In a previous piece I compared the records of Frankel and Brigadier Gerard in an effort to adjudicate as to which to bestow the honour of ‘greatest flat racehorse of all time’. My ‘decision’, of course, was purely a personal choice based on perimeters I chose and I accept that others might come to a different conclusion. Indeed I am prepared to accept there are horses from the distant past that because they won over a greater range of distances, on many occasions winning races on consecutive days, hold better claims to the accolade than either Frankel or Brigadier Gerard.
What I will not accept, though, is anyone disputing the accolade of ‘greatest racehorse of all time’ be accorded to Arkle. We will never see his like again, whereas in time another flat horse will come along to challenge the records, and the esteem, of both Frankel and Brigadier Gerard.
So in this instance I confined my thoughts to flat racehorses, riling many by ruling out the likes of Sea the Stars and Dancing Brave on the grounds that as they did not race beyond their three-year-old careers and can only be said to be the best of their generation and cannot be seriously compared to true greats like Frankel and Brigadier Gerard. Greatness, to my mind, should never be attributed to ‘flash in the pans’, to horses that won the races they should have won, horses that only won at level weights or receiving weight. To achieve greatness a horse must be trained to test its limitations and though it can be argued this was not the case with Frankel his connections did at least have the balls to keep him in training as a four-year-old. Sea The Stars and Dancing Brave, however, were trained with their value as potential stallions in mind and left the racing scene with an awful lot to prove.
The ‘greatest flat racehorse thing is not, though, an open and shut case. I left a shadow looming across the page when ruling in favour of Brigadier Gerard, concluding that if I looked into the career of Ribot I might find evidence that he might be thought superior to any horse that has come after him. Certainly his influence on the sport remained as high, if not higher, even after his retirement to stud duties. Having now delved into the archives I remain of the opinion that Ribot may well be the greatest flat racehorse of all time. I just cannot bring myself to nail my colours to a horse that only won outside of his home country three times. It is just so difficult to determine the true merit of winning the Gran Premio del Jockey Club by fifteen lengths.
Because, I suspect, Federico Tesio, breeder and original owner of Ribot, was an Italian who raced mainly in Italy and where his stud was located, I think in this day and age, with Italian racing in the doldrums, it is difficult to accept that an Italian horse from the middle fifties could ever has been as good, or better, than the British trained horses of latter years that we are more intimate with. Certainly in breeding circles Tesio is revered, after all he bred horses that went on to be influential stallions all around the world. Nearco, who some argue was the equal of Ribot (though he did race beyond three-years), was sold to stud in England and went on to sire Nasrullah and Bold Ruler, stallions that reigned supreme in America during the fifties and sixties. Donatello, also sold as a stallion to England, was also responsible for spreading the influence of Dormello across the world. So when Ribot came along he was initially just one in a long line of brilliant horses bred at Tesio’s Dormello Stud.
Although one of the greatest breeders of racehorses Tesio was not always right in his predictions and thought Ribot too small as a yearling, dubbing him ‘the little one’, and did not consider him worthy of entries in any of the Italian classics. Luckily, at least for any ego he might have possessed, he died before Ribot ever saw a racecourse.
Ribot, by the way, has claims of Englishness about him as he was foaled at West Grinstead, a stud that was then a wing of the National Stud. He was reared, though, in Italy. He retired unbeaten in 16 races, perhaps never extended as it is hard to believe there was a horse in Italy at the time that could eyeball him and in winning both his Prix de l’Arc de Triomphes he hardly broke sweat. It was more of a test at Ascot in the King George and Queen Elisabeth Stakes, though that had more to do with the sticky ground than the opposition, winning by 5 lengths. He won from 6-furlongs to 1-mile 7-furlongs and went on to become as great a stallion as he was a racehorse, siring Molvedo, Prince Royal, Tom Rolfe, Ragusa, Ribocco, Ribero and Long Look, the last four fondly remembered names from my childhood.
Of course no one could predict the result if Frankel and Brigadier Gerard had raced against one another. Over a mile both would doubtless prove superior to Ribot. But over a mile and a half? Who knows? We will never know. I just wish commentators would stop awarding accolades like ‘monster’ and ‘superstar’ to horses whose form merely allows them to be called ‘good’ or ‘potentially really good’. If Caravaggio, for instance, is worthy of the tag ‘superstar’ when the form-book determines he is ‘merely’ a high-end racehorse, then how will we ever find a superlative to do justice to legends of the calibre of Frankel, Brigadier Gerard, Ribot or any horse that comes along who is obviously of a class way above anything Caravaggio has so far attained?
Keith Knight is a workaday writer of fiction, worker in the real world but foremost a horse racing fanatic. The joy of the sport is the horse - all horses.