ROLE: Frank Whiteley
DIRECTOR: Yves Simoneau
US PREMIERE: June 4, 2007 on ABC
RUFFIAN is the story
of a racehorse hailed as the greatest thoroughbred filly
of all time. Trained by Frank Whiteley and owned by Mr.
and Mrs. Stuart Janney, Ruffian was named 1974's
champion 2-year-old filly after dominating her
opposition in all five of her starts, including four
graded stakes. In 1975, she had won all five of her
starts before she broke down approximately a
quarter-mile into a 10-furlong match race with Kentucky
Derby winner Foolish Pleasure at Belmont Park.
Christine BELFORD.........Barbara Janney
Ross Parker and Garrett K. Schiff
John Hall, Scripps Howard News Service:
Shepard, who owns a horse farm in Midway, Ky.,
brings a tangible authenticity and a thorough knowledge
of horses to the performance. As such, he easily leads
the film, making some of the rest of the acting seem
pale in comparison... Animal lovers, race fans and
everyone in between should find something compelling, be
it Shepard's superb acting or a glimpse at a painful
slice of horse-racing history 32 years later.
Susan Young, Inside Bay Area:
Galloping documentary 'Ruffian' is a winner... While
Ruffian remains the center of this story, she's upstaged
by a spectacular performance from Pulitzer Prize-winning
playwright and actor Sam Shepard. Shepard plays taciturn
trainer Frank Whitely with such presence that his lack
of dialogue is never noticeable. Shepard conveys all he
needs to in a look or a motion. His real-life
counterpart wasn't known for his gentle nature, and
Shepard keeps Whitely's edge.
Roy Lang III, The Shreveport Times:
The star of this show is Sam Shepard, who plays
Ruffian's trainer Frank Whiteley, a biting horseman who
eventually becomes emotionally attached to Ruffian and
her incredible journey to martyrdom. "Sam Shepard, his
love for horses came through," Film producer Adelson
said. "He raises them and spends most of his time with
horses. That love, for me, transcended the screen. The
believability comes through. I believe it because that's
who he is. I think it's one of his best performances and
he's truly had a wonderful career."
Bill Finley, Espn.com:
Sam Shepard, himself a passionate racing fan, steals the
movie as the taciturn trainer Frank Whiteley. Shepard is
phenomenal and captures the essence of a gruff man who
cared about little in life but his horses and winning
races. That Shepard understands the sport is no doubt
among the reasons why he was able to get Whiteley down
David Hinckley, NY Daily News:
The main reason to watch "Ruffian," however, is Sam
Shepard, who turns Whiteley into a fascinating
monomaniac, in the best sense of the term. He lives to
train horses. Everything else is an irritation, major or
minor. Through him, we get our understanding of how
Ruffian got to Belmont that day. Like the horse herself,
that's worth knowing.
Tom Jicha, South Florida Sun-Sentinel:
The all-sports cable network (ESPN) has a spotty
record with its original films, but this one is among
its best efforts... Sam Shepard stands out as the
off-putting Whiteley, although if racing veterans are to
be believed, Shepard makes Whiteley much more pleasant
than he was. Frank Whaley is overshadowed as Nack.
Ray Richmond, The Hollywood Reporter:
"Ruffian" blends all of the usual
heart-in-your-throat racing action with a couple of
vivid performances from the ever-soulful Sam Shepard and
the underrated Frank Whaley, all shot with great care
and dexterity by director Yves Simoneau... Shepard is
his typically quiet and introspective self, but that
persona works marvelously in this context. He
communicates more with a glance than many are able to
with pages of script."
Ted Cox, Daily Herald:
“Ruffian” is a lovely TV update of classic movie
genre: the horse-racing film.... “Ruffian” might look
like family viewing for most of its two-hour running
time, but that broken-leg scene is apt to rattle kids
every bit as much as the death of Bambi’s mother. So
consider yourself warned. That said, this is still a
fine sports flick, carried by Sam Shepard’s taciturn
performance as trainer Frank Whitely. It’s the sort of
role actors love to play, especially actors who are also
maverick playwrights, in that the dialogue is so
bare-bones and acerbic the charm is all in the
inflections and the delivery.
Kevin McDonough, South Coast Today:
Sam Shepard is well cast as famous horse trainer Frank
Whiteley, a taciturn and not altogether nice man who
doted on Ruffian but could not even bring himself to say
"Merry Christmas" to his stable hands.
Shepard, a horse racing follower and owner, has
hard-boot, old-school trainer Whiteley down cold.
Tom Dorsey, The Courier-Journal:
The role looks tailored to fit Shepard's image as a
man of few words. Even if you don't like horse movies,
it's always a pleasure to watch Shepard work.
Mel Bracht, The Oklahoman:
Filmed in a six-week period last year at Louisiana Downs
in Bossier City, La., the entertaining movie brings to
life the racing world of the 1970s. Sam Shepard turns in
a strong performance as Ruffian's ornery trainer Frank
David, Martindale, Fort Worth Star-
Sam Shepard is quite good as stoic trainer Frank
Whiteley, and Frank Whaley is a hoot as colorful
sportswriter Bill Nack.
Neil Best, Newsday:
Rags to Riches is not close to the phenomenon
Ruffian was in 1974 and '75, a feeling nicely captured
in the dramatization that stars Sam Shepard as trainer
Frank Whiteley. The movie has other things going for it,
notably racing scenes more realistic than those in the
2003 film "Seabiscuit," especially a powerful
reenactment of the fateful match race itself... Whiteley
comes off sympathetically in the movie, well served by
Film production began on March 20, 2006
in Shreveport, Lousianna. The photo below shows
Sam with his stand-in.
