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Diaz rides Ruffian into America's living rooms

June 17, 2007|by LARRY YANOS

Jockey Vladimir Diaz enjoys getting his picture taken in the winner's circle, especially when it includes a starring role in a movie.

Diaz - who rides thoroughbreds at racetracks in the Mid-Atlantic region, including Charles Town Races & Slots, throughout the year - had an opportunity to go 'Hollywood' in the spring of 2006 and loved every moment of it.

Diaz - currently among the leading riders at Penn National in Grantville, Pa. - played a major role in the movie about Ruffian.

The made-for-TV movie on one of the greatest thoroughbreds of all time was aired June 9 on ABC.

"I had already known about Ruffian's life," Diaz said. "I purchased a DVD on Ruffian years ago and also read the book - that was a help in preparing for my movie role."

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"Ruffian" is the story of the talented filly of the mid-1970s who is generally acknowledged as the greatest female race horse of all time.

She was unbeaten in her first 10 races, winning by an average margin of more than eight lengths. She was champion 2-year-old filly in 1974 and won the filly Triple Crown in 1975.

The movie touched on her brilliant career, but focused mainly on her tragic demise that came after she suffered a breakdown in a match race against a male rival, Foolish Pleasure, on July 6, 1975, at Belmont Park.

Diaz, a native of Puerto Rico whose cousin Sunday Diaz rides at Charles Town, played the part of Ruffian's jockey, Jacinto Vasquez.

The movie was filmed last March and April at Louisiana Downs and Belmont Park.

"I missed racing but I really enjoyed making the movie," Diaz said. "It was fun. We worked five days a week and it was interesting. I'd like to do some more movies."

Diaz said he "was at the right place at the right time" in securing an opportunity to become a movie star.

"I was riding at Laurel Park one day in 2006 and saw a casting notice for Spanish-speaking riders," he said. "I decided to give the producers a call. Then, they called and flew me down to Louisiana for a screen test."

The rest, as they say, is history.

The film also starred Sam Sheppard as Ruffian's trainer, Frank Whitely.

The Hall of Fame conditioner Whitely, now 92 years old and residing in Camden, S.C., actually trained at Charles Town during the early years of his career.

"He was a good one," said Alkie Darlington, currently the claims clerk at Charles Town. "He knew the game."

Darlington first became acquainted with Whitely some 60 years ago.

"I came to the racetrack in 1948 hoping to become a jockey and I remember Frank Whitely," Darlington said. "He trained for the likes of Mrs. Dorothy N. Lee, Harvey Shaeffer and Raymond Guest and they had some nice horses."

Whitely eventually moved to Maryland and then to New York. He won the 1967 Belmont Stakes with Damascus.

"He and his son both won Belmont Stakes," Darlington said. "Son David won with Coastal in 1979. They upset Spectacular Bid."

Following a few years of race-riding, Darlington became a noted trainer from 1966 to 1980 and still remains in the thoroughbred horse racing industry.

He also hosts a weekly radio talk show on horse racing.

"I was going to have Frank as my guest a few weeks ago but he declined, saying he wasn't feeling up to it," Darlington said.

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