05/23/2008 12:00AM

Defending Saez and recalling Ruffian


"The kid didn't do anything wrong," are the words of Hall of Fame jockey Jacinto Vasquez. He was referring to comments about jockey Gabriel Saez's professionalism astride Eight Belles when she broke down after finishing second in the Kentucky Derby.

Vasquez knows what it means to be on an ill-fated horse, as he rode the epic filly Ruffian some 33 years ago in her fatal encounter with the champion colt Foolish Pleasure.

"These things happen," Vasquez said. "Ruffian was a sound filly, and there was no reason anyone could offer why she broke down. Not before the race, not after the race."

Vasquez, a resident of Ocala, Fla., has settled down to part-time work with plenty of time on the golf course. The 64-year-old has not ridden professionally since the Keeneland fall meet of 1996. During his years on the racetrack, he rode many of the best horses of his era and for the elite trainers of the 20th century: Frank Whiteley Jr., Eddie Neloy, Mack Miller, P.J. Johnson, John Nerud, Moody Jolly and his son LeRoy, and a host of others.

"I get on five or six horses a day during the training season," Vasquez said.

Currently, he is working with pin-hooker Ricky Lappala.

Vasquez is no wallflower. He says what he means, and he means what he says.

"I think - make that I am sure - tracks today are too hard and fast," he said. "They are especially souped up on big days. Why? I don't know. In my time if you ran six furlongs in 10 and change at Belmont, that was a good lick. Now, they go down there in eight and change. Too fast!"

Vasquez, on the matter of medication and drug use, recalls that there used to be more use of home remedies and less of pharmaceuticals.

"Ice and hosing was the way you took care of a horse," he said. "They had more puffy ankles than today, because the tracks were deeper."

Vasquez then added that better a puffy ankle than a broken bone.

He has not made up his mind about synthetic tracks, as he thinks it may help with bone problems but impact soft tissue.

"I have heard that synthetic tracks develop different muscles," he said. "I don't know. Other than the Ocala Breeders' track, I have not had any experience on synthetic tracks. I will tell you that once the OBS got the cushion right, I have not heard any complaints."

Vasquez has a special place in his memory bank for the late Frank Whiteley Jr. - the man who trained the brilliant Ruffian as well as the champion colt Damascus.

"Ruffian arrived at the Whiteley barn in the spring of 1974," Vasquez recalled. "She was a lot to handle from the beginning. Barclay Tagg - he galloped horses for Frank - wanted no part of her in the mornings."

Vasquez was called to work the filly, and when she began to impress him he asked Whiteley what her name was, and Whiteley replied that he would know in due time. The more Vasquez inquired, the more Whiteley put him off.

Whiteley finally let it be known that her name was Lady Portia. Lady Portia continued to dazzle in her workouts, and when she was entered to race the word was everywhere that she was a stone runner.

"Woody Stephens had a horse in that day," said Vasquez, "and she was second choice to Lady Portia, who was odds-on. Woody's horse beat her easily. Ruffian's look-alike Lady Portia finished fourth."

A short time later, the real Ruffian was entered. Stephens passed close to Whiteley in the paddock and made a couple of wisecracks; they were not close friends.

Recalled Vasquez: "I was standing with Frank, and Woody comes by and says, trying to rib Frank, something like I beat your odds-on filly last time, and this filly of mine is even better. Whiteley looked at Stephens and said, 'Woody, get a real good look at my filly's rear end, because the next time you see it, it will be going out of sight.'"

That was Ruffian's debut. Sent off at 4-1, the dark bay or brown filly carried Vasquez to a 15-length victory.

Vasquez has no problem with racing fillies against the males.

"It's the class of the horse," he said.

Asked if it was a difficult choice picking Ruffian to ride rather than Foolish Pleasure, Vasquez did not hesitate in saying that if the awful accident had not happened, she would have won. She was as good as a horse can be.

"I think today's horses start off every bit as sound as they were in my time, but!" he said.

He then cited a lack of preparation as being the principal factor in today's problems of unsoundness.

"Not enough bottom," he said. "If you want to do it right, it takes 130 days for a horse to go through his physical and mental training to be ready to go to the track. Now it's hurry, hurry, hurry. Too many young horses are not ready physically or mentally when they get to the races. Just watch 2-year-olds at Belmont in the morning, you will see what I mean."

On the matter of whips, Vasquez again pulls no punches.

"The whip helped me with my balance," he said. "If you think jocks are whipping too much today, how about the jocks of my time - Steve Brooks, Ted Atkinson, [Manny] Ycaza, and the rest? Sure, some jocks use the whips too much, but if they wrap up, some steward is going to call them in and give 'em hell for not trying to make the superfecta finish. Good jocks know when and when not to use the whip. Today's jocks are mostly gentlemen. They lack the killer-instinct. In my day, try and sneak through on the rail and you were liable to be in the infield."

After a dozen years of retirement, the lean facial lines, culminations of diet and stress, are gone; they've been replaced with round contours that reflect Vasquez's Panamanian heritage. The belt, too, has added a notch. In these lazy days of summer, Vasquez will look at yearlings, gallop a horse or two, play golf with his buddies, and seek ideas for his Internet site.