Ribot: Tesio's Crowning Glory

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Ribot at Darby Dan Farm in 1960 | Keeneland Library/Meadors Collection

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We all need a bit of inspiration now and then. Currently we need to look no farther than to yesterday's birthday boy, the great Ribot (GB) (Tenerani {Ity}) who was born 70 years ago, on Feb. 27, 1952 at the English National Stud in Dorset. In his early days, Ribot was dismissively referred to as 'Il Piccolo' ('The Little One') by his breeder Federico Tesio, who thought so little of him that he did not enter him for the Derby Italiano, a race with whose demands he was more than familiar, having won it 22 times. Undaunted, Ribot went on to show such utter dominance that within three years he had a different nickname, the adoring Italian public referring to him simply as 'Il Cavallo Super' ('The Super Horse'). With the benefit of hindsight and in the cold light of day, we can comfortably place Ribot in the very top drawer of the international pantheon, vying with Sea-Bird (Fr) and Secretariat for the title of Horse of the Century.

The sadness of Ribot's majesty is that although he turned out to be the crowning glory of the life of Federico Tesio, one of the greatest racing men the world has ever known, Signor Tesio never knew it as he died in May 1954, only a matter of weeks before Ribot made his debut, without being aware just what a paragon he had produced.

Tesio would, of course, still count as the greatest owner/breeder in history (or, as he was once famously described, “the only genius ever to operate in the breeding world”) even without Ribot. He had already bred and raced numerous legendary thoroughbreds including Nearco (Ity) (Pharos {GB}), the unbeaten winner of 14 races including both the Derby Italiano and Grand Prix de Paris in 1938. As Nearco's sons included Nasrullah (Ire), Nearctic (Can) and Royal Charger (GB), without his 18% stakes-winners-to-foals stud career we would have had no Bold Ruler, Northern Dancer (Can) or Sunday Silence.

Another of Tesio star pupils was the 17-time winner Tenerani (Ity) (Bellini {Ity}) who swept the board of Italy's big races as a 3-year-old in 1947 before racing internationally the following year, defeating the subsequent St Leger winner Black Tarquin (Rhodes Scholar {GB}) in the Queen Elizabeth S. (now King George VI And Queen Elizabeth S.) at Ascot before lowering the colours of the Ascot Gold Cup winner Arbar (Fr) (Djebel {Fr}) in the Goodwood Cup. Tenerani was subsequently secured by the English National Stud on a three-year lease to stand at Gillingham in Dorset (which was then the site of the National Stud) alongside its homebred 1942 2000 Guineas winner Big Game (GB) (Bahram {Ire}), who had been Champion Sire of Great Britain and Ireland in 1948. Tesio naturally sent Tenerani some mares while he was in England. These included Ribot's dam Romanella (Ity) (El Greco {Ity}) who visited him in both 1951 and '52. Ribot, consequently, was both conceived and foaled in England, but that should not prevent us from hailing him as the ultimate Italian Thoroughbred.

So steeped in the bloodlines of Tesio's stud Razza Dormello-Olgiata was Ribot that six of his eight great-grandparents had been bred by the great man, the only exceptions being the grandsires of his dam Romanella, i.e. Lord Derby's 1924 Champion S. winner Pharos (GB) (Phalaris {GB}) and Sir John Robinson's 1923 Derby winner Papyrus (GB) (Tracery).

Signor Tesio having died, Ribot, under the care of trainer Ugo Penco, made his debut in the ownership of Tesio's widow Lydia and his long-term business partner Marchese Mario Incisa della Rochetta. He won his first race, the Premio Tramuschio over 1000m at San Siro, and then kept on winning. Although undefeated at two, he didn't do enough in his first season to be regarded as a great horse. His win in Italy's top juvenile race, the Gran Criterium over 1500m at San Siro, was not particularly impressive, but his connections learned a valuable lesson that day. His regular jockey Enrico Camici brought him from the rear and he only just got to the front in time. Thereafter, Camici rode him prominently in every race, and he never had to put him under serious pressure again.

Ribot made a winning resumption as a 3-year-old by taking the Premio Pisa by six lengths before winning the Premio Emanuele Filiberto at San Siro by 10 lengths. He hadn't been entered for Italy's Classics so was contesting lesser races, but his form was rock-solid. For example, he beat his paternal half-brother Derain (Ity) by 10 lengths in the Premio Besana over 2400m at San Siro and then Derain won the St Leger Italiano two weeks later. At the start of October, Ribot and his entourage headed to Paris for the Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe, which he won comfortably by three lengths. On his return to Italy, he took the Gran Premio del Jockey-Club over 2400m at San Siro by 15 lengths, bringing a triumphal season to a close and taking his record to nine wins from nine starts.

