Tesio: Titan of the Turf Who Did Things His Way

Federico Tesio, 1869-1954

Today, May 1, marks the 70th anniversary of the death of Federico Tesio, who will always be remembered for his massive contribution to the development of the Thoroughbred. 'Breeder of Nearco and Ribot' is probably the description most frequently applied to him, but in truth that hardly scratches the surface of the life of a true titan of the turf.

Facts and dates are an important part of any historical record. The facts of Tesio's racing life as breeder, owner and trainer are written boldly in the form book, and indeed in the books he wrote on the subject himself. We can read of his 21 victories in the Derby Italiano, followed by a further posthumous triumph as breeder courtesy of the 1954 winner Botticelli (Ity) (Blue Peter {GB}) who went on to even greater glory when taking the following year's Ascot Gold Cup; of his 22 wins in the Gran Premio di Milano. We can see the names of Nearco and Ribot, of Cavaliere D'Arpino, Donatello, Nicolo Dell'Arca and Tenerani.

(Correctly Tesio only owned 20 of the 21 Derby Italiano winners whom he trained because Torbido (Ity), successful in 1944, was raced by his wife. Furthermore, from 1932 onwards, his horses were raced, and then bred and raced, in partnership with Marchese Mario Incisa della Rocchetta).

Alongside the the record books, anecdotal history can be invaluable.  Personal recollections put flesh on the bones of the facts.  As an insight into Tesio the human being, as well as the racing man, The Tesios as I knew them,  by Mario Incisa della Rocchetta (published in 1979, four years before the author's death) is a treasure trove.

An orphan at the age of six, Tesio was sent by his guardian to Moncalieri, one of Italy's best boarding schools whence he moved on to university in Florence. Tesio as a young man would have fitted perfectly into an Italian version of the Oxford of Brideshead Revisited, helped by the 500,000 lire which he inherited when he attained his majority. He rode fearlessly in amateur races, painted and enjoyed racing with his friend Stefano Flori, whose filly Elena (Ity) won the Derby Italiano in 1899, a triumph which must surely have inspired Tesio to reach for the stars himself.

Service as a cavalry officer topped things off nicely, but in time Tesio came to realise that his vocation was a quest for the perfect Thoroughbred. Once he had taken up this challenge, he became single-minded in his devotion to his calling, although his love of art, as both connoisseur and painter, never waned. The names of many of his horses hint strongly at this passion.

Tesio was a perfectionist who, as perfectionists tend to do, subscribed to the school of thought that if one wants something done well, ideally one should do it oneself. When he set about the business of raising and racing horses, he decided that he and he alone should control every stage of the horses' creation and development. He would do things his way.

In Incisa's words, “Tesio decided to breed and train his horses himself. He was convinced that if the work was undertaken in a professional manner, even a fool would be able to beat the horses of that era whose gentleman owners were non-professionals and amateurs. He knew that he was not a fool.”

While Tesio was not in any way suited to delegation, not even he could be in two places at once. During the racing season he was mostly in Milan training the horses. Consequently, he entrusted to his wife Lydia the day-to-day running of the stud which he had established at Dormello on the shore of Lake Maggiore in the foothills of the Southern Alps, as Incisa explained.

“All that Tesio achieved was possible because Donna Lydia was there to help him…He had to all intents and purposes delegated to her the actual running of the stud. He trusted her completely to interpret and carry out his instructions at Dormello. Surrounded, as he felt himself to be, by hostility and bearers of ill fortune, his wife was the only person in whose loyalty he had complete confidence. Donna Lydia was an indispensable complement to Tesio.”

Even so, “It is certain that he took no account of Donna Lydia's opinions concerning the matings.”

Although Tesio was a wealthy man, creating and maintaining a world-class breeding and racing operation generally requires massive investment. He could not afford just to throw money at the project. He could only succeed by being smarter than his competitors, in the sale-ring, at the stud and on the training track. From the early days, he was a regular visitor to Tattersalls' December Sale in Newmarket to buy the fillies and mares who would form the bedrock of his stud, but these had to be bargains. A classic example was Catnip (GB), a daughter of the 1906 Derby winner Spearmint (GB) whom he bought for 75 guineas at the December Sale in 1915. From her he bred Italy's champion filly of 1931, Nogara (Ity), a daughter of the locally-based Havresac (Fr). In turn, Nogara would prove even more invaluable as a broodmare.

Tesio's great dream had come true and, thank God, he had lived to see it
– Marchese Mario Incisa della Rocchetta on Nearco

Tesio's financial constraints were eased, though, in 1932 (by which time he had already won the Derby Italiano 11 times) when he took on Incisa, who was 30 years his junior,  as his partner.

Incisa had first met Tesio in the Hotel Plaza in Rome in the early 1920s when he was introduced to the great man by his friend Giorgio Ugolino della Gherardesca, whose parents were long-standing friends of the Tesios. Incisa was a student at the time; Tesio was in his 50s, already established as one of the most distinguished and successful figures in Italian racing.

That introduction was just a passing social encounter, but Incisa came to know Tesio much better after he married Giorgio's cousin Clarice della Gherardesca in 1930, a match in the making of which Lydia Tesio had taken a close interest. The newly-weds were invited to join the Tesios on their visit to Newmarket at the end of that year, where they stayed, as usual, in Severals House with their friend Mrs Clayton, whose son Jack had bought the adjacent Bedford House stable the previous year.

