At about 10 o'clock on the wintry night of Monday, March 9, 1959, the sharp ring of a telephone broke the peaceful silence in the library of John W. Galbreath's 2,400-acre Darby Dan Farm outside of Columbus, Ohio. The master of the house lifted the receiver and strained for a moment to identify the voice on the other end. "Geneva, Switzerland calling," said the operator. Then, seconds later, the calm, unhurried, Kentucky-accented voice of an old friend came crackling over the transatlantic wires: "John, this is Gayle. The deal is closed. You've got the horse."
"It was," recalled John Galbreath last week as he sat in the same library surrounded by his breeding charts and Thoroughbred racing manuals, "the moment I'd been waiting for nearly two years." A man well accustomed to making deals involving astronomical figures in both sports and big business, Galbreath was not speaking idly. The transaction completed and signed in Geneva barely an hour before by his personal envoy, Attorney Gayle A. Mohney of Lexington, Ky., represents the alltime world-record price for the transfer of a Thoroughbred race horse from one man to another.
Both the horse and the terms were as extraordinary as the price. What Galbreath acquired was none other than the 7-year-old Ribot, wonder horse of Italy (SI, Dec. 10, 1956), winner of all 16 starts in a career climaxed by a second successive victory in the grueling Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe at Longchamp in 1956. What he paid was $1,350,000—not to own, but to lease Ribot for the period of five years, beginning on or about July 15, 1960—or, in other words, a price of $270,000 a year.
Never in the long, tricky, involved and sometimes unscrupulous world of horse trading has there ever been a deal quite like this one. True, horses have been sold outright for more than $1,350,000, and nobody is more aware of this than Galbreath himself, for he holds that world record too: $2 million paid to Rex Ellsworth for his champion Swaps. But Swaps, for better or worse, is married for life to Galbreath's stallion barn and the abundance of high-priced mares on the Darby Dan Farm in Lexington. Ribot, by terms of the March 9 contract, returns to Italy in 1965, unless a new agreement can be signed.
To those who have been closely following the racing career of John Galbreath (whose Darby Dan string races separately from that of Mrs. Galbreath, owner of Summer Tan), his recent financial deals should come as no great surprise. From a modest start in racing some 15 years ago, he started rebuilding his stable in earnest in 1953 and, although he hasn't said it in so many words, there is no doubt in the minds of most of racing's leading breeders that Galbreath has the same clearly denned objective in mind for his Darby Dan Farm as he has for his in-and-out Pittsburgh Pirates: to get to the top.
The master of Darby Dan hasspared neither money nor effort in pursuing his goal. Ready to greet Ribot when he arrives in Kentucky next summer will be fellow stallions Swaps, Summer Tan and Errard (all of whom belong to the Galbreaths), Sailor (in whom Galbreath has a syndicate interest), Helioscope (owned by William Helis but standing at Darby Dan) and the former champion sprinter Decathlon. The Lexington farm, managed by capable Olin Gentry, boasts 77 mares, including 13 owned in partnership with Aly Khan and many others bought outright from Aly and his late father, the Aga. There are 30 yearlings, including four fillies and two colts by Swaps, and another eight yearlings on the farm in Ohio, which is undergoing major improvements (i.e., a 600-acre soil program designed to produce 1,000 tons of hay annually for Darby Dan horses, a new yearling barn with enclosed quarter-mile track, and 20 new paddocks with parasite-free grass). In addition to all this, by the end of the 1959 foaling period Galbreath should be able to count a total of 42 newcomers, of which six colts and six fillies sired by Swaps have already arrived. Next spring five mares purchased abroad by the Galbreaths are expected to drop Ribot foals, after which all five mares will be bred right back to him. Add in the 25 horses in training under Jimmy Conway (seven owned exclusively by Mrs. Galbreath are under the care of Sherrill Ward), and Darby Dan has an investment almost impossible to calculate. Some of Galbreath's owner-breeder contemporaries have conservatively estimated that his purchases, syndicate memberships and now the leasing of Ribot have cost him at least $5 million in less than six years, and none of this includes the additional exorbitant expenses involved in running two farms and operating a first-class racing stable. But even Galbreath himself says he wouldn't know how to figure the total. "Frankly," he replied to the question last week as he climbed over paddock fences with the never-failing energy of a human dynamo, "I never thought about the total investment, and what with all the many transactions going on all the time I wouldn't know where to begin."
Galbreath, although he intends to breed 15 of his own mares annually to Ribot starting in 1961 (the same number he currently breeds to Swaps), is not banking all his future on these two as yet unproven stallions. He is going whole hog in the expensive, hit-or-miss, hidden gamble in racing, the syndicate (SI, Sept. 29, 1958). He owns one or more shares in Tudor Minstrel (sire of Kentucky Derby winner Tomy Lee), Royal Charger (sire of Preakness winner Royal Orbit), My Babu, Arctic Prince, Olympia, Gallant Man, Turn-to, Polynesian, Roman and Sailor. And as though that weren't awe-inspiring enough, Darby Dan also has contracts for individual seasons to such stallions as Tom Fool, Princequillo, Hasty Road, Hill Prince, Mark-Ye-Well, Nashua, Dedicate, Bold Ruler, Helioscope, Citation and Tim Tarn. Few breeders in the world could envision a better over-all list.
