Now that’s more like it. Ruffenuff hadn’t won a single race in Alberta since the summer of 2017 when she wired the field by the easiest two and three-quarters of a length in the Northlands Oaks. Then nearly two years later came Monday’s holiday card’s $50,000 JetSet Handicap at Century Mile. Laying just off the pace set by stablemate C U At Eau Claire, the real Ruffenuff showed up like a guy with a stetson crashing through the swinging doors of a saloon.
Lapping onto the side of C U at Eau Claire - jockey Dane Nelson curled up on her back like a cat on a sofa - Ruffenuff moved to take the lead at the too of the lane and wasn’t about to relinquish it even if you had built a brick wall in her path.
“It was very easy,” said Nelson. “She’s a very classy filly. I tried to rate her as much as I could. Then she really ran fast the last two furlongs.” Ruffenuff won by a comfortable length. C U at Eau Claire finished second. Raider, also trained by Tracy, ran third giving him the 1-2-3 trifecta.
“How’d you do?” said Century Mile’s racing manager Matt Jukich with a big grin as trainer Greg Tracy stepped into the winner’s circle. Ruffenuff’s win laid to rest any doubts about the now five-year-old’s desire and talent. As a two-year-old Ruffenuff was Alberta’s two-year-old champion winning all three of her starts.
She started out her three-year-old campaign the way she finished her electric juvenile campaign winning three more races. But then… Nada.
“It’s been a frustrating two years,” said Ruffenuff’s owner Curtis Landry. “It was nice to see her win again in Alberta.”
So what happened? Glad you asked. First, after her Northlands Oaks romp - which followed a win in the Chariot Chaser - Ruffenuff, who had always exhibited great speed, caught a virus that swept through Tracy’s barn like Sherman’s march through Atlanta.
After her Oaks romp, Ruffenuff ran in the Sonoma in August of 2017 but ‘ran’ is deceiving. It’s like saying the guy who runs last in a marathon ran. Showing little of her usual energy she finished a well-beaten fourth.
The virus, it turns out, was just the start of her problems. She also needed a throat operation to correct a breathing problem. A horse that can’t breathe is like a comedian that can’t tell jokes. There’s nothing funny about either of them.
Last year Landry and Tracy expected a return to form for Ruffenuff. Instead it turned out to be a disaster. In her first scheduled start of 2018 on June 1 Ruffenuff never even got out of the starting gate. She laid down in the gate like a hobo on a park bench and had to be scratched.
“That put us behind everybody,” said Landry. “In her first start after the gate mishap she took the lead in an allowance race but then everybody went past her at the end. She was three or four weeks behind the other aged fillies and mares. We didn’t want to jump her up back into stakes races because she wasn’t fit enough. Instead we wanted to get her confidence back.”
But that was much easier said then done. “We couldn’t get a race for her,” said Tracy. “The allowance races weren’t filling.” It was a full six weeks before Ruffenuff would start again. On July 13 She ran second but was five full lengths behind C U At Eau Claire.
Then it was wait and wait some more. Unraced again for another six weeks, Ruffenuff ran a more credible second to C U At Eau Claire on Sept. 2 defeated this time by just half a length. But, again, there was no allowance races to tackle. This time it was almost a full two months - on Oct. 27 - before she entered a starting gate.
By that time the Alberta racing season was finished. “But you know something? That was maybe a blessing in disguise,” said Landry, who is in his 12th year as an owner and whose father used to run quarterhorses. “While she wasn’t running she was training. Greg wound up working her so much that he was able to teach her how to rate.
“Even though she was winning, as a two- and three-year-old she pretty much had to be on the lead or she couldn’t win. But in the mornings while we waited to find a place to run Greg taught her to relax and sit behind other horses.”
After spending the last two years winter training his stable in Alberta, Tracy decided to go south and run at Sunland Park in New Mexico this past winter. “It’s made a huge difference,” said Tracy, who like Ruffenuff, had a very off year in 2018 - especially for his standards.
