06/05/2007 11:00PM

'Ruffian' pulls no punches

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INGLEWOOD, Calif. - Despite the fact that the most important men in Ruffian's corner - trainer Frank Whiteley and jockey Jacinto Vasquez - filed suit seeking compensation for the use of their names, the movie "Ruffian," airing Saturday night on ABC, takes great pains to craft a melancholy valentine to the memory of the transcendent champion.

Anyone planning to watch, however, better bring a stout heart and a strong stomach. No punches are pulled. Fans were spared the worst images of Ruffian's breakdown in her 1975 match race against Kentucky Derby winner Foolish Pleasure, primarily because her right foreleg gave way on the distant reaches of the Belmont Park backstretch. Television views suggest the extent of the damage, but for those 50,000 or so in the stands that day, it might as well have happened in Montauk.

The movie version, a production of ESPN Original Entertainment, effectively eliminates any further need for imagination. Thanks to the wonders of computer-generated imagery, "Ruffian" provides what appears to be an agonizingly accurate re-creation of the impact and subsequent compound fracture, not to mention a graphic depiction of the injury's immediate aftermath, courtesy of some inspired horse wrangling.

It probably should not be a surprise that a movie about Ruffian has triggered not only a lawsuit but also bitter criticism for even the slightest divergence from accepted gospel. Ruffian herself is on nearly everyone's short list of the greatest fillies and mares of all time, and rightfully so, since her clock-shattering, 10-for-10 record prior to the match race separated her dramatically from historical precedent. The terrible conclusion of the match cast a pall that spread beyond the cozy borders of horse racing, shocking the broader culture as well.

At the time of Ruffian's death, Frank Whaley was an 11-year-old kid growing up in Syracuse, N.Y. His father played the ponies from time to time, but young Frank was oblivious to the sport. Whether he knew it or not at the time, Whaley was heading toward a career as an actor, which has apparently worked out okay. His work has decorated such iconic films as "Pulp Fiction," "The Doors," and "Swimming With Sharks," as well as a trio of memorable war-related dramas - "Born on the Fourth of July", "A Midnight Clear," and "When Trumpets Fade."

When Whaley read the script for "Ruffian," with the part of Newsday sportswriter Bill Nack in mind, he launched into the kind of research that most good actors consider par for the course. Whaley had never before portrayed a journalist, but the motif was familiar. Much of the Ruffian saga would be seen through Nack's eyes - racing was his beat - just as reporters depicted in movies like "Lawrence of Arabia", "Ghandi," and "The Natural" helped advance the story, and sometimes even played a role.

"To say the very least, Bill was passionate about the subject," Whaley said of Nack, a seven-time Eclipse Award winner. "And in a roundabout way, I think he felt a bit of responsibility, since he was one of the real cogs in the media machinery that helped build up the story of the match race. I thought that was a great place to begin, to get to the emotional crux of the film."

An excellent place, in fact. Laying blame for such a tragedy is a natural coping mechanism. The media has broad shoulders, so let them take their share, although CBS hardly thought its "Battle of the Sexes" would turn into snuff TV. If anything deserves to be held truly accountable, it is the nature of match racing itself, with its unyielding emphasis on head-to-head speed from the drop of the flag. The Thoroughbred racehorse survives on a narrow enough margin as is. Match racing removes any room for error.

If nothing else, the movie helps illustrate why the death of Ruffian continues to be a wound that never heals. For those who witnessed the tragedy, either in person or on television, there lingers a dark abscess of sadness, never far from the surface. Any number of prompts will trip the grim switch - the sight of a horse pulling up lame, an equine ambulance rolling into action, the slightest mention of the term "match race" - sending waves of nausea through an otherwise pleasant day.

Whaley found out just how deep the syndrome of post traumatic Ruffian disorder can run. Long after filming wrapped, her name came up in conversation with a friend.

"It turns out she had her whole room covered in Ruffian posters when she was a kid," Whaley said. "Her father took her to see Ruffian race, and she was actually there on the day of the match. She told me her father was so affected by what happened that he couldn't speak to her the whole day, and that when it happened, half of the people there were screaming and booing. They were upset that the show was interrupted, not aware of the extent of her injuries, while the other half of the crowd was dead silent. At the time, she couldn't understand. Now, of course, she does.

"People like happy endings when it comes to sports movies," Whaley added. "But there's nothing wrong with watching a story about a great champion, and what really happened."

Ruffian deserves no less.