There was a moment in last Saturday's $110,800 Ruffian Handicap for fillies and mares when it was hard to tell what was going on. With the drizzle almost as thick as the mud at New York's Belmont Park, you had to look closely to spot Cum Laude Laurie splashing along on the inside of three fine runners as she reached the top of the stretch. Even on the driest of days the inside of Belmont's track is slow and tiring, but in rain the horses trying to drive through it appear to be running in place on butterscotch pudding. And Cum Laude Laurie was striving to come from far back after almost falling on her nose at the start.
Far to Laurie's right was the 5-year-old mare My Juliet, the Auntie Mame of U.S. racing, who had won at 15 different tracks, 14 times in stakes races. Slightly outside of My Juliet and poking her head into the lead was Mississippi Mud, the easy winner of the $125,000 Matchmaker Stakes at Atlantic City in August. Even farther out was Cascapedia, California's best female performer. Jockey Angel Cordero didn't want to be on the inside with Cum Laude Laurie but he was helpless. "I couldn't go four horses wide with my filly or I would have been up in the grandstand," Cordero said. "She was running kind of strange, anyway, not smooth, just hopping like a kangaroo." But Laurie was hopping like a very fast kangaroo and took the lead with a sixteenth of a mile remaining in the 1‚⅛ race. At the finish, the 3-year-old filly was half a length in front of Mississippi Mud, who had a half-length edge over third-place Cascapedia. Poor Juliet finished sixth.
Of the dozen competitors in the Ruffian, Cum Laude Laurie was the least experienced, having started only nine times. "She was too tiny last year as a 2-year-old," says her owner, Dan Galbreath, the president of the Pittsburgh Pirates. "We never started her, waiting for her to grow and develop. We hoped the wait would be worth it, and it seems to have finally turned out that way. This year we thought so highly of her potential in the spring that we ran her in each of the Triple Crown races for fillies even though she had won only one race leading up to them. She didn't win any of the three, but in August at Saratoga she won an allowance race and we decided to put her into the Alabama."
The Alabama was won by Our Mims, the top 3-year-old filly, but Laurie had staged a tremendous rush from far back—skimming along the inside rail as she did in the Ruffian—to finish third. "I thought she was going to win," said Laurie Galbreath, now 21, who had inspired the filly's name by graduating cum laude from high school. "She just seemed to stop all of a sudden. But her next start, the Delaware Oaks, she won quite easily." Between the Alabama and the Delaware Oaks, Trainer Lou Rondinello equipped Cum Laude with a set of blinkers, and she is now 2 for 2 while wearing them.
Cordero finished the race cloaked in mud—it would have been impossible to identify his silks without scraping him down. To mark the occasion, he presented Laurie Galbreath with the four sets of goggles he had worn to see through the wall of water; he had pushed them up one at a time as they became muddied over.
My Juliet had been entered in the Ruffian in hopes of gaining the Eclipse Award as the outstanding filly or mare in the country. She had indeed been a grand racer for four seasons, earning $548,859 by winning at Ak-Sar-Ben, Aqueduct, Belmont, Churchill Downs, Delaware Park, Detroit, Hawthorne, Keeneland, Keystone, Laurel, Monmouth, Pimlico, Santa Anita, Saratoga and Sportsman's Park. All these victories came after she somehow managed to lose her first start by a head at Fonner Park in Grand Island, Neb., of all places. Last year My Juliet was named the outstanding sprinter in the country, and her record shows that she not only beat Kentucky Derby and Belmont Stakes winner Bold Forbes but Preakness winner Master Derby as well. In her last start before the Ruffian, My Juliet had beaten a field of males in the so-called Michigan Mile (it's actually 1‚⅛ miles) for her first victory in a $100,000 race.
Then came last Friday morning. "She's got a problem with her ankle," said Trainer Gene Euster. "I don't think we're going to start. It's the left front ankle and it has some heat in it." The ankle had been repaired at the end of her 3-year-old season, a screw being implanted in a fractured cannonbone. In 1976 she suffered a chipped bone in her right front ankle. Euster decided to pass the Ruffian and ship My Juliet to her home base at Keystone near Philadelphia. "She's been too good to risk her," he said.
But owner George Weasel Jr. overruled Euster. My Juliet ran mostly on heart, and she was running awkwardly. About 70 yards past the finish line she bobbled and looked as though she were going to fall down.
My Juliet returned to Barn 5 on the Belmont backstretch and on Sunday morning Euster was still furious. "She is hurting bad," he said. "She broke down. It's the same ankle as the one with the screw in it. I had the van ordered to take her back home and then I was told to run her. An owner like that doesn't deserve a horse like My Juliet. She is going to the University of Pennsylvania center for veterinary medicine as soon as we can get her there. I doubt that she will ever run again. I really hope for her sake that she doesn't have to."
Naturally, Cum Laude Laurie now moves near the head of the class. But, unhappily, this year's Ruffian may be best remembered for what befell My Juliet. As was said of the other Juliet, "Affliction is enamour'd of thy parts, And thou art wedded to calamity."