by TERESA GENARO
The sight of a filly in the Mid-summer Derby is about as rare as an empty picnic table in the Saratoga backyard at 7:01 on Travers morning, but back in 1867, the fourth edition of the race named for one of the founders of Saratoga Race Course, it was a distaffer, the first of a quintet of full sisters known as the Barbarous Battalion, that got the victory in what would become Saratoga’s most prestigious race.
Ruthless, the daughter of Eclipse and Barbarity, came to Saratoga having won the inaugural Belmont Stakes at Jerome Park, a showplace of a track in what is now the Bronx. The field was small—just four horses—and the distance 13 furlongs. In his Foundations of Fame, Michael Veitch wrote that Ruthless won the six-furlong Spring Stakes at Jerome Park earlier in the year, then won the next day at 10 furlongs.
The 1867 Travers was run at a mile and three-quarters, and of the twenty-eight horses originally entered, thirteen were fillies; the race had been won two years earlier by a filly called Maiden (who obviously wasn’t). By race day, the field had scratched won to three in part because, as The New York Times explains, “Mr. Alexander having retired from the racing turf, had no representative of his ten entries.”
Ruthless was the favorite, and The Times wrote in detail about the race (the powers of observation and recollection of these early turf writers, who watched the race from a distance and in real time only, never ceases to impress me). She raced in second until the apparently unnamed “Lucy Fowler colt” came up beside her, at which point “[jockey] Gilpatrick [let] his filly out, she shot to the front, and at the half-mile pole was half a length ahead of the Lucy Fowler colt…Ruthless improved her position on the third quarter stretch, and was a clear length ahead of her pursuers as they swung into the homestretch, and without apparently being urged to her highest speed, galloped home a winner of the race by two lengths.”
Time of the race: 3:13 1/4, “the first mile being run in 1:48 ½.” Value: $2,350. Five days later, Ruthless won the Sequel Stakes at two miles.
Ruthless’s sisters were Relentless, Regardless, Merciless, and Remorseless; Regardless won the Alabama in 1874, Merciless in 1876. Relentless won the Saratoga Stakes at two in 1867, reportedly her only race; in 1869, Remorseless was a triple stakes winner at the Spa, taking the Flash, the Nursery, and the Saratoga Stakes.
Owner/breeder Francis Morris obviously knew a good thing when he saw it: his mating of his mare Barbarity to Eclipse five times yielded five stakes-winning fillies, all of whom won at Saratoga. Devastation and Barbarian, the two colts that were full brothers to the Barbarous Battalion, didn’t fare so well, with no notable wins, if any at all, to their credit.
Ruthless didn’t race beyond three; she was injured and retired to her owner’s farm and lived until age eleven; but her death hardly befits the champion she was. In They’re Off! Horse Racing at Saratoga, Edward Hotaling tells the story of her demise: “One day a hunter went wandering through Morris’s farm near today’s Throgs Necks Bridge. There was something in the distance. The hunter shot it. It fell. It was the great Ruthless in her paddock, possibly the only famous thoroughbred killed as game.” Ugh.
Ruthless was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1975, and her name lives on at Aqueduct in an ungraded stakes named for her in 1974. Back in 2008, Godolphin considered running Music Note in the Travers; she ran in the Alabama instead, finishing second by a head to Proud Spell. In the winner’s circle, trainer Larry Jones said that, “selfishly,” he’d have liked to see Music Note go in the Travers, as it would be something of a vindication following Eight Belles’ death for another trainer to demonstrate that there’s nothing wrong with racing a filly against colts.
In the first 12 editions of the Travers, fillies won it four times; in 1868, more fillies (three) than colts (two) had taken Saratoga’s prize. Now, one wonders what we’ll see first: five stakes-winning full siblings, or a filly in the winner’s circle for Saratoga’s hallmark race.