Ribot's 4-year-old season was even better. His seven races yielded seven easy wins, including victories in the premier weight-for-age race of Italy (the Gran Premio di Milano over 3000m), of Great Britain (the King George VI And Queen Elizabeth S. over 12 furlongs) and of France (the Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe over 2400m). He won the latter race even more emphatically than he had done the previous year, cruising home by a wide margin which the judge gave as six lengths but which most observers thought was considerably more than that. At the end of the season, he became one of only a handful of horses in history ever to be given a Timeform rating (142) in excess of the theoretical 10-stone, 140-pound mark of a true champion. Eventually, the millennium ended with him being rated by Tony Morris and John Randall in A Century of Champions as the third-best horse of the 20th century, behind only Sea-Bird and Secretariat. As those two never raced beyond the age of three and thus never won a weight-for-age race without the benefit of a weight allowance, Ribot can arguably be regarded as the best horse in absolute terms.

Ribot began his stud career as a 5-year-old in 1957, the undefeated winner of 16 races and universally regarded as a world champion. He spent his first season at Lord Derby's Woodlands Stud in Newmarket alongside Hyperion (GB) (Gainsborough {GB}) and Alycidon (GB) (Donatello II {Fr}), his services having been secured by a one-year lease. He then went back to Italy, where he spent three seasons at Dormello. In 1959, a deal was struck, at a figure of $1,350,000, with John Galbreath of Darby Dan Stud in the USA which would see him stand in Kentucky for five years, 1961 to '65 inclusive.

However, once Ribot was in the States, complications began to arise because of his increasingly fiery temperament. Although he had been very tractable while racing, as he aged he became increasingly ornery.

The Darby Dan manager Olin Gentry subsequently described his behaviour thus: “Ribot was nuttier than a fruitcake. He would stand on his hind legs and hug trees, or chew the rafters in his stall. He was always a nut. You know, he would straddle a fence and just hang there. He was a nightmare to handle. He almost killed me once.”

Consequently, the decision was taken that Ribot would remain at Darby Dan for the rest of his life, the justifiable belief being that putting him on an aeroplane to bring him back to Europe would present too great a danger. Further leases were therefore negotiated to enable him to remain at Darby Dan indefinitely, which in practice meant until Apr. 27, 1972, when the great horse died of a twisted gut.

The problem about the perception of the stud careers of truly great racehorses is that they cannot escape the overshadowing impossibility of ever siring a horse as good as they had been. It went without saying that none of Ribot's progeny fully inherited his sublime talent. However, he can still be regarded as a great and hugely influential sire. The star of his first crop was the Italian-owned and -trained Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe winner Molvedo (Ity) who won the great race as a 3-year-old in 1961, ridden, fittingly, by Enrico Camici. Ribot went on to produce a second 'Arc' winner three years later, courtesy of a 3-year-old from his fourth and final European crop, Prince Royal (Ity).

Ribot's success as a stallion continued unabated after his transfer to the USA. He was responsible for some of America's best horses of the 1960s including 1969 Horse of the Year Arts And Letters and 1965 Champion Three-Year-Old Colt Tom Rolfe, as well as the high-class full-brothers Graustark and His Majesty, both of whom went on to stand at Darby Dan. Each proved to be very influential, not least thanks to His Majesty's son Pleasant Colony winning the 1981 Kentucky Derby en route to a great stud career and His Majesty's daughter Razyana producing Danehill (Danzig).

Tom Rolfe too enjoyed a great stud career, highlighted  by his sons Hoist The Flag and Run the Gantlet. The former sired some mighty horses including the dual Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe hero Alleged and the brilliant filly Sensational, winner of the 1976 Eclipse Award winner for Champion Two-Year-Old Filly. Run The Gantlet was America's Champion Male Turf Horse of 1971 and subsequently produced some outstanding horses in Ireland including Ardross (Ire), Commanche Run (Ire) and April Run (Ire). Another interesting Tom Rolfe horse was Bowl Game, a half-brother to the legendary English-trained dual-purpose champion Sea Pigeon (Sea-Bird {Fr}) and winner of an Eclipse Award in 1979 as Champion Male Turf Horse.

Arts And Letters enjoyed a successful stud career, highlighted by the D. Wayne Lukas-trained 1980 Preakness S., Santa Anita Derby and Hollywood Derby hero Codex and the multiple Grade I winner Winter's Tale who, like his sire, was bred and raced by Paul Mellon's Rokeby Stables. Codex sired several Grade I winners including Badger Land, also trained by Lukas and winner of the GI Flamingo S. at Hialeah in 1986 before becoming best known as Champion Sire of South Africa in 2000/'01.

Pleasant Colony was not the only Kentucky Derby hero who had Ribot in his second generation: the 1974 winner Cannonade (Bold Bidder) was a son of the Ribot mare Queen Sucree.  Cannonade was one of over 100 stakes winners produced by daughters of Ribot, a group which also included the top-class racehorse and sire Majestic Light (Majestic Prince) and the British Classic winners Flying Water (Fr) (Habitat) and Bireme (GB) (Grundy {GB}) as well as Bireme's Coronation Cup-winning half-brother Buoy (GB) (Aureole {GB}) who subsequently went to stud in New Zealand.