What is he doing it all for? The energetic member of The Jockey Club and board of trustees of the New York Racing Association smiles when the question is put to him. "It's just like any other business where you try to raise, build or create a good product," he says. "I guess you'd have to say we'd just like to raise some good horses—it's that simple."
Mrs. Galbreath added a new and stimulating thought. "This country's racing is becoming more allied every year with racing in Europe," she said. "It should not necessarily be a oneway deal in which American breeders take advantage of European stock. I'm thinking now of mares, for example, owned by Aly Khan in this country. Wouldn't it be exciting for everyone in racing if one day we could see or read about a son of Swaps or Summer Tan or any of our former champions reversing the current trend and winning a major foreign classic? I think that time will come, and when it does it will be a wonderful day for everyone who loves the sport."
For Galbreath the most wonderful of all days will be that on which he discovers that he has succeeded in breeding a horse like Swaps, whom he considers the greatest he ever saw, or Ribot, whom he never saw race but whom he nonetheless considers the greatest champion of modern times. A firm believer in the breeding theories of Ribot's late owner-trainer-breeder, Federico Tesio, Galbreath sets up his own aims in the same words as Italy's most famous horseman: "My aim is to breed and raise a race horse which, over any distance, can carry the heaviest weight in the shortest time."
To achieve this goal Galbreath drafted for himself a master plan. First came the acquisition of mares with racing pedigrees and production records. Next target: Swaps. "Aside from his remarkable ability on the race track," says Galbreath, "Swaps's female line had particular appeal to me. I was not overly interested in his sire line [Swaps is by Khaled, a son of Hyperion]. I didn't need any more Hyperion blood because I already had plenty of it both in our stallions and in our mares. But when you consider now that three of Swaps's first four dams have produced Kentucky Derby winners his value became inestimable. Rex Ellsworth needed the money to engage in his own buying program just as much as I needed Swaps, and so we made a deal: I bought half of Swaps, for $1 million just before his injury in New Jersey in 1956. I wanted very much to have Swaps in Kentucky, but it was another year before I was able to buy the other half of him for another $1 million. That price of $2 million has never before been officially released."
With Swaps safely in the stud barn at Darby Dan Farm the third and most important target for Galbreath to shoot at was Ribot. After his final triumph in Paris, Ribot had gone on a one-year deal to Lord Derby's stud farm in England. By now he was the official property of a corporation known as Razza Dormello Olgiata, owned by Tesio's longtime partner, Marchese Mario Incisa della Rocchetta, and Tesio's widow, Donna Lydia Tesio, herself one of the world's most knowledgeable horsewomen. The process of negotiating for his services on any kind of a long-term basis proved to be lengthy and involved.
"When Ribot went to stud in England," says Galbreath, "we arranged through Frank More O'Ferrall, our agent, chairman of the Anglo-Irish Agency, to obtain for us some seasons to Ribot on a two-year arrangement at $9,000 per season on a live foal basis. We bought five mares in England for $100,200 and sent them to Ribot. During the course of these negotiations More O'Ferrall started angling for a possible sale. But the more he explored the situation the more impossible it looked."
A basic difficulty facing Galbreath in his efforts to acquire Ribot was the fact that by Italian law a stud must stand three seasons in his native country before being permanently exported. Furthermore, the government had levied an export tax on stallions which made it impractical to sell even the very best of local Thoroughbreds. The only possible deal, More O'Ferrall advised Galbreath, was to arrange for a rental over a maximum period of five years. Galbreath agreed, and the London broker, given the green light, started preliminary negotiations. They dragged on for nearly a year and a half. At the same time other individuals and syndicates were trying to get Ribot. At one point the Italian corporation controlling Ribot even turned down $2 million for him.
Galbreath finally decided to go all out. Early in February of this year Lawyer Gayle Mohney, racing's leading syndicate and tax adviser, received an urgent call from Galbreath, who was at the time in Miami. The gist of the call: go over and sign up Ribot or get us out of the deal altogether. Three days later Mohney drew up a proposed contract between Galbreath and the Italians. Within two weeks he was flying the Atlantic with the contract and Gal-breath's down-payment check for $50,000, and on March 9, in the private offices of Geneva's Banque de Financement, after a simultaneous scratching of fountain pens, he handed over the $50,000 check and dashed off to his hotel to phone Galbreath the good news.
When Ribot reaches Lexington's 400-acre Darby Dan Farm next year (the same farm that was once known as Idle Hour, the home of champions bred by the late Colonel E. R. Bradley), he will occupy a stall between Swaps and Summer Tan. With Galbreath reserving 15 seasons for his own mares, the rest of Ribot's book will be filled by mares of other breeders. Here, too, the terms are extraordinary: $10,000 per season on a no-return basis with no guarantee of a live foal. "No definite list of other breeders has been drawn up yet," says Galbreath. "Before we had any stallions of our own a lot of fine people gave us a chance to breed to their horses. Now we intend to reciprocate."
