your sister would be, a small ranch with a few head of cattle. I used to dream about it so much, I had the floor plan for the house all laid out in my head. I could almost feel the sun on me as I watched it sinking behind a mountain range in those dreams.”

Jenny pushed back from him, and her brows lifted in silent query.

“I don’t know what happened to those dreams. I guess, somewhere along the line, I realized someone like me will never be able to settle down and have those dreams come true.”

She shook her head vehemently.

“No, what? No, I’ll never be able to settle down…”

She shook her head again. The blue ribbons danced and shimmered in the lantern light. Rain falling from the roof pattered to the ground in a soothing rhythm. The horses shuffled in the stalls and the cows contentedly munched hay.

“I should see to making those dreams come true.” Here, he silently added.

She bobbed her head and a smile darted over her tear-streaked face.

“Wish I could, Jenny.” Colt eased a deep breath in. He dropped his head to the wall behind him. “But that gun I wore isn’t going to let me.”

Her brows lowered.

“I’ve done some really bad things. I will always be looking over my shoulder. And if I stayed here to try to make those dreams come true, you and Saul and Amy could be hurt because of the things I have done. I’ve done some really bad things,” he repeated.

She shook her head again.

“Yeah, Jenny, I have.” He drew another deep breath. “I’d better get you into the house and take the tongue lashing I know is coming.” Colt stood, holding his hand down to Jenny. When he straightened, Amelia stood silently a few feet away. Tears welled and glistened in her eyes.

Colt brushed a hand over Jenny’s head . “Go on into the house, Jenny. And tell Saul to give that puppy a bowl of water.”

He waited until Jenny left the barn before he said, “Well, go on. Have your say. I should have asked you before I bought Saul a rifle, and I should have warned Jenny before she saw it. This is all my fault, and I overstepped my bounds as a guest in your home.”


A small girl, traumatized and terrified of guns, becomes Colt's Alabama.  So, if you’re an author, ask yourself, what is your character’s Alabama?
 


Saturday, May 5, 2012

Broken Wings and Hoofbeats

Maybe, because it’s Derby week, but I’ve found I’ve been thinking about horses a lot these past few days.  I find myself standing in my living room, staring up at framed, limited edition of perhaps one of the greatest race horses of all time, and no, I’m not talking about Secretariat.  Make no mistake, “Big Red” was impressive and gorgeous and put together in a manner that most of us will never live to see again, but if you’re old enough to remember that huge red colt thundering down the homestretch to a 31 length romp (for perspective, that’s over a quarter of a mile) in the Belmont Stakes in 1973, you’re old enough to remember a black, winged Pegasus who so briefly blazed across the skies of the Thoroughbred world two years later.

I love to watch Thoroughbred racing.  I have for as long as I can remember.  The strength and agility and beauty of the horse are what drew me in, as these things do to most little girls who become “horse-crazy.”  The fragility of such a beautiful animal that we ask to run all out for a mile or more makes me feel guilty, because somehow I feel I’m contributing to a sport that seems to condone broken legs, green curtains drawn around the fallen in the dust of the track, and huge syringes of pink euthanasia solution.

It was my granddad’s fault I fell so deeply in love with Thoroughbred racing.  He took me to the track on weekends, only we didn’t go into the stands.  He had friends who could get us into the stable areas.  It was there I learned to love the smells of a horse barn: the tannic bite of fresh sawdust, the richness of leather polish, the sweet scent of newly harvested hay, and the earthy aroma of warm horses.  In the barns, I discovered a horse’s breath smells sweet, like freshly cut grass on a hot summer morning, that a horse’s nose is the softest velvet imaginable, and within the depths of their dark eyes are secrets horses willingly share with quiet, awkward, and shy thirteen year-old girls.  Standing on the rail in the back stretch in the very early morning hours of any given Saturday, I learned to listen to the sound of hoof beats in the predawn gloom, the “chuffing” of the horse’s breath, the rhythmic scrubbing of leather reins against a sweaty neck, those sounds mingling into a well-orchestrated symphony that rose in volume and then faded.  I didn’t mind the cold mornings, shivering on the rail, so long as I could watch those perfectly crafted animals.