Throughout the American phase of Ribot's stud career, a steady stream of his sons and daughters kept finding their way to Europe, an environment arguably more suitable to the line. Most notably the Charles Engelhard-owned, Fulke Johnson Houghton-trained full-brothers Ribocco and Ribero, sons of the Hyperion mare Libra (GB), won consecutive runnings of the Irish Derby, in 1967 and '68. Ribocco, who had won the Observer Gold Cup (now G1 Vertem Futurity S.) at two, followed up that victory by taking the St Leger, thus becoming (for a short while) the highest-earning British-trained racehorse of all time. Engelhard and Johnson Houghton had previously enjoyed significant success with a European-bred son of Ribot when the top-class 3-year-old colt Romulus (GB), a son of Hyperion's great grand-daughter Arietta (GB), enjoyed a superb season in 1962, winning three mile races which now carry Group 1 status: the Sussex S., Prix du Moulin and Queen Elizabeth II S.

Bred on a similar cross to Ribocco, Ribero and Romulus was the Vincent O'Brien-trained 1965 Oaks heroine Long Look, a daughter of Ribot from Santorin, who was by Hyperion's grandson Greek Song. O'Brien subsequently enjoyed further British Classic success with another of Ribot's offspring when Boucher won the St Leger in 1972. The same year saw the Ribot filly Regal Exception, trained in Chantilly by the expatriate Australian John Fellowes, finish second in the Oaks at Epsom before leading all the way to record an emphatic three-length victory in the Irish Oaks at The Curragh, a race in which Ribot also sired the runner-up, the Vincent O'Brien-trained Arkadina. The latter subsequently became the dam of Dark Lomond (Ire) (Lomond) who was trained by O'Brien to win the Irish St Leger in 1988.

Ribot had sired his first Irish Derby winner when Ragusa (Ire) won the race in 1963. Ragusa subsequently became a terrific stallion, responsible for the 1973 Derby winner Morston (GB), the 1974 Ascot Gold Cup winner Ragstone (GB), the 1970 Coronation Cup winner Caliban (GB) and the 1972 Irish 2000 Guineas winner Ballymore (Ire), a remarkable horse who achieved the unusual feat of winning a Classic on his debut. Ballymore went on to enjoy an excellent stud career, highlighted by his Irish 1000 Guineas-winning daughter More So (Ire). Other notable produce of Ballymore included Exdirectory (Ire), who was beaten only a short head by Shirley Heights (GB) in the 1978 Irish Derby, and the 1983 G2 Great Voltigeur S. winner Seymour Hicks (Ire) who ended up as the sire of the outstanding steeplechaser See More Business (Ire).

Ribot's worldwide success as a stallion marked him out as a truly international influence. He was thrice Champion Sire of Great Britain and Ireland (in 1963, '67 and '68) in the days when the Irish Derby, under the sponsorship of the Irish Hospitals Sweep, carried a huge prize and exerted a disproportionate influence on the sires' table. He also finished second behind Brigadier Gerard (GB)'s sire Queen's Hussar (GB) (March Past {GB}) in the table in 1972. He twice finished among the leading sires in both the USA and France, and in 1964 he finished second in the sires' table in Italy, where 12 years later his Arc-winning son Molvedo was Champion Sire. His influence in the Antipodes was also very strong.

At least 15 sons of Ribot made their way to stud in Australasia, most notably Lord Derby's homebred 1962 Manchester Cup hero Latin Lover (GB) who was imported by Harold Nitschke in 1963 to stand at The Nook Stud (Vic). He got off to a great start when his first crop contained the mighty Rain Lover (Aus), the winner of 17 races between one mile and two miles including the VRC Melbourne Cup in both 1968 and '69, the 1968 SAJC Adelaide Cup and 11 weight-for-age races including the 1969 VRC Craiglee S. over a mile. That same crop also contained the 1967 VRC Derby winner Savoy (Aus). Latin Lover's subsequent offspring included 1971 STC Rosehill Guineas winner Latin Knight (Aus), 1973 WATC Australian Derby winner Leica Lover (Aus), 1975 SAJC St Leger winner Opening Bowler and 1970 SAJC Oaks winner Rain Amore, a full-sister to Rain Lover.

Boucher was another son of Ribot who was exported to Australia, whither he went in 1974 to stand at Newhaven Park Stud (NSW). He was an immediate success, being crowned champion first-season sire in 1977/'78. His best horse was the redoubtable 1981 AJC Doncaster H. hero Lawman (Aus), a member of his second crop. Lawman's many great runs included twice finishing among the place-getters in the MVRC Cox Plate. He finished third to Dulcify (NZ) (Decies {GB}) as a 3-year-old in 1979 and second two years later to the mighty Kingston Town (Aus) (Bletchingly {Aus}), whose dam Ada Hunter (Ger) was a daughter of Ribot's Premio Roma Vecchio-winning son Andrea Mategna (Ity).

Arguably the pick of the Ribot stallions to stand in New Zealand was Bucaroon, responsible for 1977 ARC Auckland Cup winner Royal Cadenza.

Ribot's influence at stud goes far beyond the headline-makers at whom we have looked in this tribute, with many other of his sons and grandsons enjoying success at stud around the world, over and above the ones we have examined here. In the months subsequent to Ribot's birth 70 years ago, Federico Tesio may have felt that he had merely produced a little acorn, but the history books now show that that little acorn grew into a truly mighty Italian oak.

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