Poem introduction

“When Ruffian was first displayed for public consideration on May 22nd, 1974 her purpose on earth quickly became apparent... to reveal, once and for all, how big, how beautiful, and how fast a thoroughbred racehorse could be, and how the combination could be deadly when taken to Ruffian’s physical extremes. Champions: the lives, times and past performances of America’s greatest thoroughbreds (2005)

Ruffian

They call it the look of eagles, that gaze beyond the skies.

You were marked from the start with your white star

and the band just above your left hind hoof

with three dots, one for each year on this earth.

You were drawn and shaded in with charcoal

but it is unlucky to call a racehorse “black”.

On your gravestone you are dark brown or bay.

 

This is not how you were supposed to go or when

although all you knew was how to run

and even when your leg had snapped, you ran

and ran and ran, your heart stronger than the fractured

limb which splintered like wood in the Belmont dirt.

Your jockey simply couldn’t pull you up although, God, he tried.

If any horse could have outrun death, my money

would have been on your dark head and you eyeballed

each other for a stretch, Foolish Pleasure running far ahead

in a race that would never really count.

 

You were buried close to where you finally stumbled to a halt,

your ebony nose pointed towards the finish line

 

in the infield at Belmont Park. You would never leave the track.

The evening turned as dark as your coat. As champions are,

you were buried whole, a huge, white shrouded mangled thing

where once a living horse had been, one who could outrun almost

                                                                                                                       everything

 No horse on earth could live with you, even from the first

few strides: every race run from the front, wire to wire.

 

A solitary red rose for inside your grave. It fell beside your head

before the ground filled up with soil again and lawn looked pristine.

It covered the white-shrouded beauty, still wearing her red,

embroidered blankets, perfectly smoothed. It still mattered

that you were immaculately turned out under the floodlight

for the final time. No-one wanted to leave you, alone.      Farewell,

fierce girl.


from Not in this World (Bloodaxe, 2015), © Tracey Herd 2015, used by permission of the author and the publisher

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