When I was a kid, I loved reading books about horses: The Black Stallion, Black Beauty, Misty of Chincoteague, and National Velvet. Only some of these books talked about horse-racing, but Velvet’s stable of paper racehorses, lovingly cared for, made an impression on me, and I took an interest in horse-racing as a result.
I cut photos and articles about racehorses out of the paper and was always eager to watch the three legs of the Triple Crown on TV. It was the 70s, a decade in which three of the eleven Triple Crown winners won their titles, so there were great horses to follow and exciting races to watch.
But the horse I remember best is not Seattle Slew, Affirmed, or even Secretariat.
The horse I remember is the filly Ruffian, who was a Triple Tiara winner (the filly’s version of the Triple Crown). She was the U.S. Champion 2-Yr-Old-Filly in 1974 and the U.S. Champion 3-Yr-Old-Filly in 1975.
She was big, beautiful, nearly black, and considered unstoppable.
Ruffian won all her races, meeting or breaking track records with ease. Her success was so great that a match race was arranged with the winner of the 1975 Kentucky Derby, Foolish Pleasure. I watched on July 6th with millions of Americans as Ruffian, who was in the lead, faltered, slowly pulled up, and reared. She had shattered one of her front legs, but her jockey had a hard time stopping her. She wanted to run. She wanted to win.
Despite a night of surgery that was deemed successful, they had to put Ruffian down. As soon as she woke up, she kicked and thrashed, destroying the doctors’ hard work and any hope that they might save her leg.
When Mom told me the news that day, I was stunned, even though I knew what happened to horses with broken legs. Hadn’t I read all about it in my horse books? I felt a personal loss, as if she had been my horse instead of a nationally known racehorse I’d never even seen in person. I was 10.
Given my love of horses, it’s probably natural that I think of the creative part of me as a sleek and shining racehorse, a thoroughbred. When I’m in top form, I can write fast. I can hit 2000 words an hour without any strain. I can even hold that pace for an extended period, writing 10,000 words in the course of five or six hours in a single day, and I get faster with each hour I spend writing.
But I can’t keep it up. I can’t write at all for two or three days after that kind of marathon. I grind my teeth in frustration, thinking of the time I’m losing, but unable to do anything about it. I’ve pushed too hard and worn myself out.
As a writer, I am a thoroughbred. I write fast like a good horse runs fast. But they don’t run all day long. They take breaks, eat right, get their rest, and train as well.
Ruffian had the heart of a thoroughbred. She wanted to run; she wanted to win. But she didn’t know when to stop pushing.
I have the heart of a writer. I want to write. I want to finish my book. Many books, in fact.
But I can’t write all day long any more than Ruffian could run all day long. I need to take breaks.
I need to stop pushing before I break my leg.