ABC has achieved almost legendary status as a perennial also-ran in the network television race over the past couple of decades. But the network couldn’t have scripted a better release date for its made-for-television movie about a true legend — a filly who was not only NEVER an also-ran but who, in fact, never trailed in a race until the day she stopped running forever.

“Ruffian” will debut Saturday at 8 p.m., and, although the biopic has been in the works for months, ABC — which dominated the network ratings when Ruffian blazed onto the American racing scene in the mid-1970’s — finally got a little racing luck in placing the movie where it landed on the schedule.

The idea for the network’s executives at the conception of “Ruffian” was probably two-fold — to capitalize on the success of a recent horse racing hit, 2003’s “Seabiscuit”, and on last year’s national outpouring of support for Barbaro, a colt, who, like Ruffian, was a sports icon in life but who achieved legendary status after a fatal injury short-circuited an undefeated career.

Then, as the icing on the cake, trainer Todd Pletcher — who strikes me as a “Desperate Housewives” fans, anyway — revived the “Battle of the Sexes” scenario that was ultimately Ruffian’s downfall when he entered his unbeaten filly Rags to Riches in Saturday’s Belmont Stakes.

Like Ruffian, Rags to Riches will be untested when she steps onto the same Belmont Park racing surface where Ruffian’s career — and, for all practical purposes, her life — ended in the summer of 1975. With a victory Saturday in a mile and one-half test that hasn’t been won by a filly in 102 years, Rags to Riches can take a giant step toward becoming a racing immortal herself and in the process do something even Ruffian couldn’t.

For those who weren’t around, or for those who were there and simply didn’t care, the 1970’s were arguably the 10 greatest years ever for horse racing in the United States. The decade began with a victory by Canonero II — a Seabiscuit-like underdog from South America — in the 1971 Kentucky Derby and Preakness, and two years later, Secretariat became America’s first Triple Crown winner in 25 years with a 31-length victory in the Belmont Stakes.

A charismatic chestnut with the kind of star power horse racing badly needed at the time, Secretariat was so popular that he was named Sports Illustrated Athlete of the Year in 1973, and he was the first of three Triple Crown winners in the decade, joining Seattle Slew — who was undefeated after his sweep in 1977 — and Affirmed — whose rivalry with Alydar (the runner-up in the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont Stakes) in 1978 grabbed national headlines and whose sweep of the Triple Crown hasn’t been duplicated in the 29 years since.

But at a time when racing superstars roamed the earth, Ruffian was in a class of her own, largely because in the 1970’s American females were starting to spread their wings. Helen Reddy’s hit “I Am Woman (Hear Me Roar)” was the anthem for women everywhere in an era when Title 9 finally gave female athletes the same rights as their male counterparts and in a decade that featured Billy Jean King’s victory over Bobby Riggs (the ultimate male chauvinist) in another “Battle of the Sexes” — this time on a tennis court in Houston in 1973 — and ended with the ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment in 1979.

So, considering the climate of the times, a showdown between Ruffian — who was unbeaten and untested and who had never trailed at any point in 10 career races — and 1975 Kentucky Derby winner Foolish Pleasure seemed a perfectly natural next step. Women everywhere and — although they tried not to advertise it for fear of being labeled traitors to their sex — more than a few men saw Ruffian as a standout, while racing traditionalists and disciples of Riggs held fast to the concept that, in tests of speed and strength at least, males were always superior to females.

The issue was to be settled on July 7, 1975, at the classic American racing distance of a mile and one-quarter. What is still the last match race between prominent thoroughbreds was, to that point, the sports highlight of a summer that ended with a classic world series between the Boston Red Sox and the Cincinnati Reds and of a year that, before it was over, saw the debut of “Saturday Night Live” and the marriage of Bill and Hilary Clinton (which, decades later, evolved into its own “Battle of the Sexes”).

Ruffian’s trainer was future Hall of Famer Frank Whiteley, one of the giants of the American turf at the time and a guy who neither liked nor trusted the press. With his superstar in the midst of a media storm, he kept the writers and the cameras at a little more than arm’s length, making their jobs as tough as he possibly could while he trained his unbeaten filly for a race that he had misgivings about from the start.

Sam Shepard will play Whiteley in the movie, and he got into the role so completely that he reportedly mistook archival footage of the trainer for movie footage of himself during the production. Ruffian’s emergence from a regally-bred but unknown filly into a superstar is largely seen through his eyes, and his reactions to her talent and to the triumphs and ultimate tragedy of her career provide much of the film’s drama.

Unlike Barbaro, who fractured his right hind leg soon after the start of the 2006 Preakness and who was in the prayers of the nation during an eight-month battle for survival that ended with his death in January of this year, Ruffian shattered her right foreleg while racing at full speed in a head-to-head battle down with Foolish Pleasure down the Belmont Park backstretch.

While Edgar Prado was able to pull Barbaro up quickly and thus prevent even more severe damage, it took Ruffian’s jockey, Jacinto Vasquez, an estimated 50 yards to finally get her stopped and to dismount. Even with her leg in pieces, she kept trying to chase down Foolish Pleasure, and the competitive fire that fueled her greatness ultimately became her downfall.

In an age when veterinary science was light years behind what it is today, a team of doctors performed emergency surgery on Ruffian later in the day. But, where Barbaro was a perfect patient and probably only survived as long as he did because of his temperament, Ruffian awoke from the anesthesia and immediately began thrashing around, ruining the efforts of her surgeon and causing even more catastrophic damage to her leg. She was euthanized that night.

Ruffian was buried near the finish line at Belmont Park, her nose pointed toward the finish line. Oldtimers will tell you, “She died on the lead”.

Like Secretariat, Ruffian’s greatness was recognized in almost human terms. When Sports Illustrated ranked its the top 100 female athletes of the 20th century, she was 53rd on the list.

With Saturday’s movie, ABC will try to revive the Ruffian legend for a new generation of racing fans, many of whom probably wouldn’t have given the sport a passing glance without the drama of Barbaro’s battle for surival last year. As a lifelong horse lover and a racing writer for more than 25 years whose career had barely begun the year Ruffian’s ended, I’m looking forward to seeing if the small screen can do justice to a filly who was bigger than life.

This Week's Circulars