“Horses that are able to train and run down south have a big advantage over horses that winter train in Alberta. Not only do they get the advantage of being fitter they also get to train on good surfaces instead of frozen tracks up north. I don’t have a Westana or a Bar None facility to train at,” said Tracy, who has won a more than remarkable 12 of his 28 starts to open the season at Century Mile to open a two-win lead over Tim Rycroft in the trainer standings.
Tracy also has six seconds and four thirds. Ruffenuff raced twice at Sunland. She won her first race there by two and three-quarter lengths - rating perfectly and coming from fifth during the early going to win going away by two and three-quarter lengths and then finished second after getting into some traffic problems.
“It looked to me that her rider that day restrained her a bit too much and she might have gotten to sulking,” said Landry. “At the head of the lane I thought she was going to run dead last.”
“She also may have bounced a bit,” said Tracy. “Her first race was so awesome.” Whatever the case, it seems clear that Ruffenuff, who is a perfect four-for-four going six furlongs, is back.
On a day that was so windy you could have tied a piece of string to an M4 Sherman tank and flown it like a kite, it wasn’t just the win it was also how fast she ran given that after fractions of 21.95 and 44.04 she stopped the timer in 1:08.49. Only one horse has run faster at Century Mile this year and that was Trooper John, who won Monday’s co-featured $50,000 Journal - also at six panels.
Third during the early going behind pace-setters Moon King and Irish Gold, who carved out throat-gasping fractions of 21.33 and 43.29, Trooper John moved willingly for jockey Wilmer Galviz and stopped the teletimer in 1:08.31 to set an Alberta record and win by half a length over Born in a Breeze.
“The most important thing was to get a good start,” said Galviz. “The top pair got off to a big lead but I wasn’t worried. I knew they would come back.”
“To be just .18 seconds slower than the boys and a great horse like Trooper John is very impressive,” said Landry, who bought Ruffenuff - a son of Dialed In out of the Forestry mare Augusta Queen for $47,000 as a yearling in Kentucky.
“When she came into the sales ring I was determined to get her. Her confirmation was just what we were looking for. I probably would have gone to $70,000 or even $80,000 to get her,” Landry said of the mare who looks like a champion is supposed to resemble: wide, big chest, powerful rear-end and perfect legs.
All in all, Ruffenuff looks like she was chiseled out of stone by Michelangelo. “I pick out all of my own horses,” said Landry, who also owns Raider, last year’s three-year-old filly champion, who he bought for $17,000 at the B.C. Yearling Sale.
“Greg and I are a good combination at yearling sales. No horse is perfect so it’s nice to have a trainer there. And Greg is a helluva trainer. He can say ‘Yes’ or ‘No.’ He can say ‘I can deal with that one’ or he can say ‘Stay away.’”
With the win which was worth $28,200, Ruffenuff has gone over $200,000 in career earnings. Then again, it’s quite a trio of fillies and mares Tracy has in his barn. Getting $9,400 for second, C U At Eau Claire, owned by Don Danard, has now won over $300,000 and is also a former Alberta champion, while Raider has banked $242,000.
Getting back to Trooper John the rivalry between he and Born in a Breeze has clearly been cemented. They ran one-two on Monday. They ran one-two in the first race of the year at Century Mile. Then, last year, they ran one-two in both the Spangled Jimmy and the Journal.
Trooper John has won two of those four meetings: the two Journals; Born in a Breeze took the other two.
“We lost the last time Born in a Breeze and Trooper John met but Born in a Breeze was winter-raced while Trooper John was coming off a long layoff. Trooper had more air in him (on Monday),” said Tim Rycroft, who raced Trooper John without blinkers for the first time.
“I thought Trooper John lost focus when he made the lead in his last start. That’s why we took off the blinkers. I said before the race that by taking off the blinkers I was either going to look like a genius or an idiot. This time Born in a Breeze wasn't going past our horse. If they had gone farther I still don’t think Born in a Breeze would have gone by Trooper."
"And I still don’t think Trooper is 100 per cent fit yet,” said Tim, who worked Trooper John, in a blazing :45 4/5 six days before the Journal renewal. “Probably too fast but good horses go fast.” Just like they did on Monday.
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