One of my favorite memories of those early mornings at the track was that symphony conducted by two exercise boys in late fall, the music muted more than usual by a thick, heavy fog.  Several seconds after I first heard the dueling hoof beats, I saw the two horses roiling out of the gloom, like the ghosts of the chargers of knights of old, snorting steam with each breath.  The fog coiled around both animals, wrapping with sinuous eroticism around legs and necks, caressing bunching and uncoiling muscles, dancing across broad backs.  And, then they were gone into the fog, only the pounding of their hooves remaining, haunting, ethereal. 

I’ve always been a sucker for the fillies, maybe because just like in the sport and art of breeding show dogs, one dam can only contribute so much to a gene pool, whereas the “stud de jour” can wreak havoc that takes generations to repair.  So when a friend asked if I was taking Eight Belles for the 2008 Kentucky Derby, I hesitated for a moment.  “I just hope she can come off the track sound,” I remember saying, because she reminded me of another black filly, a heartbreaker from my childhood.

Eight Belles
Eight Belles was a huge grey filly—so dark she was nearly black, with a white star on her forehead.  Belle had the genes to run because both sides of her pedigree incorporated Mr. Prospector, one of the top producing stallions of all time, and Mr. Prospector was the grandson of “The Grey Ghost,” Native Dancer.   I knew what lurked in Belle’s family tree because I memorize pedigrees.  I have memorized family lines ever since I was thirteen.  Even though Belle’s breeding screamed she came from a line of animals known to suffer catastrophic breakdowns, she had heart.  I’d watched her run several races, and the filly was incredible.

For most of the 2008 Derby, Belle stalked the pack of nineteen other horses, staying comfortably in the back, running in fifth place.  At a mile and a furlong, Belle made her move, slipping through traffic, gliding into third, slightly off the rail. As expected, though, Big Brown exploded at the mile pole, coming along the outside from the far back, and soon overtook Belle.  Belle changed leads, bobbing slightly to come further off the rail, and made a valiant effort to overtake Brownie when he blew by her.  Denis of Cork made a late move, but couldn’t take either Eight Belles or Big Brown.  Brownie coasted across the finish first, Eight Belles in second, and Denis of Cork a distant third. 

Within a few seconds, the jubilation of seeing all twenty horses come across the wire apparently healthy and sound ended for some. Television coverage was taken from Brownie’s team celebrating to Eight Belles, struggling to stand in the backstretch.  An outrider kept Belle’s head pulled toward her shoulder to keep her prone on the track, and two track employees were assisting in keeping her calm.  Her jockey’s body language said it all.  He’d already pulled the postage stamp saddle from her back, and stood, shoulders slumped.

My stomach fell.  I can’t say that memories of Barbaro’s breakdown two years before in the Preakness flashed across my mind, even though at that time, I was devastated.  Barbaro though had a chance of surviving, because it was a rear leg he injured, he never broke the skin, allowing infection in, and his connections not only had the money but the willingness to do whatever they could to save his life.  However, memories of that other filly, that black heartbreaker of my childhood, did sear my soul with Eight Belle’s breakdown.  I barely registered my friend’s tears, or Dr. Larry Bramlage telling the television viewing audience that Eight Belle’s injuries were catastrophic—I still cringe with the polite, euphemistic manner to state Belle had shattered both front ankles and couldn’t even stand—and she was humanely euthanized on the track.  Instead, I heard CBS sports’ commentator Chick Anderson’s voice echoing in my head.  “. . .like watching a masterpiece being destroyed.”

