Trainer Richard Ruffles may not have the name recognition that many of the top-flight trainers that compete at Saratoga Casino Hotel do but the veteran conditioner seems to be winning at a clip that is on par with the track’s top dogs. Ruffles is anything but new to harness racing as his duties as a trainer date all the way back to the early 90’s. Unlike the majority of horsepersons involved in harness racing, Ruffles did not come from a “horse racing family.” He actually rode horses as a hobby and took a job working for a vet out in Batavia. At that point, Ruffles bought a standardbred to, as he told me, “have something to play around with a little on the side.” Harness racing wasn’t his career but rather a side hobby as he always held down another job. That all changed around a decade ago when Ruffles decided to make training his full-time gig.
Though he is in the process of relocating to New Berlin, NY, the out-of-towner is currently based in Edmeston in Otsego County where he has operated off a farm of his own. From there, he competes primarily at Tioga Downs, Monticello and here at Saratoga over the course of his season. Racing almost equally at all three tracks, Ruffles seems to thrive in the autumn months at the Spa. With Tioga closed for the season, Ruffles will focus his attention exclusively on Monticello and Saratoga as he does annually around this time of year.
The 59 year old Ruffles has assembled a stable solely comprised of trotters. That’s the direction the veteran conditioner went about a decade ago, figuring that trotters, especially young ones, give you an opportunity to make more money in a lot of ways. The times aren’t as fast and at the lower levels, particularly with younger horses, oftentimes some of the larger stables don’t have horses competing in those classes. Ruffles doesn’t send out Open caliber trotters but he does have a stable of solid, younger high-steppers that have been thriving at the Spa. He acquires many of his trainees via the Blooded Horse Sale which takes place every fall in Ohio while many of his other trotters come via private purchase.
Ruffles’ kicked off his week at the Spa on the right note when his Bullvilleprecious secured a career-best victory on Thursday afternoon. Ruffles bought the sophomore filly this spring and recently added lasix to the three year old who spent much of her summer competing at the fairs before finishing third in the $10,000 Fair Final contested at Monticello last month. After a second-place finish in her first start since the addition of lasix, Bullvilleprecious came from well off the pace before stopping the timer in a lifetime best 2:00.3 on Thursday.
Last fall, Ruffles bought Herbie Hammer at the Ohio sale and the young trotter paid immediate dividends for the veteran conditioner as he not only won his debut for Ruffles while racing at Monticello but then went on to score two wins and a second place finish in four starts at Saratoga late in the 2017 season. Herbie Hammer set his lifetime mark on closing day of the meet when he trotted to a 1:57.3 score in a conditional-claimer, a class where Ruffles has thrived in his local starts this year. Herbie Hammer stepped up in class last weekend off of a fast second-place finish in his previous start and though he didn’t fare as well in his most recent start, there were some other Ruffles trainees who had success on Sunday’s matinee card.
Herbie Hammer was one of four Ruffles trainees that came to town on Sunday and while that one wasn’t a factor in his race, Sarah Gator certainly was. Sarah Gator and Bashful Strike were both acquired from the same connections that had Herbie Hammer previous to his acquisition by Ruffles. Bashful Strike, who competed on Sunday, made her local debut in September and though winless in five races at the Spa, she has hit the board in two of those starts. Sarah Gator, though, has certainly found the winning way at Saratoga and on Sunday, she made yet another trek to the Spa winner’s circle. Competing, as many of Ruffles’ trainees do, in the conditional-claimers, Sarah Gator has been a force. The six year old mare announced her presence with authority when making her local debut in September as she won in 1:57.4 by a resounding seven and a half lengths. The winning has continued for perhaps the current Richard Ruffles stable star as her victory on Sunday was her fourth in five local tries.
Sunday marked the return of young trotter Cinnamon Stick for Ruffles. Cinnamon Stick fits the similar mold as the aforementioned group of high-steppers for the veteran trainer. Ruffles acquired Cinnamon Stick last fall in the closing stages of his two year old campaign and gave the freshman one race before turning him out for the winter. In that start, Cinnamon Stick paid immediate dividends for his new connections as he romped on the lead. As a three year old in ’18, Cinnamon Stick set his lifetime mark here at Saratoga when he recorded an impressive 1:56.4 victory. The sophomore, who Ruffles said may be the fastest of all of his current trainees, returned on Sunday following a two and a half month layoff. He was his race’s favorite but the trip got the best of him on Sunday as the three year old finished fourth in his first start back. When I spoke with Ruffles, as happy as he was to have Cinnamon Stick returning, it was Michigan Ray who seemed to elicit the most positive response from the trainer. Ruffles privately purchased Michigan Ray in early September and his plan was to race him a couple of times before giving him the rest of the year off. That plan quickly changed after Michigan Ray became a winning machine for Ruffles, prevailing three times in his first five starts including a victory in a Thursday afternoon co-feature at the Spa which was contested for a purse of $10,000. Michigan Ray will be at it again this Thursday when he competes in that same class.
Ruffles competed at Saratoga as far back as the early 90’s and when he raced here nearly thirty years ago, his regular driver was Jay Randall. Fast forward to 2018 and Ruffles’ trainees are all still piloted by Randall. “He’s always been my top choice,” Ruffles told me. “He keeps a horse nice and quiet, which is especially important with a trotter. He’s got really good hands for young horses. Jay is a patient driver- he really helps them come along. That’s my guy.” Randall has been the “guy” for a lot of trainers this year as he is enjoying his best season in quite some time. As for Ruffles, he’s in the midst of a year in which he already has earned by the far the biggest purses of his career and has recorded more wins than in any season since 1996. And the year is far from over for Ruffles who has had success late in the season at the Spa for the past few years with his stable of trotters, most of them in the condition-claiming ranks. The Ruffles-Randall combo, which originated almost thirty years ago, has proven to once again be a formidable one in recent seasons at the Spa as the veteran conditioner is enjoying a training average of a sparkling close to .400. He may not be one of the “top dogs” but Richard Ruffles sure has the training average of one as he continues to thrive at the Spa finding his niche with his group of trotters.
Live racing takes place on Thursday and Sunday afternoons with first post times of 12:15pm and on Friday and Saturday evenings beginning at 6:45pm. Until next week, I’m Mike Sardella wishing you the best of luck and we’ll see YOU at the finish line!