During the following year, Incisa endured another disappointing season with his racing operation. He was dissatisfied with his trainers and was getting disheartened by his lack of success. Tesio scented an opportunity and in the spring of 1932 he offered his young friend the chance to become his partner in the horses on the stud and in the stable (for a huge price, of course).

Henceforth, the horses who had been racing under the ownership of Federico Tesio were registered as owned by 'Tesio-Incisa', and new foals were registered as thus bred. Less than three weeks after the partnership was agreed and sealed with a handshake, Clarice led in Jacopa Del Sellaio (Ity) (Coronach {GB}) after her victory in the Derby Italiano.

One major and immediate consequence of Incisa's investment was that Tesio was now able to send more mares overseas to be mated with more expensive stallions, including some of the Derby winners whom he famously revered. In 1933 he sent Delleana (Ity), a great-granddaughter of Pretty Polly, to France to be covered by the Aga Khan's 1930 Derby winner Blenheim (GB). The result was Donatello (Fr), Italy's outstanding three-year-old of 1937 and subsequently the sire of two horses who were champions both on the track and at stud, Alycidon (GB) and Crepello (GB).

Aside from the injection of funds, a further boon was that Tesio now had access to more land. Henceforth, the foals, after weaning, would be sent south to grow at Incisa's family estate at Olgiata, near Rome. In later years, the 'Tesio-Incisa' registration was changed to 'Razza Dormello Olgiata'.

In practice, the new arrangement changed nothing. Tesio remained the sole decision-maker. Incisa later reflected, “Our association with Tesio did not in any way alter the running of the stud or the racing stable. As always, I was welcomed with open arms by Donna Lydia and now with new warmth by Tesio, but the presence of the 'Lady' of Dormello was too dominant and that of the 'Lord' of the stables too awesome for any intrusion of mine to be even thinkable.

 “After a brief period of oppressive and monotonous apprenticeship when, encouraged by Donna Lydia, I believed it possible to learn from Tesio how to train horses, I gave up the illusion; and with it the hope that I might one day become his assistant.  

“Tesio made it clear that, if I wished to see for myself how the training was carried out, if I wished to inspect the condition of the horses or see the running of the yard, I had, as his associate, every right to do so and I would be welcome at any time. It was equally clear that he did not need my assistance and that he had neither the time nor the inclination to teach me.”

Tesio's self-belief was sky-high. At one point, when he had some spare money, he was advised to invest some of it outside the breeding/racing business. He brushed that suggestion aside: “Certainly not! I have no reason to believe that Pirelli makes tyres, or Agnelli cars, any better than I make horses.” Even so, he, like everyone else, needed a bit of luck from time to time. The breeding of Nearco was a case in point.


Nearco exits his bomb shelter at Beech House | Reginal Anscomb


In 1934 Tesio planned to send Nogara, whom he adored, to England, to be covered by Lord Derby's 1928 Eclipse, St Leger and Champion Stakes winner Fairway (GB) (Phalaris {GB}). However, Lord Derby had a new stud manager. The old one, Mr Alston, knew Tesio well, liked and respected him, and would have allocated a nomination to him as a matter of course. The new one, Captain Paine, had no idea who he was, so no nomination was available. Frustrated, Tesio directed that Nogara should be re-routed to France to visit Fairway's (at that time) less-heralded full-brother Pharos at Haras d'Ouilly. Thus, fortuitously, was Nearco conceived, which is just as well as otherwise we wouldn't have the Bold Ruler, Northern Dancer or Sunday Silence sire-lines. No Secretariat; no Frankel; no Deep Impact.

Nearco, unbeaten in 14 races, not only made up for the luckless defeat of Donatello in the previous year's Grand Prix de Paris but also, by winning that race, established himself as a champion by international, rather than merely local, standards. This led to his sale to stud in England, the country which his grandmother had left in 1915 with her 75-guineas price-tag, for £60,000. This surpassed the £47,500 for which Tesio had sold Donatello the previous year. Donatello's Irish-bred granddam had, incidentally, cost him 210 guineas as a yearling in 1921.

One remarkable footnote to Nearco's story is that curiously (although one might say 'predictably', bearing in mind that with Tesio one always had to expect the unexpected) Tesio sent only one mare to him.

It is often said that the tragedy of Tesio was that he did not live to witness the majesty of Ribot, who made his debut two months after his creator died at the age of 85. Tesio will not, though, have departed feeling that he was missing out. It is not just that he didn't have a particularly high opinion of the young Ribot, whom he had chosen not to enter in the following year's Derby Italiano. More pertinently, by this time he already felt that his life's work was complete, as Incisa explained.

“I stood with Tesio on the stands at Longchamp for the Grand Prix 1938. He stood motionless and silent watching Nearco's every stride as though spurring him on with his eyes. As Nearco sailed effortlessly past the winning post, Tesio let go and, giving me a great thump on the back, he let out a cry of triumph. It was not an 'Oh!' of satisfaction but the full-throated and terrible 'Aaah!' of Atilla the Hun when, having raped, pillaged and plundered, he decapitated with one stroke of his scimitar the bishop who knelt begging him to spare the cathedral!

“Tesio's great dream had come true and, thank God, he had lived to see it.”


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