And, suddenly, I was thirteen again.  Granddad first pointed me in Ruffian’s direction, after she had been named champion two-year old filly.  I fell in love as only a thirteen year old girl can when I watched Ruffian run, even if I could only watch her on closed circuit television.  She ran so fast, so effortlessly, that distance and time were redefined.  She was speed on speed.  Unearthly speed.

My favorite picture of Ruffian, airborne, as Pegasus should always be.
She was foaled April 17th, 1972 at Clairborne Farms, Kentucky.  Ruffian’s pedigree was a recipe for stellar achievement.  Her dam was Shenanigans, a daughter of Native Dancer.  Mr. Prospector, Eight Belles’s sire, came down from the Native Dancer line.  Ruffian’s sire was Reviewer, a son of Bold Ruler.  Reviewer retired to stud after only thirteen starts, his racing career cut short by two separate leg injuries, one of which was a hairline crack in a rear leg.  Unfortunately, combining Reviewer with Native Dancer was also a formula for racing disaster, as Reviewer consistently produced Thoroughbreds who broke down before they were three as often as he produced champions, and the Native Dancer line is just plain brittle.  Breeding Shenanigans to Reviewer was like throwing a lit match on gasoline.    

Ruffian was huge for a filly, looking more like a colt, so she was registered with a masculine name, hoping she would run like the boys.  She was taller and longer than the outsized Secretariat.  Born to run and built for speed, Ruffian was the result of generations of selective breeding. Her conformation was textbook perfect, the proportions so correct she was as flawless as any living creature can be.   She was black, black as a nightmare—which she was to her “utterly dominated opposition”——black as the crack of doom.  She had to be black because there are many who believe that black excludes all other colors, and perfection itself is exclusive.  Walter Farley, author of the beloved Black Stallion series of young adult books, said if there was any horse that would have been the model for his fictional black Arabian stallion, it would be her.  She had a massive, deep chest—horsemen say to hold a champion’s heart.  She had long, delicate legs, with tiny, teacup hooves. A white star centered Ruffian’s wide forehead, a reminder that she was, would be, and always will be a star.

She was born three days late, the only time in her life she didn’t lead, the only time in her life she wasn’t out in front, challenging all those behind her to catch her.  As if they could.  She seemed to run as if she was trying to make up the seventy-two hours she had fallen behind.  Her average margin of victory was eight and a half lengths.  In the barn, she was an absolute angel, tractable, sweet, highly intelligent, and self-assured.  On the track, she was savage in her need to run, a demon who knew only one speed—faster.  She had a stride that was unbelievable in its length.  Ruffian so dominated the sport that she was called a “freak.”

The legs of any horse are a wonder of creation—or evolution, whichever flavor you chose to believe.  A horse’s lower leg is merely an elongated finger bone.  Try running a mile as fast as possible on the middle digits of your hands and feet.  From their knees down, there is no muscling on a horse’s leg.  It’s just bone, long tendons, and skin.  In a full-out gallop, on each stride, every ounce of a horse’s weight is balanced on one leg, that limb pounding into the ground with more than twelve thousand pounds of force.  However, when Ruffian ran, she didn’t pound.  She appeared to hang suspended in mid-air and the ground zipped along under her.  She literally floated in a gallop and the smooth motion was deceptive, for hidden within that easy stride was pure black wildfire, black lightning screaming across the skies.  She made many of us believe she truly could fly.  Frank Whiteley, her trainer, said Ruffian was unlike any other horse, before or after, like “nothing you ever seen” and “faster than any horse alive.” 

She didn’t run like the boys.  She ran better than the boys.  Her jockey, Jacinto Vasquez, said holding her back in exercise gallops left his arms numb: “No arms, no muscles.  What power she has.”  After one exercise session, Whiteley approached Vasquez and casually asked him how fast he thought the filly worked.  Vasquez said he thought she did the half mile in about fifty seconds and some change.  Whiteley handed him the stop watch.  Ruffian had run a half mile in 45 seconds flat.  Vasquez said it was impossible, she hadn’t acted as if she was exerting herself.
Ruffian destroying her competition. 

