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June 01, 1959
John W. Galbreath, sportsman and businessman extraordinary, acquires the wonder horse Ribot. Next step: a superstrain?
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June 01, 1959

The Man, The Horse And The Deal That Made History

John W. Galbreath, sportsman and businessman extraordinary, acquires the wonder horse Ribot. Next step: a superstrain?

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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."

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