The tale of Ruggles Ferry, racehorse

Beth KinnaneOur Town Stories, West Knoxville

The first Saturday in May is quickly upon us, and with that comes the crowning of a new king – of the Kentucky Derby. It’s Derby week, and my mind is not here in Knoxville, it’s in my old Kentucky home, wishing I was on the backstretch at Churchill Downs in the early morning hours leading up to the Run for the Roses.

This year the racing world is celebrating the 50th anniversary of Secretariat’s record setting Triple Crown in 1973. And I’m still mad I never got to see Big Red in person before his death in 1989. During Derby week 25 years ago, I was part of the 20th anniversary celebration for 1978 Triple Crown winner, Affirmed. At the time I worked for Cromwell Advertising, a subsidiary of Jonabell Farm, where Affirmed stood for the last decade of his stud career.

Ruggles Ferry’s entry in the Twin Spires Stakes at Churchill Downs.

There were times I had to pinch myself. I could, within reason, go see the last horse to win the Triple Crown (until American Pharoah broke the spell in 2015) pretty much whenever I wanted to. Some folks asked why didn’t we wait until the 25th anniversary. Quite simply, that was a big gamble that the horse would be around to turn 28 (he wasn’t).

My journey to Kentucky in 1996 was in no small part boosted by my years working at The Knoxville Journal. To be sure, I was not a sports reporter. I moved around the rest of the newsroom wherever they would tolerate me. But I owe a forever debt of gratitude to managing editor Larry Aldridge and sports editor Ray Glier for indulging my antics whenever I asked to get press passes for Keeneland, the Breeders’ Cup or the Kentucky Derby.

In retrospect, I should be thankful that horse racing had been cut from the Journal’s sports budget, otherwise Ben Byrd would likely have gotten the call to head to Louisville, not me. As it was, I was going anyway; I might as well cover it. They even ran my stories.

Even when there wasn’t some specific racing event for me to try to go cover, I went out of my way to find some thoroughbred racing angle to cover here in Knox County. Which, dear reader, was no mean feat. I interviewed real estate titan Pat Wood, founder of Wood Properties and Woodhaven Farm. Wood bred a brilliantly fast filly named Pine Tree Lane who won over $1 million in purse money, multiple graded stakes, and had a 2nd place finish in the Breeders’ Cup Sprint-G1. She was sold as an unnamed yearling for $22,000. Wood swore he’d never sell any progeny of Apalachee again.

Frank Preston (photo credit, Knoxville News Sentinel April, 24, 1975)

By the time I got to the Journal, John L. Greer was no longer around for me to interview about the glory days of Foolish Pleasure (see my story about Knoxville’s Derby winner here). But one of his old buddies was, and I got to thinking about him the other day. That man was Frank Preston, co-founder of the Knoxville Beverage Company.

I interviewed Preston in his Sequoyah Hills home shortly before his death in 1990. He was the man who suggested to Greer he should look up a trainer named Moody Jolley, who quickly put Greer onto a blistering fast two-year-old colt named Ridan, co-champion of 1961.

Preston told me at the time “there’s nothing I’d rather do than work with horses. They are the great love of my life.” Among his thoroughbreds, his best was a rugged gray colt named Ruggles Ferry (I was researching the actual ferry, that’s why you’re reading this now). Ruggles was born in 1972, the same crop as Foolish Pleasure. He was Preston’s pride and joy, not just because he owned him, but because he bred him.  He was sired by Drone (a son of Secretariat’s half-brother, Sir Gaylord) out of the mare Trotta Sue, and was conceived at the legendary Claiborne Farm in Paris, Kentucky.

Headline from Knoxville News Sentinel 1974

Ruggles Ferry raced 28 times over four years, winning five times with six placings, eight shows and earning over $75,000. He placed in several graded stakes events. One thing he never did, though, was tango with Foolish Pleasure, though he did acquit himself well against Master Derby and Avatar, the horses that beat Foolish Pleasure in the Preakness and Belmont, respectively.

Preston was understandably proud of Ruggles Ferry’s performance on the Derby undercard back in 1975. Ruggles blew away a division of the Twin Spires stakes by seven lengths. He told me with absolute zeal “if Ruggles had had better ankles, I’m telling you, he’d have beat the socks off of Foolish Pleasure.”

Ruggles Ferry received almost as much press as Foolish Pleasure in the Knoxville papers back in the day. Unfortunately, thus far, I haven’t been able to find a picture of him.

Beth Kinnane is the community news editor for


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