Best bet is that many of those who will accept chances to breed to Ribot will emerge from the breeders already on the Swaps breeding list. They are Mrs. H. C. Phipps, Ogden Phipps, George M. Humphrey, Calumet Farm, Greentree Stable, Mrs. John R. H. Thouron, Mrs. E. S. Moore, Leslie Combs, Admiral Howard Flanagan, Raymond and Winston Guest, George Widener, Fred Hooper, Mrs. Mary Elizabeth (Liz Whitney) Person, W. Alton Jones, Paul Mellon, Howell Jackson and Rex Ellsworth. In addition to these—and others obviously will show a marked interest—five stud services a year to Ribot will be made available to the Italian corporation now managing him. Ribot's book will be filled by about 35 mares a year.
For all the happy prospects of Ribot's successful stud career in the U.S., there is more than the usual amount of ifs and buts for the critical American breeder. Ribot, as Galbreath points out, will introduce new strains and nicks to current U.S. lines. In Galbreath's own case, where the domination of Hyperion blood in 28 of his 77 mares makes it inadvisable to breed them to any of his other stallions (to do so would risk excessive inbreeding), Ribot's success at Darby Dan will depend to a large extent on his mating with outcross mares (an outcross mare is one who has dissimilar bloodlines from those of the stallion to whom she is being mated). "Khaled, Nasrullah, Blenheim, Sir Gallahad and Bull Dog, just to name a few," says Farm Manager Olin Gentry, "all made good on outcross mares, so Ribot should have the same chance."
Ribot's speed comes through his dam, Romanella, and her blood of El Greco, Pharos and Phalaris. The staying line on top, through the sire Tenerani, is not noted for speed. "The sort of mares we have in mind for Ribot," says Gentry, "are the heavy-set compact kind with characteristics of both speed and stamina."
Other drawbacks which the potential breeder to Ribot must contemplate involve the timing of his stud career. When he reaches U.S. shores next summer, Ribot will have completed four seasons at stud—one in England and three in Italy—and his first crop will just be getting to the races. Those on the Galbreath band wagon may tend to disregard the showings of Ribot's first few racing offspring on the ground that some of the mares bred to him abroad may have been of inferior quality. Other critical observers, however, may not take such a lenient view if the get of a supposedly superior horse are not immediate successes at the races. It is, as Galbreath admits, a tremendous gamble, but no more of one than he himself undertook when he obligated himself for five annual payments of $270,000 each, as well as insurance premiums to cover the full $1,350,000. For the five-year lease these premiums will total approximately $164,000.
WONDER HORSE OR NOT?
If Galbreath is eventually going to make money on the Ribot deal—and there is no earthly assurance that he ever will—there are three possible ways and means: selling enough seasons at $10,000 to cover his personal costs and expenses; selling Ribot yearlings; or reaping future rewards in the form of rich purses by Ribot offspring.
Lastly, of course, there are those who critically question not only the over-all strength of Ribot's pedigree but also whether or not he is the wonder horse he is supposed to be. Thirteen of his 16 races, they may point out, were in Italy against inferior rivals. His only classic victory in England, a five-length win in the King George VI and Queen Elizabeth stakes at Ascot over a mile and a half, was registered—through no fault of his own—over a field which the British themselves sadly admit was not up to the standards of this great race. His second Arc de Triomphe, his last start (SI, Oct. 15, 1956), was undoubtedly his best effort against the best field he ever faced. After that race the late Evan Shipman, a leading racing authority of his day, wrote from Paris in The Morning Telegraph: "This is one of those rare Thoroughbreds in the history of the turf who give their name to an epoch, their superiority so evident that even the best of contemporaries are dwarfed in any comparison, relegated to a completely different order."
Perhaps the greatest contributing factor to the everlasting survival of Thoroughbred racing is the fact that breeding—even after the vast amount of research that has gone into it—is still a precariously inexact science. Because of this there can never be a guarantee that a Ribot, a Swaps, a Summer Tan—or even a Citation or Man o' War—could ever produce a son quite his equal. "If this was an exact science," says Olin Gentry, "the whole game would have been over long ago."
As he was saying it he looked out across the filly yearling paddock at Darby Dan Farm. A dozen or more future mates for Ribot pressed close against the car. Gentry looked at his boss and waved his arm in a wide circle. "Mr. Galbreath," he exclaimed, "if there isn't a runner in this bunch there's no point in breeding to good horses."
John W. Galbreath, master of Darby Dan, nodded, turned to a friend and smiled: "It's just as I said before. All we want to do is to raise some good horses. It's just as simple as that." He said it with a happy, confident glint in his eye—knowing just as well as the next man that at the end of his five-year lease the wonder horse Ribot will either be a gold mine or else his owners won't be able to give him away.