Vasquez never tried to hold her back in a race because that would have been an exercise in futility.  Even though Whiteley routinely ordered him to keep her “under wraps,” Ruffian had other ideas on how to run her races.  She broke from the gate as if the devil himself goaded her and she set records every time she put a delicate hoof onto the groomed surface of a race track—records not only in the matter of time but in the distance between herself and her nearest competitor. She set records that still stand to this day, more than three decades later.  When Secretariat burned the first quarter mile in the 1973 Belmont Stakes in his quest for the Triple Crown in 24 seconds and change, he was hailed as the second coming of Man O’War.  Ruffian routinely ran the first quarter of a mile in 23 seconds and fractions, including on her home track at Belmont Park.   A review of her racing record glitters with the number “1” for every furlong of every race Ruffian ever ran.  She became known as a “heartbreaker.”

She won the Filly Triple Crown, and with every race Ruffian ran, she just got faster and faster, shaving half seconds and then full seconds off her previous times.  She was termed “invincible.”  Secretariat was never given that label.  Neither was Man O’War.  They both tasted defeat.  She never did. 
Those horses who challenged her were never the same after they raced against her.   The list is long and impressive, a who’s who of the elite world of Thoroughbred Grade I stakes contenders in the mid 1970s: Cornucopia, Hot N Nasty, Laughing Bridge, Sir Ivor’s Sorrow, Aunt Jin. . . Foolish Pleasure.  After she destroyed Laughing Bridge in the Spinaway, Laughing Bridge’s trainer, Al Scotti, was heard to say, “No more.  No more.”  Lucien Laurin, trainer of the super-horse Secretariat was quoted as saying he was thankful “Big Red” wouldn’t ever have to face Ruffian.  Laurin stated, “As God is my witness, I think she’s better than him.”

Eventually, there were no more fillies to challenge her and there came talk of a Match Race between this black Pegasus and the winner of that year’s Kentucky Derby, Foolish Pleasure. 

The day of the Match Race between the two great horses, July 6th, began hot, humid, and cloudless, even though thunder-storms were forecast.  By post time, black clouds darkened the sky, lightning danced across the heavens, and the thunder was a grumbling voice of discontent, but the rain held off.  The racing board deemed the track at post time to be fast and hard.  Forged hard like an anvil.
Foolish Pleasure had been schooled on breaking solidly and fast from the gate, thinking if he could get the jump on the filly, it would break her, as she’d never been behind any other horse.  The colt’s trainer was not about to let her take the lead and therefore set the pace.  Too well, LeRoy Jolley knew Ruffian’s brutal, destructive speed and what it did to the horses trailing her.  Foolish Pleasure’s fast start from the gate didn’t break Ruffian, even though he was half a head out of the gate before she was.  Instead, her ears laced back and she fought her jockey to take the bit into her teeth. 

No horse was going to head her. 

No horse ever had. 

No horse ever would. 

And then, at the three/eighths mile post, thirty-five short seconds into the race, Ruffian stumbled and quickly righted herself.  In that strange silence both jockeys said they heard something.  Braulio Beaza said it sounded like a board cracking.  Vasquez said it was like a gun shot.  Another bobble from Ruffian, and this time Vasquez knew there was something terribly wrong.  He began sawing the bit in Ruffian’s mouth, trying to stop her, pulling her to the vine-shrouded far rail.  She kept running, in a bobbing, lurching manner, running on exposed bone, driving sand and dirt into her leg. Incredibly and horrifically, for two strides, she kept ahead of the bay colt. 

Dave Johnson, the track announcer shouted, disbelief in his voice, “Ruffian has broken down.”  And, then, he repeated, this time his voice breaking in horror, “Ruffian has broken down.”
For another fifty yards she fought the bit, fought to keep running, her fighting worse when Foolish Pleasure surged past her.  Finally, Jacinto Vasquez had her stopped. 