March 3, 2006: Sam Shepard and Frank Whaley have
been cast in the ESPN original telefilm "Ruffian." The
horse racing drama is set to premiere on ABC in June
2007, in conjunction with ABC's coverage of the Belmont
Stakes, after which it will air on ESPN and other Walt
Disney Co.-owned outlets. Shepard plays trainer Franky
Whiteley, who guides a filly racehorse through the
1970s. Whaley will play sportswriter Bill Nack.
Production on the project is expected to begin March 20
in Shreveport, La. Orly Adelson is executive producing
"Ruffian," penned by Jim Burnstein, Garrett K. Schiff
and Ross Parker. Yves Simoneau (USA Network's "The 4400"
and FX's "44 Minutes") is on board to direct. Adelson
and her Orly Adelson Prods. have done a number of
original series and telepics for ESPN, including
"CodeBreakers" and the series "Playmakers."
History of the
Ten starts may not seem like much of a career, but Ruffian
dominated her sport in a way that put the filly in a class by herself. As a
two-year-old, she won each of her first five starts by an average of over
seven-and-a-half lengths before her season was cut short by a hairline fracture
in her right rear leg. Over the next year, she cruised to another five victories
before facing her biggest challenge and, tragically, her downfall. On July 6,
1975, Ruffian was set for a match race at Belmont Park against Foolish Pleasure,
a colt who had won the Kentucky Derby just two months earlier. It was supposed
to be the equine battle of the sexes. But there was no Billie Jean King-like
victory for Ruffian. In front of a national television audience of 18 million,
she stumbled less than a half-mile into the race, shattering both sesamoid bones
in her right foreleg. She continued to run on three legs, driving her injured
ankle into the ground before she was pulled to a stop and, eventually, led into
an ambulance and brought back to her barn. A team of doctors worked through the
night, performing surgery for 3 1/2 hours. But when Ruffian came out of
anesthesia, she kicked and bucked until her cast was mangled. The doctors had no
choice but to euthanize the filly. Ruffian was buried in the infield at Belmont.
May 29, 2006 -
Charleston Business Journal:
"There’s a particular kind of individual in the
horse-racing game that’s known as a ‘hard boot
trainer,'" Shepard explained. "It’s kind of considered
old-fashioned now, I guess, but they were people who
swore by clean water and oats and bringing the horse
along as naturally as possible. For example, Ruffian
never had shoes on until she got to the racetrack for
the first time. The other thing is, trainers in
Whitely’s day were very hands-on. Today, trainers have
these huge operations, relying on assistants to work
with 250 horses at a time. These old timers would have,
at most, 20 horses in their barns."
When Whitley was asked
whether he thought Shepard could adequately convey his orneriness,
didn’t miss a beat.
“He’ll have his work cut out for him,” he said with a smile slowly spreading
across his face.
“Hey, I know ornery too,” Shepard said as he laughed at the anecdote.
Interestingly, the actor didn’t reach out to Whitely as he prepared for the
role. "Frankly, I had heard that he wasn’t feeling too well, and I didn’t want
to bother him," Shepard told the Business Journal.
"Instead, I looked at televisions interviews he
had given and talked to people who knew him."
And what portrait emerged?
Whitely was a tough guy who knew everything there was to know about the
horses in his barn: When they were sound, when they were well, and when they
might be a little off their game. The hype … Frank shied away from that.
All that publicity about the women’s liberation movement, he didn’t
want to get involved with it. Nowadays, these modern trainers are
showboaters. They embrace the press. Frank Whitely? He disliked the press
under the best of circumstances."
Shepard was fresh from filming the final scene at Belmont when he talked to the
"One of the interesting aspects of that night was that Frank never broke down,
through all this," Shepard said. "He
may have felt all kinds of emotions, but outwardly he was stoic, and from
what I gather, he held the whole thing together. He understood that the
horse-racing game comes with risks. He understood it and understood it
2006: ESPN wraps up filming of Ruffian
A crew from ESPN's Original Entertainment division spent
four days at Belmont Park this week wrapping up the
filming of "Ruffian," a movie depicting the career of
the multiple champion filly who fatally broke down in a
1975 match race against that year's Kentucky Derby
winner, Foolish Pleasure.
The film, which features actor Sam Sheppard as Ruffian's
trainer, Frank Whiteley Jr., will debut June 4, 2007 on
ABC and air the next night on ESPN. The air date is to
coincide with next year's Belmont Stakes, scheduled for
June 9. ABC televises the Belmont.
Ron Semiao, senior vice president of ESPN's Original
Entertainment division, came up with the idea for a
movie on Ruffian because, he said, "it is a good story
that will move an audience. We as a network are very
much involved in the sport of horse racing, and we felt
this was a good movie to do, a good story that will
resonate with an audience."
Ruffian won the first 10 starts of her career and was
crowned champion 2-year-old filly of 1974 and champion
3-year-old filly of 1975. The match race with Foolish
Pleasure brought a crowd of 50,764 to Belmont and was
covered live on national television.
"There was an aura about her that hasn't been equaled
since," said Yves Simoneau, who directed the film.
The bulk of the racing scenes were shot at Louisiana
Downs because, Semiao said, "we needed a location that
somewhat resembled what the climate was when the story
The scenes being filmed Thursday at Belmont were of
Ruffian's first workout as a 2-year-old after she
arrived from Camden, S.C. The funeral for Ruffian, who
is buried in the infield at Belmont, was also shot.
Actor Frank Whaley portrays Eclipse Award-winning
sportswriter Bill Nack, who chronicled Ruffian's career
for Newsday and served as a consultant on this film.
"They've done everything conceivable to make the setting
and scenery as accurate as possible," said Nack. "They
even used $100 bills that were vintage 1975."