The silence from the crowd was so great the thudding of Foolish Pleasure’s hooves into the anvil-hard track was the heart-beat of that collective body. Vasquez lifted her right foreleg, hoped to minimize the damage to what was a grotesquely mangled limb, bracing himself to hold her upright.  The delicate leg was obviously broken, the hoof hanging on by little more than a tendon and a strip of black hide.  Her blood poured onto the track, covered Vasquez’s silks, adding another shade of red to the white and red of the colors of Clairborne Farms. 

Ruffian was fitted on the track with a pneumatic cast, treated for shock and pain and hemorrhage and was taken away in a state-of-the-art horse ambulance to the veterinary hospital across the street from Belmont Park.  Surgery was performed on her leg, eight hours of intricate, hellishly complicated reconstructive surgery to repair torn tendons, seal pumping arteries and veins, screw bone shattered like glass back together.  Four veterinarians and a human orthopedic surgeon attempted the impossible.  Were Ruffian any other horse, the racing board at Belmont and the track veterinarian would have drawn a green sheet around her and she would have been euthanized on the track. 

Ruffian was not any other horse. 

It was nearly two a.m. when Ruffian came up from the anesthesia.  Her forelegs began to paddle, slowly at first, then faster and faster, and as always, leading with her right foreleg.  Horses have only two instinctive responses to pain, fight or flight.  She knew only one response: run.  Run as fast as nature and genetics allow her to run.  She was running away, even though she was prone on her side.  Despite the efforts of the four veterinarians of the surgical team, five attendants, and her trainer, the very instinct which made her run so fast made her fight to get to her feet.  She shattered the cast on her right foreleg and broke her left foreleg in her thrashing to regain an upright position.  She was quickly resedated, just enough to throw her back into a twilight state of anesthesia to give the veterinarians time to confer with Whiteley and then with Staurt Janney, Ruffian’s owner.  Whiteley told Janney, “It’s bad, sir, really bad.”  Janney was reported to have told Whiteley, “I don’t want her to suffer any more, Frank.”  Whiteley understood.  There was nothing else to do for Ruffian, now, except to humanely finish the destruction she started nine hours earlier.  Frank Whiteley asked Ruffian’s groom to bring her halter, and Whiteley stayed with Ruffian while she was injected with the overdose of phenobarbital.  It was 2:20 in the morning.

The rain, which had been threatening since post time, finally began to fall. 

At sunset on July 7th,  with the track closed to racing and the public, with the flag flying at half-staff, with jockeys, grooms, and trainers in attendance, and with all the dignity befitting a fallen champion, Ruffian was laid to rest in the infield at Belmont Park.  Frank Whiteley’s wife lowered a single, red rose into the open grave with her.  In the silence which was Ruffian’s elegy, a mourning dove burst from the nearby bushes, flying into the purpled twilight sky. 

For all eternity, this filly will forever be ahead of the horses crossing the finish line at Belmont, where she always was.  In the lead.

And, why this tribute to a long dead filly?  I don’t know.  Maybe, because it is Derby week.  Maybe because there was just something so ethereal and other-worldly about the perfection she embodied.  Or maybe, because as a horse lover, I have to keep hoping that Ruffian, and IndyAnne, and Eight Belles, and thousands of nameless horses on race tracks large and small, have not died in vain and that the Thoroughbred industry will finally wake up and realize there isn’t going to be another Triple Crown winner until the breed itself cleans house, removes the brittleness and fragility from the bloodlines, returns to breeding animals that could run like Secretariat and Ruffian and Seattle Slew without the use of drugs to prevent lung hemorrhaging, and understands that the general public is not going to continue to tolerate that polite euphemism of “catastrophically broke down” coupled with green curtains and massive syringes filled with bright pink solution. 

We owe it to Ruffian, to IndyAnne, to Eight Belles, and all the others that their deaths were not in vain.

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